This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that will determine the fate of same-sex marriage in America. The court’s decision won’t come for months, but regardless of how the justices rule, David Von Drehle’s new cover story chronicles how, thanks to a massive shift in public opinion, gay marriage went from inconceivable to inevitable in less than two decades. To illustrate Von Drehle’s story, TIME invited same-sex couples in California and New York to share some intimate moments for photographer Peter Hapak. Two of these couples, Sarah Kate and Kristen Ellis-Henderson (married in 2011) and Russell Hart and Eric LaBonté (engaged since 2010), appear on our cover this week. (Newsstand editions will be divided between issues featuring the Ellis-Hendersons and those featuring Hart and LaBonté.)
Coming out to friends and family is one of the most important moments in a gay person’s life. Coming out on the cover of a national magazine is something else entirely, once as unimaginable to our cover subjects as gay marriage itself. “As we were driving to the shoot, I thought, ‘I’m doing this because I want my kids to live boldly and loudly and see what it means to stand up for something,’” says Sarah Kate Ellis-Henderson, who has a son and a daughter with her wife Kristen. For Hart, the decision to participate in a TIME cover shoot about gay marriage was a symbol of his decision to fully own his identity. After coming out to a supportive family, Hart stepped back into the closet while he was in his 20s, fearful he would lose a job if his co-workers knew he was gay. “That was far more destructive and traumatic than coming out,” says Hart. “The experience let me know that whatever I do, my sexuality is a part of my identity and to deny it is to be doomed.”
Behind the scenes at the TIME cover shoots
Some of the couples who participated in the TIME cover shoot are married and all are in long-term committed relationships. Jake Harrison, who was photographed with his partner Christopher Cunningham, is among those happily stunned at how quickly U.S. culture has shifted to embrace same-sex couples. “Growing up, there really weren’t gay characters on TV,” says Harrison. “To go from that to gay people on primetime television and out gay politicians is a huge evolution.” LaBonté, who graduated from high school in 1989 and celebrated his 7-year anniversary with Hart the day they were photographed for TIME, says he was taunted as a teen for being different. “But my 20th high school reunion was a real trip. Those kids that made fun of me totally wanted to come up and talk to me and find out what I’m doing with my life,” he says. “Now, I see high-school-aged boys walking around the mall or out in broad daylight holding hands. It’s hard to describe how that makes me feel.” Cunningham, who describes himself as “the modern, non-marriage type,” says that the fact that gay marriage may soon be legal across the U.S. has made him reconsider. He says he is feeling something familiar to many long-term heterosexual couples — pressure from family to tie the knot.
Peter Hapak is a contract photographer for TIME.
Kate Pickert is a staff writer at TIME. Follow her on Twitter @katepickert. Additional reporting by Eugene Reznik.