A book for straight people that explains that gay marriage was hugely controversial even for gaysRoundup
tags: LGBT, Nathaniel Frank, Awakening
... Nathaniel Frank’s new book on the long fight for marriage equality, Awakening: How Gays And Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, has one thing going for it: It’s a professional work of history. The only book on the movement we have so far wasn’t. Jo Becker’s hagiography of Chad Griffin,Forcing the Spring — my review is here — was an outright attack on everyone who had worked for the cause decades before Griffin tried to pass himself off as the gay Rosa Parks (yes, the book actually called him that). Awakening is therefore by default the best account we have, but it’s also a truly impressive, nuanced, fair account in its own right. It’s astonishing to me that the New York Times and the Washington Post have yet to review it. It relays the lung-filling highs and stomach-churning lows of the long trek toward gay dignity. Better still, it brings into focus the small band of disparate individuals who somehow brought what was unimaginable into reality. Many people think marriage was won overnight. This book proves it wasn’t.
But its chief merit is that it explains for straight people and the younger gay and lesbian generations just how deeply divisive this issue was in the gay world for so long … all the way back to the 1950s, when the story really starts. The core gay divide in the gay world has always been between those who wanted equality and dignity in mainstream society and those who wanted to revolutionize and subvert the mainstream itself. Civil marriage was an issue where this divide was perhaps deepest. You can go back to the old gay magazine, One, published by the Mattachine Society, and see exactly the arguments that erupted later. In 1953, Frank notes, it ran an essay called “Homosexual Marriage?” The question mark was more like a gasp. In a screed against the normalization of gays, it worried that “equal rights means equal responsibilities. Equal freedoms means equal limitations.” A decade later, in 1963, a counterpoint appeared: “Let’s Push Homophile Marriage.” The term homophile itself was an attempt to redefine gay men as more than just sexual. The argument: “It seems to me that when society finally accepts homophiles as a valid minority with minority rights, it is going first of all to accept married homophiles. We are, after all, closest to their ideals.” In some ways, the gay-rights movement has spent the last few decades having that same fight over and over again.
But it is, of course, more complicated and interesting than that. Marriage equality was both subversive and integrationist. It subverted nascent gay culture and traditional heterosexual assumptions. And yet it was also a uniquely powerful symbol of integration, equality, and a common humanity. It was based on a submerged reality, which was that many gay men and especially lesbians had always been in committed relationships — and that that experience was a vital bridge with heterosexuals, who usually comprised the rest of our families. The proof of that is in the number of gays and lesbians now in civil marriages: around a million.
Nonetheless, for the longest time, the fight for marriage had almost no constituency in the post-1969 gay world — too conservative for some, way too utopian for others — and was kept aloft by a tiny group of activists, lawyers, and writers, who never gave up, despite setbacks at almost every turn. The biggest gay-rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, for example, remained hostile to pushing for marriage all the way through to the mid-aughts. The central figure from the get-go, Evan Wolfson, had to fight the rest of the movement continuously to keep the dream alive. It’s easy, in the wake of victory, to forget that story — but Frank covers its nuances better than anything else I’ve read. And he gives everyone their due. Toward the end of the book, he focuses a little too much on the litigation and not enough on the culture, but this is a small flaw in an otherwise indispensable account.
What resolved the gay divide, in the end, was the religious right. When George W. Bush endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, as Frank explains, almost everyone in the gay movement realized that something fundamental to our human dignity and civil rights was at stake. ...
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