To Wolfson, the fight for marriage was about making gays full participants in American life and fully human in the eyes of their fellow citizens. "This was something that would transform non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are," he told me. "It would help people understand gay people as fully rounded human beings, with the hopes and dreams and human aspirations we all have." Other gay-rights struggles were mainly about convincing people to overlook sexual orientation, in employment or medical care or military service. Marriage is about what makes gay people who they are: their relationships with others of the same sex. In ratifying marriage for gays and lesbians, society would be ratifying the core of their identity -- their love for one another.
When Wolfson founded Freedom to Marry in 2003, gay marriage was not yet legal in any U.S. jurisdiction. For years, the group was a small-budget nonprofit that chiefly served as a platform for Wolfson's speeches and advocacy. But after the electoral defeats in California in 2008 and Maine in 2009, he realized that the group needed to be something more. Part of the reason gay marriage kept losing, he saw, was that it was constantly on the defensive. Gay-marriage opponents, often backed by the Republican Party and Catholic and evangelical churches, would methodically mobilize activists, collect signatures, and put gay-marriage bans on the ballot; state-level activists who supported gay marriage would then have a few months to assemble an ad-hoc defense, scrambling to raise money and come up with a message in an effort that was inevitably too little, too late. The gay-rights movement had a variety of national groups devoted to causes such as workplace rights and gays in the military, but there wasn't a single, national organization campaigning only for same-sex marriage.
In 2009, Wolfson began expanding Freedom to Marry. It grew from four staffers and a $1.4 million budget just three years ago to 17 staffers and $9 million today. He brought on high-powered fundraisers, pollsters, and political consultants. He called for a full-scale reassessment of past tactics and a blueprint for future action.
When it came to the ballot box, just as gay-marriage opponents were convinced they couldn't lose, some proponents had become convinced they were jinxed. Wolfson refused to believe that. Against all evidence to the contrary, he thought his side could win.
How California Was Lost
To understand how gay marriage triumphed in 2012, you have to understand how it lost in California in 2008. The success of Proposition 8, which overturned a court order granting same-sex couples the right to marry in the state, shocked and traumatized gay-rights activists.
Shortly after the 2008 election, a political consultant named Frank Schubert published an article in Campaigns & Elections magazine called "Passing Prop 8." Nobody, he wrote, had believed that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage could succeed in California, one of the most liberal states in the country, in a year when millions of liberal voters were drawn to the polls by excitement about Barack Obama. And yet, Schubert and his coauthor wrote, "conventional wisdom was stood on its head," and voters approved Prop 8 by a 700,000-vote margin.
Schubert served as the campaign manager for Prop 8. His side's first crucial decision, he said, was to avoid criticizing the same-sex couples who were already getting married. "After all," he wrote, "they were simply taking advantage of the rights the Court had granted them."
With gay-rights activists eager to brand Prop 8 proponents as bigots, Schubert felt it was important to demonstrate they were not against gay individuals or relationships per se. "Passing Proposition 8 would depend on our ability to convince voters that same-sex marriage had broader implications for Californians and was not only about the two individuals involved in a committed gay relationship," he wrote.
The central message of Schubert's Prop 8 campaign would be that there were consequences to legalizing gay marriage. "We reconfirmed in our early focus groups our own views that Californians had a tolerant opinion of gays. But there were limits to the degree of tolerance that Californians would afford the gay community. They would entertain allowing gay marriage, but not if doing so had significant implications for the rest of society."
The Prop 8 campaign's most effective ad became notorious in the gay community. In Schubert's words, it featured "a young Hispanic girl coming home from school, explaining how she had learned in class that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess!" Another ad featured a Massachusetts couple who said their son had been taught about gay marriage in the second grade.