The movement for same-sex marriage in the United States has racked up victory after victory in the last few years, so much so that a scramble for credit may have been inevitable. A new book about the movement, “Forcing the Spring” by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, has inflamed longtime activists with its close focus on the high-profile legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8. Most controversially, the opening lines of the book put forth Chad Griffin, the former Bill Clinton political operative who organized the Prop 8 challenge in 2009 and later lobbied President Obama to change his position to support same-sex marriage, as the movement’s Rosa Parks.
In fact, there’s plenty of credit to go around, as a somewhat red-faced Griffin himself detailed in a recent op-ed. And if anything, the back-and-forth over “Forcing the Spring” has shone a new light on all those whose years of patient, often thankless legal work brought gay marriage first to Massachusetts, then to a growing roster of other states.
Much of the heavy lifting on the issue occurred in New England — at Harvard Law School, where in 1983 a student named Evan Wolfson wrote a thesis laying out the legal arguments for what came to be called marriage equality; in the Vermont Supreme Court, where justices concluded that gay couples were entitled to the legal benefits of civil marriage; and most crucially in the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, whose favorable ruling, in a suit by lawyer Mary Bonauto and the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, led to the nation’s first bona fide same-sex marriages 10 years ago this month.
Through these efforts, the legal framework for a national marriage movement emerged: When gay marriages in Massachusetts soon proved uneventful, affecting essentially no one but the happy spouses involved, judges and legislators in other states were emboldened to follow suit; when legally married couples were denied federal rights, the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act came under intense scrutiny.
The Proposition 8 case, to be sure, was much flashier. It starred Ted Olson and David Boies — two renowned superlawyers, recruited by Griffin, who were most famous for arguing on opposite sides of Bush v. Gore in 2000. Their ultimate goal was a sweeping US Supreme Court decision establishing the right to marriage in all 50 states. The case didn’t end that way; less dramatically, the court last year invalidated Proposition 8 only, and did so on technical grounds. As courts from Utah to Kentucky have struck down gay-marriage bans in recent months, they’ve relied heavily on a different US Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and drew heavily on GLAD’s efforts in Massachusetts.
Future legal historians are bound to study the movement for same-sex marriage, a once-fringe idea that seemed to catch on and spread in record time. But it won’t be lost on them why that happened: because years of effort in Montpelier, Boston, and elsewhere made it possible.