On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.

Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.

When the clerk rejected Baker and McConnell’s application, they sued in state court. Nothing in the Minnesota marriage statute, Baker noted, mentioned gender. And even if it did, he argued, limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples would constitute unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of sex, violating both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. He likened the situation to that of interracial marriage, which the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia.

The trial court dismissed Baker’s claim. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld that dismissal, in an opinion that cited the dictionary definition of marriage and contended, “The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman...is as old as the book of Genesis.” Finally, in 1972, Baker appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It refused to hear the case, rejecting it with a single sentence: “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.” The idea that people of the same sex might have a constitutional right to get married, the dismissal suggested, was too absurd even to consider.

Last week, the high court reversed itself and declared that gays could marry nationwide. “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his sweeping decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

The plaintiffs’ arguments in Obergefell were strikingly similar to those Baker made back in the 1970s. And the Constitution has not changed since Baker made his challenge (save for the ratification of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, on congressional salaries). But the high court’s view of the legitimacy and constitutionality of same-sex marriage changed radically: In the span of 43 years, the notion had gone from ridiculous to constitutionally mandated. How did that happen?

I put the question to Mary Bonauto, who argued Obergefell before the Supreme Court in April. A Boston-based staff lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Bonauto won the Massachusetts case that made the state the first to allow gay couples to wed in 2004. In 1971, she noted, sodomy was a crime in nearly every state, gays were routinely persecuted and barred from public and private employment, and homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. “We were just as right then as we are now,” she said. “But there was a complete lack of understanding of the existence and common humanity of gay people.”

What changed, in other words, wasn’t the Constitution—it was the country. And what changed the country was a movement.

Friday’s decision wasn’t solely or even primarily the work of the lawyers and plaintiffs who brought the case. It was the product of the decades of activism that made the idea of gay marriage seem plausible, desirable, and right. By now, it has become a political cliché to wonder at how quickly public opinion has changed on gay marriage in recent years—support for “marriages between homosexuals,” measured at 60 percent this year, was just 27 percent when Gallup first asked the question in 1996. But that didn’t happen organically.

Supporters of gay marriage rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the days before the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

The fight for gay marriage was, above all, a political campaign—a decades-long effort to win over the American public and, in turn, the court. It was a campaign with no fixed election day, focused on an electorate of nine people. But what it achieved was remarkable: not just a Supreme Court decision but a revolution in the way America sees its gay citizens. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” Andrew Sullivan, the author and blogger whose 1989 essay on gay marriage for The New Republic gave the idea political currency, told me. “The more we get married, the more normal we seem. And the more normal we seem, the more human we seem, the more our equality seems obviously important.”

Some gay activists harbor a certain amount of nostalgia for the days when their movement was seen as radical, deviant, extreme. Today, when many Americans think of gay people, they may think of that nice couple in the next apartment, or the family in the next pew at church, or their fellow parents in the PTA. (Baker and McConnell are still together, living a quiet life as retirees in Minneapolis.) This normalization will continue to reverberate as gays and lesbians push for more rights—the right not to be discriminated against, for example. The gay-marriage revolution didn’t end when the Supreme Court ruled.

When three same-sex couples in Hawaii were refused marriage licenses in 1990, no national gay-rights group would help them file a lawsuit. They appealed in vain to National Gay Rights Advocates (now defunct), the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights), the American Civil Liberties Union, and Lambda Legal, where a young lawyer named Evan Wolfson wanted to take the case—but his bosses, who were opposed to pursuing gay marriage, wouldn’t let him.

At the time they tried to get married, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel had been together for six months. They were introduced by Baehr’s mother, who worked at Hawaii’s public television station, where Dancel was an engineer. Their first date lasted nine hours. It started at a T.G.I.Friday’s in Honolulu and ended on top of a mountain, where Baehr wanted to take in the view and Dancel wanted to show her the engine of her car. “I had dated other women, but I didn’t fall in love with anybody who saw life the way I did until I met Ninia,” Dancel, now 54, recalled recently over dinner with Baehr at a restaurant in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. After three months, Dancel gave Baehr a diamond-and-ruby engagement ring to signify their commitment.

