Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, by Nathaniel Frank

Steven Vaughan admires a powerful, rich and moving legal history of same-sex union

May 11, 2017
Source: Getty

I’m writing this on a plane coming back from Melbourne, currently thousands of miles above Budapest. Air travel always makes me cry. Maybe it’s the altitude, maybe it’s the disconnect from the world below, maybe it’s the fifth glass of free white wine. This time, the tears pour freely as I watch The Queen 
of Ireland, a brilliant documentary about an Irish drag queen, Panti Bliss, who campaigned to bring marriage equality for same-sex couples to Ireland. In my hand as I watch the documentary is Nathaniel Frank’s Awakening, an account of the struggle for same-sex marriage equality in the US. It is a powerful, vastly rich and moving narrative, with a cast of thousands, stretching from the 1950s to the decision of the US Supreme Court in 2015 affirming the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

While this is, of course, a book about law and legislation, about cases and courts, it is far more about the people involved: the lawyers and lawmakers, the activists, the “ordinary” gay men and women seeking recognition of their love. Awakening is a captivating read because of this. While the chapters take a rather linear approach, Frank teases out a whole series of tensions in this space: tensions between LGBT activists pushing for equal marriage and those for whom the fight was the wrong fight or the goal the wrong goal, between radicalism and conservatism, between activists and all the other gay men and women of America. What is so gripping is the set of stories of where and when and how local and national LGBT activist groups would take on suits to either challenge same-sex marriage bans or litigate for the right to marry. These stories are as much about ideological differences among LGBT activists as they are about differences in litigation strategy.

At one point, I scribbled in the margin, “Who is this book for?” It’s a question I have yet to answer. Certainly Frank’s book speaks to various groups: those interested in LGBT rights and in minority rights more generally; and those interested in cause lawyers and lawyering. But at times I struggled with the book’s tone: not quite full-on academic, and yet also not quite popular non-fiction. What struck me most was that such a powerful and passionate issue could be written in a way that was often so lacking in emotion (save for the prologue and epilogue, where what seems to be Frank’s real voice comes out). This is, I think, a shame, as there is a wonderfully soft pace to the book, a sense of momentum and of something momentous.

At the end of The Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss makes the point that the extension of rights can never diminish human dignity or human flourishing. The opposite is, in fact, the case. It is the dignity of same-sex love that Frank places at the centre of this book. Dignity and the promise of equality. And so I sit here, Viognier in one hand, Awakening in the other, looking out over the clouds, crying happy tears that I have equal dignity in the eyes of the law to marry – as do millions of gay and lesbian Americans – thanks to decades of lobbying, activism and struggle. Crying because we have equal worth just the way we are. Love is love.

Steven Vaughan is senior lecturer in law, University of Birmingham.

Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America
By Nathaniel Frank
Harvard University Press, 456pp, £27.95
ISBN 9780674737228
Published 27 April 2017

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Print headline: Equal worth, just the way we are

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