With gay couples only weeks away from legally marrying in the U.S. for the first time, it's easy to forget that only a decade ago, even domestic partnershipswhich were, legally speaking, a jokeinflamed conservatives whenever they were suggested. Everyone, straight and gay, knew gay marriage itself was impossible.
Not Evan Wolfson. He first wrote about marriage for same-sex couples in 1983, in a Harvard Law School paper. After graduation, he spent 10 years pressing the marriage issue. Fellow gay activists shushed him. "For years," says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "many of us were saying to him, We're not ready. The country's not ready. And, by the way, you're crazy.'"
In 1990 three same-sex couples in Hawaii asked Wolfson to take their case. His employer, the gay group Lambda Legal, wouldn't let him, but he was able to advise a local attorney on the side. Three years later, the couples won in the state supreme court. Hawaii voters banned same-sex marriages before any weddings could take place, but the case made gay marriage seem attainable. Within a few years, the Netherlands became the first country to allow it; Massachusetts gays are set to begin marrying on May 17.
Today the gay movement has embraced Wolfson. "This country is in a civil rights moment," he says. It would not have come as soon as it did without him.
From the Archive
The Battle Over Gay Marriage: It's official: gays can marry in Massachusetts come May. A TIME report on how it happened, what it means and how it may play out in the race for the White House
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