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Book on marriage fight shares the long view

by Brian Bromberger

Author Nathaniel Frank
Author Nathaniel Frank  

It doesn't seem possible that yet another book has been written about marriage equality after an avalanche of titles in the last three years. But according to critics and historians, the best may have been saved for last, in that "Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America" (Harvard University Press) might very well be the definitive book about the history of the struggle over same-sex marriage in the U.S.

It is authored by Nathaniel Frank, 46, a historian and LGBTQ strategist, who is the director of the What We Know Project, a research think tank on public policy and social issues at Columbia Law School. Frank is best known for his previous book, "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America," now considered the definitive history of the former anti-gay policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"Awakening" begins in the 1950s when LGBT people could barely come out of the closet and covers the rise of the gay rights movement along with the increasing awareness of the equal dignity of same-sex love. A gay-themed magazine, One, which began in 1953, dared to suggest the idea of homophile marriage on its cover in 1963.

In 1970, gay couple Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license in Minneapolis. In the 1980s, LGBTQ lawyers started to focus on legal recognition for same-sex couples (aka, domestic partnership) long before the idea of marriage emerged, but once it did, a successful legal strategy to win in the courts spanned over two decades, enough time that a few dozen federal judges (and ultimately five Supreme Court justices) would change their minds on the issue.

Not only did this movement fight against virulent anti-gay opponents, it also had to convince the LGBTQ community to make marriage a priority. It's all here: the Hawaii revolution, Vermont's civil unions, the Defense of Marriage Act, Massachusetts weddings, California's Proposition 8, Edie Windsor, President Barack Obama's evolution and support, and same-sex marriage plaintiff Jim Obergefell.

In short, it's the first full-scale, comprehensive history of the marriage equality movement in 441 pages, including interviews with participants in the movement as well as published and unpublished documents. The Bay Area Reporter spoke to Frank via an email exchange.

Frank was asked how his book differs from the others already published.

"There are many terrific books out on marriage equality, and I drew on several of them for my research," he said. "But all of them address one piece of this remarkable story, often from a first-person perspective, or as part of an effort to advance a particular agenda, as in the 2014 book by Jo Becker ['Forcing the Spring'], which sought to cast the Proposition 8 lawsuit in a far more important light than the evidence allows."

Frank said that he tried to focus on the "dramatic tensions between several different groups that all had a hand in advancing marriage: the push and pull between grassroots activist and professional movement groups, between heirs of the queer liberation movement and those who came to focus more on assimilation."

Frank draws a convincing parallel between AIDS activism and marriage equality.

"AIDS transformed LGBT life and activism, often in unforeseen ways," he said. "For years, activists and regular queer folks alike tended to focus on arguments around liberty and privacy, and wanted the government to simply leave them alone â€" after decades of persecution, often at the hands of government. AIDS made it imperative for activists to engage with the government in novel ways. It was no longer adequate to be left alone; gay people needed their government to recognize their suffering, their contributions and their relationships.

"Gay men often had the harrowing experience of seeing homophobic relatives swoop into town and bar them from the bedside or funeral of a dying or deceased lover â€" and they had no legal recourse to fight," he added. "None of this meant that all queer activists suddenly embraced marriage as a priority, but the centrality of legal recognition and equal protection ultimately laid the groundwork for prioritizing marriage."

Incremental litigation

Many have pointed out how Americans did a U-turn in a decade, with a majority going from opposing marriage equality to supporting it.

"If you tuned into the marriage debate in 2004 or 2008 when high-profile developments unfolded (in presidential election years), it can seem that approval of marriage came in the flash of an eye," Frank said. "These were crucial turning points, but the reality is that hearts and minds are won over through incremental change, and LGBT activists recognized this all the way back at mid-century when a few pioneering voices first began raising the question of what they called 'homophile marriage.' Other political and legal thinkers, including Andrew Sullivan and Evan Wolfson, took up the call in the 1980s and spoke and wrote about marriage equality relentlessly for decades â€" even when much of the LGBT movement itself did not view marriage as the right goal."

Frank pointed out that the incremental litigation strategy employed by major LGBT legal groups was a key.