When we met for dinner, Baehr and Dancel had not seen each other in many years, and the memories came quickly. “At one point, I got a really bad ear infection, and I didn’t have insurance,” said Baehr, a slender blonde who now lives in Montana. “Genora had insurance, so I called the gay community center to see if there was a way for me to be put on her insurance.”

The man who answered the phone asked if they wanted to try to get married.

“My whole life flashed in front of me,” recalled Dancel, who has a heart-shaped brown face and glossy brown-black hair. She had a lot to lose. Dancel worked two jobs to support her family members, who were religious and tradition-minded and did not know she was gay. But in an instant, she made up her mind. “I knew I was gay since I was 5,” she said. “I’m living a life where I was always discriminated against, always a second-class citizen. To me, this was where I got to work for something I believed in—I was in love, and I wanted to get married.” Dancel came out to her family on the local news.

After a clerk refused to give them marriage licenses, the couples hired a straight local attorney, Dan Foley, to file a lawsuit against the state. (Lambda allowed Wolfson, the New York attorney who wanted to take the case, only to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the lawsuit.) When the court dismissed their claim, they appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court. And on May 5, 1993, the court ruled that the trial court was wrong to dismiss the claim: refusing to let same-sex couples marry was discriminatory, it said, and if the state wanted to discriminate, it would have to prove there was a good reason for doing so.

Genora Dancel, left, and Ninia Baehr meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., in 1996. (Dennis Cook / AP)

It was a major breakthrough: the first time in history that a court had acknowledged that gay-marriage proponents’ arguments deserved a hearing. The first time their audacious idea had not been laughed out of court.

Wolfson and others believed a national triumph might be near at hand. Bonauto, the Massachusetts lawyer, held a meeting with legal advocates from throughout New England to strategize how to move forward. “For the first time ever, with the Hawaii Supreme Court’s recent ruling, we stand on the verge of victory, with all its implications,” Wolfson wrote at the time.  The decision, he wrote, was “nothing less than a tectonic shift, a fundamental realignment of the landscape, possibly the biggest lesbian and gay rights legal victory ever.”

Wolfson pestered his bosses to let him get more involved in the case, and they relented, allowing him to join Foley as co-counsel. A trial was held in 1996. In a result that astonished the world, they won: The judge, Kevin Chang, concluded that the state failed to prove that the public interest was served by denying marriage to same-sex couples.

But the court case provoked a national uproar. (No marriage licenses were issued as the state supreme court considered the state’s appeal.) In September 1996, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act, a law defining marriage as between a man and woman for purposes of federal law, and President Bill Clinton signed it. Hawaii lawmakers proposed an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow the legislature to ban same-sex marriage.

In November 1998, 69 percent of Hawaii voters supported the amendment. The state supreme court, which had waited to rule on the case until the vote could occur, ruled that there was no longer an issue to decide. The brief insanity was over—gay marriage was illegal in Hawaii.

That moment was a turning point for Wolfson. He’d envisioned Hawaii as a tectonic advance—but what if it was actually a massive setback? He realized that legal victories were useless if the political process could erase them in an instant. He and Foley had won the argument in court, but they were no match for the power of the right-wing lobby groups that clobbered them in Congress. They had no influence on the Hawaii state legislators who sought to duck the politically toxic issue. And they were swimming against the tide of overwhelming public opinion.

Much as Americans like to imagine judges, particularly Supreme Court justices, as ahistorical applicators of a timeless code, the court is inevitably influenced by the world around it. As social mores have evolved, the justices’ consensus has too, on issues ranging from cruel and unusual punishment to segregation. “What the Constitution is understood to encompass has changed over time in ways that are dramatic, sweeping, and often permanent,” the New York University School of Law professor Barry Friedman writes in his book on this phenomenon, The Will of the People. “Although these changes are reflected in judicial decisions, they are rarely initiated there.”

Some justices, particularly the court’s liberal ones, are frank about the court’s inevitable evolution alongside the public consensus. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has publicly fretted that the court’s decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade came before America was ready for such a step, and that it helped unleash an anti-abortion backlash that continues today.

