Nathaniel Frank's 'Awakening': How the marriage-equality battle was won - for now

Awakening
How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America

By Nathaniel Frank

Belknap Press of Harvard University. 456 pp. $24.96.


Reviewed by Claire Sasko


Nathaniel Frank first called attention to the strides and setbacks of the LGBTQ movement in 2009, when he published Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, which won the American Library Association's Stonewall Book Award. Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Two years after that, Frank's latest book, Awakening, tells of what led to that momentous breakthrough.

Awakening wears a jacket nearly identical to that of Unfriendly Fire, but the message is much more optimistic: that a complex, evolving, diverse, and disparate group can unite (under the theme of love) to achieve equality. Frank paints the obstacle-filled path to the Supreme Court's decision, highlighting key characters (known and lesser-known) who worked to push their visions of equality forward, and those who stood steadfast in their way.

Frank reminds readers that the LGBTQ movement wasn't always united behind gay marriage. As in many movements, its members debated and often disagreed on what was best: "There was no monolithic movement working together to push toward a single, shared goal; rather, marriage equality resulted from a complex and contentious set of interactions among professional movement activists, gays and lesbians from outside the movement, politicians, cultural and intellectual leaders, straight allies, and the courts."

Legalization of same-sex marriage was not even a universally shared goal. Some viewed marriage equality as unnecessary, regressive, and painfully traditional. Why should gays try to fit into an outdated system that had long fought to keep them out? Largely until the 21st century, the big question was whether the LGBTQ movement should "seek to join mainstream America or fight to fundamentally change it," Frank writes. (It's a question asked endlessly by activists today.) But instead of reducing the movement "into sides pitting 'liberationists' against 'assimilationists,' " Frank touches on its intricacy while making clear that its many different members all came to view marriage as "the perfect tool to help the nation debate, ponder, and finally grasp the equal worth of same-sex love."

Awakening is a story of changing a system from the inside. The battle was fought largely in courts, by focused, dedicated, and skilled lawyers, including the case of gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny, who, in 1957, was fired from his job as a government astronomer because he was gay (he appealed, though unsuccessfully); Paula Ettelbrick, the first woman to lead New York's Stonewall Community Foundation; and Mary Bonauto, who helped win Baker v. State, the 1999 ruling that led Vermont to recognize civil unions between same-sex couples, and who, in the momentous Obergefell v. Hodges, successfully argued before the Supreme Court to establish freedom for same-sex couples to marry nationwide. Accounts of those cases are full and detailed.

Frank's latest book affirms his far-reaching expertise on the LGBTQ movement. The book is brimming with details of the "countless incremental changes" and historical forces that shaped "dramatic shifts in attitudes about same-sex love." It's a straightforward, no-frills account of slow progress, and though it might shuffle at times, it ultimately is a rewarding read.

In the final pages of Awakening, Frank nods to the future - specifically to President Trump and Vice President Pence. It feels less like an ending and more like a reminder that although progress is not, and will never be, over, with a goal worth uniting behind and a diverse and persistent group to see even the smallest victories through, it's inevitable.

Claire Sasko is a writer and reporter for Philadelphia Magazine.