(CNN) -- Gail Dosik walked into a party, hung up her coat and fell in love; 26 years later, she was finally able to make the beautiful stranger she met that night her legally wedded wife.
An awful lot happened in between.
Six months after meeting, Dosik and Jackie Stevens had a commitment ceremony, a radical endeavor in the early 1980s. The couple recited vows, signed a document they had found in a recently published same-sex legal guide, and celebrated their union in front of friends and family. It meant the world to them, but absolutely nothing in the eyes of the law.
Half a year might seem like a short courtship, but had Dosik and Stevens been a heterosexual couple, they could have married the day they met. Instead, they were forced to wait until same-sex unions were legally recognized to officially tie the knot, which they did a quarter-century later in the Fairfield, Connecticut, town hall.
Gay and lesbian baby boomers like 59-year-old Dosik have lived most of their lives without the prospect of legally recognized marriage in sight. While some strive for the right to officially seal their unions, others have begun to warily embrace the institution after a lifetime of ambivalence or outright rejection of the idea.
Actress Jodie Foster, 50, recently acknowledged her female former partner, Cydney Bernard, with whom she co-parents two sons, in front of a mainstream audience for the first time. After spending her life from age 3 onward in the public eye, her revelations during the Golden Globes ceremony amounted to a coming out party of sorts, though her sexuality appeared to be an open secret for years. Like Foster and Bernard, countless other same-sex couples have built lives and families together without legal recognition.
Though not every member of a same-sex couple wants to be married, some realize they do only after the prospect becomes a reality. Ballot measures and constitutional amendments nationwide have recently put many gay and lesbian couples' convictions surrounding the idea of same-sex marriage to the test.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage and defining marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." While individual states may rule on the legality of same-sex unions, they aren't recognized on a federal level and in many other states.
Without the option of marriage, same-sex couples in years-long, committed partnerships regularly find themselves out in the cold when negotiating joint tax filing status, Social Security survivor benefits, hospital visitation, immigration and insurance benefits.
A seismic shift occurred in 1999 when the Vermont Supreme Court declared that gay and lesbian couples should be given the same rights as heterosexual couples. In 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and began performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in May 2004.
Meanwhile, some flickers of hope for marriage equality were extinguished almost as swiftly as they flared up: In February 2004, Sandoval County, New Mexico, issued 26 same-sex marriage licenses that were nullified by the state attorney general that same day, nearly 4,000 same-sex couples got marriage licenses in San Francisco until the next month when California Supreme Court ordered them to stop, and the mayor of New Paltz, New York, was issued a permanent injunction by the Ulster County Supreme Court after marrying about a dozen same-sex couples. That February, President George W. Bush announced support for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
While war was waged in courthouses across the country, on the home front, life continued as it always had. Loving couples, who had called each other "husband" and "wife" for many decades, dropped the kids off at school, went to work, paid their taxes and dreamed of a day they wouldn't, as North Carolina chef Bill Smith puts it, "have it in writing that I am a second-class citizen."
Smith, 64, said like many gay men of his generation, he has always been personally indifferent to marriage, which he credits in part to the rise of American feminism. He came of age on the cusp of the 1960s, when women and their like-minded male friends began to embrace and promote the idea of sexual equality.
"There was a general political roiling in the land. Birth control was becoming widely available. Breaking old taboos was a point of honor in a way. Virginity and marriage were serious business to some of the parents of my friends," he explained.
As a result, he had always considered that a gay couple living together had become as much a political act as a romantic one. That was until 2012, when his home state of North Carolina added to the ballot a constitutional amendment referendum specifically banning same-sex unions and defining marriage between a man and a woman as the only valid domestic legal union in the state, even though same-sex unions had never been recognized in the state to begin with.
Smith saw the North Carolina ballot measure as a hostile act against loving people and, he said, "I had come to realize that although I am completely at ease with myself, others are not. People lead miserable lives, or even kill themselves because they are made to believe that they are bad. That kid that jumped off the bridge in New York sort of brought that home. So I started running my mouth and raising money."