Wolfson always believed that only the court could legalize gay marriage: Regardless of public opinion, he firmly believed the Constitution required it, and jurists would eventually have to recognize that fact. But seeing what happened in Hawaii, he realized that until the country was ready, the court was unlikely to consider gay marriage. He realized, too, that while there were plenty of clever lawyers working for gay rights, the movement was politically weak. What it needed wasn’t another courtroom litigator; what it needed was someone outside the legal process, raising money, building public support, lobbying politicians, and laying the groundwork for a legal victory he still believed was inevitable. Wolfson became determined to fill that role.

Gay marriage supporters gather outside the Massachusetts statehouse in Boston in 2007. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

What would it mean for the country to be ready? Wolfson studied Loving v. Virginia, the decision on interracial marriage from 1967. At the time it was decided, public opinion was still staunchly opposed: 70 percent of Americans did not believe people of different races should marry. But 34 states had already enacted anti-miscegenation laws. Wolfson decided some combination of these two measures—state-level wins and public support—would be necessary to get the Supreme Court to weigh in on gay marriage.

For Baehr and Dancel, the backlash was painful. In the years they spent waiting for a ruling on their case, they had become activists, speaking at high schools and colleges, traveling the country to raise money. (Foley, their lawyer, couldn’t afford to work pro bono: “I’ll bill you for a portion of my time; you pay a portion of my bill,” he told them. They tried to send him a check every month.) They watched their cause become a political wedge for both parties. Before they filed their lawsuit, some gay-rights advocates had advised against it, saying it would set the movement back. For a long time—two decades—it looked as if they were right.

“I blamed myself when DOMA passed,” Baehr reflected, stabbing a spear of asparagus with her fork. (President Clinton had cited the Hawaii case in signing the law.) “This was a bad thing that happened as a result of our case.”

Dancel said, “You try not to worry too much. You have to trust that things are going to work out, because if I gave up, what was the point?”

Baehr said, “We won in court, but we lost in the court of public opinion. That felt really bad.”

Meanwhile, the pressure of the spotlight took a toll on the couple's relationship. By 1997, they had separated. (Today, they are both married to new partners.)

Wolfson left Lambda to found his own organization, Freedom to Marry, in 2003. In 2004, the movement scored another major victory when a ruling in the Massachusetts supreme court, on a case brought by Bonauto, made it the first state to allow gays to marry. “That same-sex couples are willing to embrace marriage’s solemn obligations of exclusivity, mutual support, and commitment to one another is a testament to the enduring place of marriage in our laws and in the human spirit,” wrote the court’s chief justice, Margaret Marshall. Unlike in Hawaii, the decision in Massachusetts held up, thanks to a powerful, years-long lobbying effort led by a group called MassEquality, which thwarted the legislature’s attempts to amend the state constitution.

Vermont legalized civil unions. But more losses followed in court—New York, Maryland, Washington, Arizona, Indiana. In 2004, in a coordinated campaign to boost evangelical turnout for George W. Bush, 11 states proposed constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, and they all won. More came in 2006; by 2012, gay-marriage bans had been put before voters in 30 states and won every single time. For every step forward for gay marriage, there seemed to be many more steps back.

As Baehr and Dancel talked, they slipped into the old, easy intimacy of long-ago ex-lovers. “Let’s tell the story about the clerk!” Dancel said. “No, you have to tell it!” said Baehr. The same clerk who refused to give them a marriage license, Irene Takeda, was still on duty to give Dancel a legal marriage license when Hawaii legalized gay marriage and Dancel married Kathryn Dennis in November 2013.

As we talked, I noticed some familiar faces having dinner at the next table. Washington can be a small town sometimes; it was President Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, along with Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of health and human services, and Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security—three top members of the administration of a Democratic president who had run in 2008 as an opponent of gay marriage, and again in 2012 as a newly converted supporter.

When they got up to leave, I flagged them down and introduced them to Baehr and Dancel. There was a flurry of excitement; it was the cabinet members who seemed to feel they were in the presence of celebrity. (Dancel later had to ask me who Jarrett was.) “It feels like—our country—we’ve moved,” Jarrett said.

