THE BLOG
07/14/2015 04:35 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2016

Capturing the Untold Personal Stories from Four Decades of Fighting for Marriage

It's almost too incredible to believe: it took under 50 years for us to go from the Stonewall Riots, the foundation of the modern LGBT equality movement, to national marriage equality. How did that happen -- and who's responsible? That's the story that unfolds in my new book, Defining Marriage: Voices from a Forty-Year Labor of Love, just released and free to download this week only, July 13th to 17th.

Of course, it wasn't easy. There were plenty of dramatic bumps in the road, such as the afternoon in 1975 when two men named Dave walked into the Boulder Colorado County Clerk's office and asked for a license. Newly-elected clerk Clela Rorex was taken aback -- she'd never known any out gay people -- and after a short hesitation, she granted their request. But she faced a harsh backlash.

Around the same time, young Dan Savage -- who would grow up to be America's leading sex advice columnist and bullshit-detector -- began to realize that there were happy, healthy gay couples living around him in his hometown of Chicago, and that he might one day grow up to be happy and healthy as well. But, he assumed, he could never be married.

And then there was the time Andrew Sullivan, then a young writer at The New Republic, joked during a meeting that conservatives should support marriage for LGBTs since marriage is a conservative institution. To his surprise, his editor assigned him to write a cover story on just that subject, a difficult task for someone who was convinced he'd never marry. "At the time, it seemed like it was the fucking end of the world," Sullivan he told me, years later. "Everybody knew they could die, and there didn't seem to be any cure. Part of that gave me the courage to go out and make that argument. Because I thought it was going to be the last argument I would ever make."

The personal stories don't end there. Years later, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, he had to do so over the objections of many LGBT community leaders who feared a punishing backlash. Director Rob Reiner, who inherited a passion for social justice from his real-life parents and his television family, helped launch the country's most ambitious -- and risky -- marriage lawsuit in history, along with Dustin Lance Black and some unlikely friends. A civil rights organizer named Thalia Zepatos stood up for marriage equality in Oregon, despite being a straight woman and being warned that skinheads could be targeting her for a violent attack. And Amy Balliett, a young woman from Ohio, went from being a graphic designer to the leader of an international protest movement, but longed to return to her old life.

I spoke to all these people (and many more) for Defining Marriage. It's an intimate look into the personal stories of the people who pushed for the freedom to marry over the last 45 years. Over decades, they fought to change marriage -- but fighting for marriage, in turn, changed them.

It's pretty remarkable how much has changed in such a short time. Back in the 1970s, when Clela Rorex became the first American government official to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, the country reacted with a mix of horror and amusement. One local crackpot tried to marry his horse.

When Andrew Sullivan pushed for marriage in the 1980s, he got pushback from conservatives, which you might expect -- but surprisingly, a lot of queer people were upset as well. At the time, marriage seemed too traditional, too conformist, too heterosexual. He was chased from bars, and protestors put his face in crosshairs on their signs.

Into the 1990s, the fight for marriage grew more chaotic. Kathryn Lehman was a powerful Capitol Hill attorney, working for Congressional leaders, when she was tasked with writing the Defense of Marriage Act to stop same-sex couples from marrying. It was a strange assignment; though she wasn't ready to accept it at the time, she was herself a lesbian. She's spent the last few years working to undo the damage done by two decades of DOMA.

It was after President George W. Bush called for a constitutional marriage ban that Gavin Newsom began defiantly marrying couples at City Hall. He was attacked by anti-gay forces, and few of his colleagues were willing to come to his rescue. "I have zero regrets," he told me when I interviewed him for Defining Marriage. "We never would have done it a year later, because we had a midterm congressional campaign. And then two years later, oh, we've gotta take back the senate. Oh, next year we've gotta get Kerry re-elected." He waved his hands dismissively. "It's never the right time to do the right thing when it comes to politics and politicians. Which means it's always the right time to do the right thing."

It's thanks to defiant acts like Newsom's that other equality campaigners gained the courage to stand up for what was right. Last year, I visited Fargo, North Dakota to talk to Josh Boschee, and he told me that for years, national LGBT groups had urged him not to attempt a marriage lawsuit. The timing wasn't right, they told him; North Dakota wasn't where the national strategy was focused. But after years of stifling his own voice, he eventually decided to speak out on behalf of his queer constituents, no matter whether they were strategically convenient or not.

"It's humbling," he told me. "It's hard. But I realize it's important. As someone who doesn't know if he believes in God or whatnot, I'm here for a purpose, and this might be it."

Why all this fighting over marriage? It's just a word. A complicated, heavy, loaded word, to be sure; inside of it lives the anarchy of people like Faygele Ben Miriam, who demanded a marriage license in the early 1970s. Inside of the word "marriage" lives the strategy of Mike Marshall, who struggled to lead a marriage campaign in 2000 when there was no hope of victory. The word encapsulates the comfort that young Dan Savage felt at seeing people like him, and the audacity of Clela Rorex. In the word "marriage" we find Gavin Newsom's political bravado, and the memory of politicians like Mary Margaret Haugen who sacrificed their careers in order to stand up for what they knew was right. Marriage is defined by an Oscar-night appeal by Dustin Lance Black, by Molly McKay's yearly pilgrimage to the wedding counter, and by the secret same-sex wedding ceremonies arranged by couples decades ago, when legal marriage was an unthinkable dream.

We, the people who marry, define the institution. It doesn't define us.

That is the story that unfolds over decades in Defining Marriage.