"Movement leaders recognized that a critical mass of states needed to win marriage equality before federal courts were likely to hand down positive rulings, and they also recognized that these lawsuits â€" especially when well-timed and thoughtfully constructed â€" would occasion millions of water cooler conversations and media coverage of what it meant to be gay or lesbian and what same-sex love was all about. Incremental strategies like these, along with perseverance and the courageous coming out of millions of queer people one by one, were what allowed a majority of Americans to finally embrace the freedom to marry around 2011."

And yet, Frank shows how opposed many LGBT people were to the idea of marriage, rejecting the institution as sexist, racist, and with an emphasis on monogamy that seemed to oppose sexual liberation.

"Many LGBT activists were shaped by the counterculture of the 1960s and queer liberation of the 1970s, movements that sought to challenge existing norms and institutions and to create new ways of arranging relationships and even society," said Frank. "Many viewed institutions such as marriage and the family (along with the military) as outdated and oppressive sources of state control that were at odds with the forms of individual freedom that a new generation of activists was seeking.

Lesbians and other queer women often had their issues with the institution.

"For many women, marriage was dismissed as patriarchal and they wanted nothing to do with it," Frank pointed out.

"There were also other pressing priorities in the early years of the LGBT rights movement. Violence, job discrimination, AIDS â€" all these took precedence for some people, who thought marriage was a luxury item or something so far away that it was not worth fighting for.

"Finally, there were strategic differences over when and how to fight for marriage, and in some cases, this meant that LGBT activists and organizations declined to support the push for marriage or at least specific efforts to legalize marriage in specific cases," Frank said. "At times, it was simply a question of ensuring that the political groundwork was adequately laid so that legal challenges were winnable or durable against the threat of backlash and reversal."

Frank noted that some LGBTs sought different ways of recognizing relationships.

"In the LGBT community, there was always a vanguard of activists who hoped that their difference and, indeed, their persecution, could become the foundation of a new, almost utopian way of arranging social relationships, a vision that was born in the social tumult and creativity of the 1960s civil rights and other social movements," he said. "To them, making marriage a priority was a palpable threat to the alternative vision they sought. I can understand how the eventual prioritization, and ultimate victory, of marriage could be experienced, in this vein, as a loss, particularly a loss of the alternative vision that some queer activists sought.

Be pragmatic

Frank suggests that people should be pragmatic as future fights for LGBT equality unfold.

"Pragmatism is key," he said. "Outsiders are often the ones to put radical social change on the map, but changing the system from the inside is often what's necessary to get the job done. The very choice to â€" eventually â€" prioritize marriage, parenting, and military service â€" three traditional American institutions important to conservatives and the political center â€" was a strategic decision that reflected a pragmatic understanding that gaining access to the American mainstream was critical to achieving full equality."

Frank pointed out that there is still no federal law protecting LGBT Americans from discrimination, which many states also lack.

"Religious conservatives are having some success creating carve-outs from all kinds of laws based on professions of religious faith or even moral beliefs, something that undercuts the very rule of law," he said. "Transgender people and LGBT people of color are disproportionately vulnerable to the attacks coming from Donald Trump and his rearguard agenda."

Frank also suggested that people find ways to build coalitions and unite others across different lines of geography, race, class, and ideology, which was crucial at times for marriage equality.

And, he said, as the fight for trans rights intensifies, people should remember that the quest for LGB rights did not come quickly.

"The fight for gay, lesbian and bisexual rights, contrary to popular belief, was not won in one or two decades, but was the result of over half a century of courageous individuals and strategic organizations showing their common humanity to the world. Recognizing the incremental nature of change was key," he said.

"This does not mean people don't deserve full equality now, but is a recognition that the practical reality of achieving that equality relies on more and more people coming to know, understand, and accept a previously invisible minority," he added. "Transgender identity is still very new to most people, and while transgender people absolutely deserve full equality now, the lessons of history are that we must share the stories and lift the voices of trans people over time in order to lead people to full acceptance. The marriage fight helped get the ball rolling, but our work is far from done."

 

 

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