“Thank you,” Sebelius said. “Thank you for your courage.”

On a sunny day in April, Wolfson sat in the backseat of a taxi in Knoxville, Tennessee, preparing to speak about gay marriage—his life’s project—in an auditorium at the University of Tennessee law school. Wolfson, who was raised in Pittsburgh and lives in New York, had last been to Tennessee in what he called his “Paul Revere days”: the years after the Hawaii ruling when he toured the country insisting, “Marriage is coming!”

At first, it was a message few wanted to hear. When Wolfson was a law student at Harvard in 1983, his adviser tried to discourage him from writing his thesis on gay marriage, on the grounds that it was too far-fetched. Sullivan’s 1989 New Republic essay, “Here Comes the Groom,” got a similar reception. “It was difficult just to get past the laugh factor at the beginning,” Sullivan recalled. “I remember going on Crossfire in the early days and having Gary Bauer laugh in my face—‘It’s the most bizarre and silly idea to come down the pike in a long time! It’s ludicrous!’”

But much of the resistance came from within the gay community. Some of the objections were ideological—that marriage was a “problematic” institution, that gays should be reshaping social norms rather than trying to fit into them. Others were strategic: Most advocates believed gay marriage simply wasn’t something America was willing to contemplate. At the regular meetings of a roundtable of gay-rights litigators, many argued that the movement, with its limited resources, could achieve more success by focusing on more achievable goals, like health care for AIDS patients or stopping housing discrimination. Sullivan, an idiosyncratic self-styled conservative, was picketed and heckled by gay-rights groups who branded him an “assimilationist.” “We were regarded as patriarchal, heterosexist, right-wing scum,” Sullivan recalled.

Andrew Sullivan and his husband, Aaron Tone, arrive at the White House State Dinner in 2012. (Charles Dharapak / AP)

Short, rotund, and hyperarticulate, Wolfson, who is 58, has an intense, nerdy demeanor. At the age of 21, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, he experienced a sexual awakening; soon after, he read John Boswell’s landmark 1981 history of gayness, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which described a Western world that had been far more accepting of gays through the Middle Ages. These experiences combined to create the epiphany that led him to fixate on marriage. “I thought, how could I write about something that would actually change things for gay people?” he told me. “What is the center, the heart, of the discrimination gay people face? It’s the denial of our love. And what is the central institution of love? It’s marriage. Therefore, we needed to claim the freedom to marry, because it would be an engine of transformation for the way society viewed gay people.”

Wolfson—unlike Sullivan, a committed political liberal—joined Lambda as a staff attorney in 1989, but his focus on marriage caused a series of bitterly contentious debates. His was a minority opinion, but he refused to stop bringing it up. In late 1991, he was fired for his refusal to fall into line (although personality conflicts also played a role). Wolfson appealed to the group’s board, which reinstated him, said Richard Socarides, a board member at the time, who would go on to advise President Clinton on gay issues. “A number of us board members had to step in and say, ‘Agree with him or not, there is a place for this point of view,’” Socarides recalled.

The word that comes up over and over, when you talk to people about Wolfson, is “relentless.” “He is a sweet, retiring, chubby, Jewish lawyer,” said Sullivan, “but underneath that is an absolutely iron will.”

On that April day in Knoxville, it was clear the Paul Revere days were over. Old friends greeted Wolfson as he entered the auditorium: Wendy Bach, the professor who would moderate the discussion, had attended a Wolfson talk on marriage when she was a law student in New York. Abby Rubenfeld, a Nashville-based civil-rights attorney who’d brought one of the marriage cases that reached the Supreme Court, had worked with Wolfson at Lambda in the 1990s. (The Supreme Court case, named for the Ohio plaintiff Jim Obergefell, a Cincinnati man who sued to be listed on his late husband’s death certificate, was an amalgam of gay-marriage appeals from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, and Kentucky.) “Evan was the visionary,” Rubenfeld, a petite lesbian with a folksy mien and piercing blue eyes, told me. “He pushed this when no one believed it could happen, including me.”