The measure passed, to Smith's great disappointment, but he holds out hope for a reversal.
"I'm actually expecting the Supreme Court to throw all those laws out eventually, citing equal protection under the law," he said. "If not, although I'm a little old to lay down in the road in front of the advancing National Guard, I've done it before."
Stephen Lyles, 58, found himself called to action by a one word battle cry: "Spouse." Lyles had never particularly aligned himself with gay culture, ("I don't believe in apartheid," he said) and counted himself deeply fortunate to have found his partner, golf photographer Leonard Kamsler, in 1978, before the AIDS crisis laid waste to so many of his generation.
They moved to New York and went about their lives together, quietly marrying in 2011 after the state declared it legal.
"I think I just said to Leonard, 'I want a wedding' and he said 'OK,' even though it didn't much matter to him."
The power of a legal bond became clearer to Lyles last year when Kamsler, 78, was admitted to the hospital because of some minor medical issues. Lyles found the legal ability to invoke the word "spouse" on all the forms so deeply empowering that it made him "militant" about marriage equality for the first time in his life.
Kamsler is "not my boyfriend, not my roommate, not my lover -- my spouse," said Lyles. To have hospital staff simply treat that as nothing out of the ordinary meant the world to him. It also heartened him when his two brothers each called to tell him how much they love Leonard, their "brother-in-law."
"He was defined," Lyles said. "Language has power, and I thought for the first time, how dare you deny that to me, or to anyone?"
Lyles' relief over his treatment at the hospital is grounded in a painful reality for gay baby boomers. The specter of "big nurse" as writer Craig Seligman calls it, barring access to an ailing loved one, looms large for a greying population who watched their friends, colleagues and lovers decimated by the AIDS epidemic. With no legally recognized status, people were forced to watch helplessly as the care of a partner was turned over to family members and city agencies who did not or could not recognize their bond.
"In my younger, more radical days, I felt that marriage was an oppressive, heterosexual institution, and no decent gay person would want to get married," said Seligman's husband, Silvano Nova, an accessories designer.
The pair met as colleagues while working at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco, and have been together for nearly 30 years. They formalized the union in Connecticut on their 25th anniversary in a ceremony officiated by Seligman's cousin, a justice of the peace.
"We were certainly ambivalent, since we felt that we had always been married in the very best sense of the word," said Nova. The two had been legally recognized as domestic partners in New York since 1994.
"The question of legal protection was important to us," said Nova, and added that there was another factor at play. "It was fun to think of actually being able to be married legally and saying so. We have heterosexual friends who have gotten married after many years together for the same reasons."
Investigative reporter and author Steve Silberman said he hopes that as "same-sex" marriage becomes plain old "marriage," people who may have been resistant to the idea will realize that there's no fundamental difference.
"We (baby boomers) were all raised with the same core traditional values, and most of us fundamentally want a stable, long-term relationship. We were raised on the idea of 'happily ever after,'" he said. "This is a public good -- and how can you wage a war against happy?"
E.J. Graff, journalist and author of "What Is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution," believes in the power of visibility to normalize same-sex marriage to the general public.
"Twenty years ago, people thought of us as these crazy party animals, because (the gay Pride parade) was the only time of year that you saw us. Now we're visible as pretty ordinary, lawn-mowing, PTA kind of people. People would look at us and say that nothing has changed -- just that people are happier."
Happiness was only one of many emotions Dosik and Stevens felt when they took their long-delayed vows. As soon as the officiant opened her notebook to start the ceremony, Dosik burst into sobs. Stevens, who never cries, choked up, too.
"We, as a couple, were being recognized and validated by a state government," Dosik said. "I blubbered my way through everything that was being read, and managed to squeak out my vows and an 'I do.' We were pronounced 'married,' kissed and we were laughing and crying and breathing sighs of relief."
Follow the author on Twitter @kittenwithawhip and like CNN Living on Facebook