Now that that has changed, it's easy, especially for satisfied liberals, to see the results as simply the inexorable forward march of progress -- the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice as public opinion becomes ever more enlightened. But like Obama's announcement, there was more to these victories than met the eye.
"Somebody said to me, 'Oh, you had Maine and Washington -- those are easy states,'" said Amy Simon, a Democratic pollster who conducted research for this year's campaigns. "Let me tell you, there was some bristling on the other end of the phone." Until this year, she noted, Maine had two Republican senators, and in 2010 had elected a tea party-inspired governor and awarded Republicans control of the statehouse. It has America's oldest electorate, a large rural population, and a high proportion of Catholics -- all challenging demographics for gay-marriage campaigners. "That was the easy case? Are you kidding me?" Simon said. "This inevitability story line is a rewrite of history to me."
The breakthrough victories for gay marriage in 2012 were narrow and hard-won. They were the result of meticulous work by a disciplined group of operatives who had vowed, after the defeats of 2008 and 2009, to find a way to win at the ballot box. Some gay-rights activists and donors were so dispirited after the California loss that they didn't think it could be done, at least not yet -- the public just wasn't ready. Many argued it was too big a risk. But Wolfson and his allies believed they could, in Simon's words, "create a tipping point" by combining smart political campaigning with a persuasion effort unprecedented in its depth and duration.
Obsessed With Marriage
When Obama came out for gay marriage, Wolfson could take credit for more than just the words the president used. He also helped put the issue on Obama's agenda in the first place.
Biden's accidental statement may have spurred the president to action, but a pressure campaign on Obama had been quietly gaining steam for months. Earlier in the year, Wolfson's group had led the charge to get gay marriage included in the platform to be presented at the Democratic Party's convention, a move that was controversial on the left but quickly gained momentum.
The positive response to the platform drive startled even the activists behind it. They'd anticipated a slow build and lots of lobbying; instead, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi jumped on board the very next day, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the Democratic convention, announced his support soon after. Within days, more than 20 senators had gotten behind the effort, and David Plouffe, Obama's senior adviser and 2008 campaign manager, was getting asked about the possibility of a gay-marriage platform fight on the Sunday political talk shows. "Some of our senior staff went, 'Holy shit, this is out of control,' " Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry's national campaign director, told me.
A short, round, bald, slightly nebbishy presence, Wolfson, ironically enough, resembles more than anything a New York divorce lawyer. Ironically, because marriage has been the consuming obsession of Wolfson's life and career. Nearly three decades ago, for his final paper at Harvard Law School in 1983, Wolfson wrote about same-sex marriage, a topic his professors regarded as exotic to the point of eccentricity. (The idea of marriage for gays and lesbians wasn't totally new -- three gay-marriage lawsuits had been filed in American courts by 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots -- but they'd been essentially laughed out of court, and few in legal circles saw reason to revisit the issue.)
After law school, Wolfson worked first as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, then for the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra affair. Meanwhile, on legal pads late into the night, he wrote pro bono briefs for the Lambda Legal Fund, which litigates on behalf of gay rights. He worked on discrimination cases involving AIDS patients and helped sue the Boy Scouts on behalf of gay youths. Eventually, he went to work for Lambda full-time. All the while, he kept thinking about, and arguing for, marriage. Wolfson was cocounsel on the Hawaii Supreme Court case that, in 1993, became the first-ever victory for same-sex marriage in an American court. But the ruling merely spurred voters and the state Legislature to quickly find new ways to outlaw gay marriage in Hawaii -- the first of the voter-approved anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendments.
That marriage should be a central fight of the gay-rights movement was sometimes a tough sell. Other battles, particularly at the height of the AIDS crisis, seemed more vital; many activists questioned whether gays should even want to participate in the ultimate heteronormative social institution. And in a society where sodomy laws would not be struck down by the Supreme Court until 2003, marriage seemed impossibly far-fetched. Wolfson saw it partly from a legalistic point of view -- without the ability to get married, gays were denied many legal protections afforded to other Americans. He was adamant that civil unions, which offer some of the rights of marriage under a distinct legal category, represented an unacceptable "separate but equal" status. ("I had a long argument over civil unions with Evan in 2004," a former Log Cabin Republicans board member told me ruefully. "He won.")