The questions from the packed auditorium for the panel—a town hall organized by Freedom to Marry—ranged from the theoretical (would the case be decided on equal-protection or due-process grounds?) to the practical (what if conservative clerks refused to issue marriage licenses as ordered by the court?). A stocky woman with short, tightly curled hair wanted to know when the court decision might take effect so she could put her wife on her military disability pension. At one point, a man asked about the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act proposed in Indiana, which provoked a national controversy over claims it would give businesses license to discriminate against gays. He wanted to know if that had been a turning point.

“We didn’t come to this moment overnight,” Wolfson said. “And we didn’t come to it because some lawyers wrote good briefs, or because plaintiffs showed courage, or because, in one moment, our movement decided to fight. If it were that simple, we would have been done 40 years ago. We”—he gestured around him at the attorneys and activists on the dais—“we have been fighting for the freedom to marry and for equal protection and equal rights and equal inclusion and equal responsibilities for decades, and we’ve been making that case in the court of public opinion alongside the case we’re making in the court of law.

“The work of this movement remains, and will remain,” he said. “But we’ve got so much more to work with because hearts have changed.”

After 2004, when voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments, top Democrats blamed gay marriage for John Kerry’s loss in the presidential election, and some gay-rights leaders publicly wondered if the push for marriage should be shelved. The losses were piling up. In June 2005, representatives of 10 advocacy groups, including Wolfson and Bonauto, met in New Jersey to stiffen their resolve. They drafted a document, “Winning Marriage: What We Need to Do,” that proposed a timetable of 15 to 25 years. At the time, that seemed optimistic.

One of the top goals set out in the document seemed achievable: winning a vote in California in 2008. But when Proposition 8, as the state’s referendum to ban gay marriage was known, went up for a vote, it passed, shocking advocates and causing a fresh round of soul-searching. If gay marriage couldn’t win a vote in liberal California—in the same election that powered Barack Obama to a historic victory—could it win anywhere?

Part of the problem, movement leaders knew, was the lack of a well-organized political campaign. Multiple groups were trying multiple approaches with no centralized strategy, fundraising, or message. To figure out what needed to change, eight organizations, led by Freedom to Marry, formed a secret collaboration that they called the Marriage Research Consortium. They pooled their resources and held a monthly teleconference to share polling, insights, and ideas in real time. (The consortium’s existence has not been previously reported.) It was an unprecedented level of cooperation, by groups that were often rivals for money or credit.

All of the polls and focus groups yielded a major revelation. The message gay-marriage campaigners had been using—an appeal to reason that enumerated the benefits of marriage that were being denied to gay people—wasn’t persuasive at all. Straight voters saw gay people as wanting something different than their idea of what marriage was about, which was love and commitment. “One of the questions in that first California poll was, ‘Do you think gay couples are trying to join marriage or change it?’” recalled Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy for the centrist Democratic group Third Way, one of the leaders of the research consortium. “The correlation between people who said ‘change’ and people who voted against us was almost exact,” she added. “We had to convince people that gay couples were trying to join this institution.”

Evan Wolfson speaks with Representative Steve King before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

The revelation was based on research, but it dovetailed with Wolfson and Sullivan’s original argument about gay marriage. They had always viewed gays not as a radical social fringe but as normal people with mainstream goals. Making others see and empathize with this fundamental normality, it turned out, was the key to convincing them that gays deserved to marry, too.

Movement leaders started presenting their cause differently—in ads, in op-eds, in press releases, in conversation. An ad from one of 2004’s losing campaigns had featured a judge with law books talking about hospital visitation; the new ads featured straight people talking about their gay relatives: the mother or sister or grandfather of a gay person, talking about their loved one’s commitment to a partner. When gay people were featured, “it was old-lady lesbians who we found were the best messengers,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “Nobody thought about sex when they saw them.”

There was stiff resistance within the movement to the new approach. Some thought it made no sense or wasn’t aggressive enough; some resented the strictly vetted, disciplined, sanitized faces the movement was putting forth. But in 2012, after 31 straight losses for gay marriage at the ballot box, Freedom to Marry spearheaded a centralized, politically savvy, message-tested campaign in four states—Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. On Election Day, the gay-marriage side won in all four states. “Four for four after 0 for 31—that’s a big change,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “People started to understand that this really works.” It was bracing to realize how long they’d gotten it wrong—but cathartic to see that people could empathize with gay people’s emotional desires.

