The Making of the Marriage Equality Revolution

This article by Josh Zeitz was originally published on April 28, 2015 in Politico. Read the full article here.

If everything goes according to plan, Evan Wolfson and Marc Solomon will be unemployed some time later this year.

On Tuesday, both men will occupy coveted seats in the United States Supreme Court, as nine justices hear oral arguments in a consolidated case that will ultimately determine whether states have a constitutional right to bar same-sex couples from marrying.

For Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national organization that has been driving a strategy to win marriage equality nationwide, as well as a lead investor and organizer in more than 25 statewide marriage equality campaigns, this day has been more than three decades in the making. As a third-year law student at Harvard in 1983, Wolfson wrote a 77-page paper that laid out a comprehensive historical and legal argument for marriage equality. His thesis was more unusual than controversial; at the time, few if any reputable legal scholars or gay rights activists thought or cared a great deal about marriage.

But over the years, as Wolfson emerged as America’s preeminent advocate for same-sex marriage rights, his scholarly tome surfaced from obscurity to become a founding document of the marriage equality movement. To be sure, like many seminal political tracts throughout history, more people know about it than have read it. When I asked Solomon, the national campaign director at Freedom to Marry and one of Wolfson’s most trusted lieutenants, about certain aspects of the thesis (“I assume you’ve read it many times,” I offered in passing), he replied with a smile, “That assumption would be incorrect. I've skimmed it but haven’t read it closely.”

It wasn’t Wolfson’s scholarship that catalyzed the marriage equality movement. It was his unremitting focus. First as a volunteer and later as a staff attorney at Lambda Legal in the 1980s and 1990s, he was, in the words of one newspaper, the “Paul Revere of marriage equality.” For three decades, he traveled the country, worked with local and statewide activists, plotted legal and political strategy, and urged national LGBT organizations to adopt marriage as a cause worth fighting for. Along the way, he made a lot of friends and not a few enemies. But his clarion call for a two-pronged legal and political strategy to extend marriage to same-sex couples, and his consistent belief that it would take time and pressure to win the day, but that a win was attainable, may soon be vindicated.

With marriage equality now the law of the land in 37 states, scholars are beginning to consider its historical trajectory. Like earlier rights movements, it claims no single architect or builder. Its successes and failures owe to the collective efforts of millions of ordinary citizens; state, local and national organizations; LGBT activists and straight allies.

The intertwined stories of Evan Wolfson and Marc Solomon demonstrate that, alone, structural forces like demographic and economic change do not make a movement, though they can define its limits; that civil rights movements are almost always born at the tense intersection of national and local considerations; and that to be successful, a movement must embrace politics in its best and worst quintessence—as both a force of moral enlightenment and a cynical, bare-knuckle contest for power and privilege.

What Evan Wolfson and Marc Solomon learned along the way may well provide the roadmap for every major rights campaign over the next 50 years.