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Inside the Campaign for Gay Marriage Inside the Campaign for Gay Marriage

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Inside the Campaign for Gay Marriage

How activists rewrote the political playbook, reversed decades of defeat, and finally won over voters in 2012.

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Alexander Sanchez of San Francisco, waves a rainbow-colored flag before a large crowd of supporters of same-sex marriage as they cheer in front of San Francisco City Hall on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2008.(AP Photo/Darryl Bush)

On May 9, President Obama sat for an interview in the White House with the ABC News anchor Robin Roberts. Both of them knew what she'd been summoned there to discuss, and Roberts didn't waste any time. "So, Mr. President," she said, "are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?"

Obama was ready for the question. A few days before, Vice President Joe Biden had said on Meet the Press that he was "comfortable" with men marrying men and women marrying women. The surprise statement went against the president's own ambiguous stance, which was that he was against gay marriage but in the process of "evolving." At the same time, evidence of the political risk inherent in the issue was abundant. The day before, May 8, voters in North Carolina -- a key swing state that Obama narrowly won in 2008 -- had overwhelmingly voted to ban gay unions, making it the 31st state to take such a step.

 



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Obama sat back in his leather chair, his legs crossed, his hands in his lap, composed and a bit detached. "Well, you know, I have to tell you, as I've said, I've been going through an evolution on this issue," he began, in his usual roundabout way. "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally." He pointed to his administration's repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays serving in the military and its refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. He'd hesitated to embrace gay marriage, he said, out of respect for tradition and a belief that civil unions offered enough protection to same-sex partnerships.

But now the president had changed his mind. "I've just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," he said.

 

The reasons for Obama's about-face, as he explained them, seemed perfectly normal. His thoughts, he said, had gone to his own staffers "who are in incredibly committed, monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together." He'd thought about the troops, fighting on his behalf, yet still facing the constraint of not being "able to commit themselves in a marriage." He talked about the values he wanted to pass on to his own children and the emphasis his own faith placed on the Golden Rule.

As natural as Obama's statement may have sounded, his words were as carefully chosen as the interview. The testimonial to the gay men and women in his life; the discussion of values and the Golden Rule; the remarkable fact that America's first black president, discussing an issue many see as a modern civil-rights struggle (with a black interviewer, no less), made no reference to civil rights -- these were all talking points straight out of the new playbook of the gay-rights movement.

The architect of this strategy is Evan Wolfson, a New York lawyer and gay-rights activist who heads a group called Freedom to Marry. Over the preceding months, Wolfson had briefed White House officials, including Valerie Jarrett -- the close Obama adviser often seen, for better and worse, as the president's liberal conscience -- on the findings of the group's years of research, findings that showed the most persuasive way of talking about gay marriage.

And while Obama's reversal was instantly hailed as a watershed moment, behind the scenes, Wolfson and his allies were already well on their way to fulfilling an even grander ambition. Gratified to have finally lured the president to their side, the activists were quietly working to bring voters on board, too. Although gay marriage was already legal in six states and Washington, D.C., it had been granted each time by judicial fiat or legislative action -- voters had never yet endorsed same-sex marriage at the polls.

 

That all changed on Election Day.

On November 6, four states -- Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington  -- took the side of gay marriage in ballot referenda. The improbable sweep for an issue that spent decades as an across-the-board political loser has already changed the landscape for gay rights in America -- and could provide a new framework for other causes: The leaders of other social movements, such as the campaign for gun control, are already studying the methods behind the gay-marriage campaigners' victory.

This is the exclusive story of that victory, based on reporting that began more than a month before Election Day; dozens of interviews; and access to scores of internal communications.  

Engineering a Revolution

 Today, America stands on the brink of a gay-marriage tipping point. The Supreme Court's announcement on Friday that it would hear two cases related to gay marriage, including an appeal on California's Proposition 8, raised the possibility that by next summer, legal gay marriage could be the law of the land.

But before November, gay marriage had been placed on 31 state ballots -- and voted down 31 times. Even in blue states such as California (2008) and Maine (2009), defeat was universal. To opponents of gay marriage, that perfect record had become a powerful talking point -- proof that American voters stood firmly against any redefinition of the fundamental societal institution. "The people of this country have not changed their view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, told me in August. "The only poll that counts is the vote, and we've never lost the vote."

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