The ballot victories were a major turning point, knocking down the most potent talking point of gay marriage opponents—that whenever it was put to a vote, the people were against gay marriage, even in liberal places like California. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act in a case brought by an elderly lesbian, Edie Windsor, who was taxed for her late partner’s estate because the federal government did not recognize their Canadian marriage. That decision set off a domino effect. Courts drew on its reasoning to strike down states’ gay-marriage bans, one after another. As gay couples got married in more and more states, the apocalyptic warnings of opponents didn’t seem to be coming true, and there was little backlash, even in conservative strongholds like Utah.

Public support for gay marriage crossed the majority threshold in 2011 and has skyrocketed since. By the time the court took up the final case, gays could marry in 36 states. Democratic politicians are almost unanimous in support and have begun using the issue as a wedge against Republicans, many of whom seem to want to avoid the issue. Skirmishes over religious freedom laws, like the one in Indiana, tended to end with a backlash in the other direction, in favor of gay rights.

Erickson Hatalsky used to give a PowerPoint presentation advising elected officials and other spokespeople how to talk about gay marriage to have the best chance of winning over people who were undecided or persuadable. One of the key points, based on the research, was to avoid using the word “same”: Many straight people would recoil at the notion that gays were just like them. Erickson Hatalsky advised saying “similar” instead, to raise the possibility of empathy without alienating people. Recently, however, “I threw away that slide,” she said. “People don’t react that way anymore. We can say ‘same,’ and people will put themselves in the shoes of a gay person.”

On the eve of the arguments before the Supreme Court, Freedom to Marry had tracked down every plaintiff from every case they could find through the decades. Dozens of them, along with their lawyers, filled a Washington law firm’s offices: A crowd of people united by the fact that they had all sued their government for the right to get married. Baehr and Dancel ran to Wolfson, embraced him joyfully, and draped a fragrant Hawaiian lei around his neck. Valerie Jarrett, the guest of honor, had come to thank Wolfson on behalf of the president, and to give a toast. “The word that really touches me personally tonight, looking at all of you, is the word love,” she said. “That’s what makes our country strong.”

As the final decision loomed this spring, a sense of jittery expectation hovered around the Freedom to Marry offices in downtown New York City, as if for a Christmas morning that might not actually dawn. The group busied itself writing op-eds and talking points, coordinating communications strategy between the various legal teams, and recruiting hundreds of signatories for a diverse array of friend-of-the-court briefs from businesses, clergy, and elected officials from across the country. Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, responded to the group’s request with a note that said, “Sign me up! Yes!”

The group aired television ads in states where gay marriage was still not legal, like one in Tennessee featuring a Republican Navy doctor talking about how he wished he could marry his partner. (That one got even more attention when a station in Chattanooga refused to air it.) Secretly, so as not to seem like outside agitators, they advised campaigners for a national gay-marriage referendum in Ireland, hosting them for three days of intensive training in New York and then sending a Freedom to Marry staffer across the pond; the measure ended up winning by a stunning 2-to-1 margin, making Ireland the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by vote.

And they began preparing to close up shop: Wolfson had always insisted that Freedom to Marry would cease to exist once its goal was achieved.

As Wolfson read the Supreme Court decision last week, he found that he, uncharacteristically, couldn’t stop himself from crying. The dispassionate, logic-driven lawyer kept flashing back to all the people he’d met in 30 years of battling for this improbable cause. Bernard Cohen, one of the lawyers who argued the 1967 Loving case, called to congratulate him.

It was happiness that he felt, Wolfson knew—a profound, national joy, one echoed by celebrating crowds on the steps of the Court, by millions of people on Facebook, by the president of the United States. But it was something else, he realized: It was relief. “Through so much coaxing and cajoling, through so many losses and so much resistance, even from colleagues and my own movement,” he told me, “through so much just plain repetition over decades, I always had to convey optimism.” Now, at long last, gay marriage’s most unwavering believer could stop hoping against hope.