Reviewed by Daniel R. Pinello, Department of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Email: dpinello [at] jjay.cuny.edu
Michael J. Klarman is the Great Synthesizer. A gifted and tenacious historian, he vacuums up terabytes of data from untold primary and secondary sources and then adeptly weaves the assembled knowledge into an irresistible narrative tapestry. Best known for the Bancroft-Prize-winning From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: the Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, Klarman has turned his ample talents for collecting and analyzing information toward chronicling the modern American gay rights movement in From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage. The result is wondrous.
Indeed, the book overwhelms its own ambitious subtitle since the volume is about much more than courts, backlash, and same-sex marriage, although those topics are fully addressed. The work spans the legal and political history of how the United States treated its lesbian and gay citizens between the end of World War II and the first few months of 2012. The more narrowly tailored investigation about judicial action and its aftermath that Klarman’s subtitle intimates would likely begin in the early 1990s, when same-sex marriage emerged as a salient national policy issue as a result of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s Baehr v. Lewin decision of 1993, the first court-of-last-resort ruling to suggest a constitutionally based right of gay and lesbian couples to wed. Yet more than 20 percent of the text of From the Closet to the Altar discusses what happened in the four preceding decades.
Of course, such an introduction is indispensable to an overarching theme of Klarman’s analysis: that the improvements in public opinion on gay rights which undergirded both judicial and political victories in the American struggle for same-sex marriage were themselves entirely dependent upon the ability and willingness of gay people to come out of the closet en masse. As abundantly demonstrated in the first chapter, however, the near total legal and social oppression of lesbians and gay men in the 1950s and ’60s guaranteed an absolute dearth of incentives for homosexuals to reveal themselves. The mid-20th-century closet door wasn’t just shut. It was hermetically sealed.
Thus, an essential foundation for the road to marriage equality was America’s transition from a country whose citizens in 1950 knew no self-acknowledged gay men or lesbians to a nation where, by 2000, 75 percent of polling respondents reported having friends, relatives, or co-workers who told them that they were [*331] gay (p.197). This stunning social transformation was thoroughly explored in path-breaking studies such as John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: the Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, and on whose contributions Klarman heavily relies. In addition, the AIDS epidemic that ravaged gay men in the 1980s further forced open the closet door at a time when “SILENCE = DEATH,” the shibboleth of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP), was no exaggeration. From the Closet to the Altar adds to the analysis of how and why an identifiable American gay community developed the important observation that litigation seeking legal recognition of same-sex relationships fueled a self-reinforcing coming-out dynamic. Baehr and Vermont’s Baker v. State in 1999 and Massachusetts’ Goodridge v. Department of Public Health in 2003 substantially increased the prominence of gay people and their relationships in the national political debate, which in turn encouraged more lesbians and gay men to declare themselves as such. The love that dared not speak its name in the 1950s had infused the vernacular by the 21st century, and courts fundamentally facilitated that change.
The heart of From the Closet to the Altar is Klarman’s meticulous chronicle of the unfolding of the gay rights movement and America’s response to it over more than six decades. His story is painstakingly researched and beautifully told, covering subjects ranging from orange-juice-industry spokeswoman Anita Bryant’s 1977 Dade County, Florida, campaign that sought to Save Our Children [from those corrupting and predatory homosexuals] to openly gay and lesbian icons like Ellen DeGeneres, Barney Frank, and Rachel Maddow.
Having lived through most, and actively participated in much, of this history, I was surprised to find details that were new even to me, all as a result of Klarman’s profitable mining of the archives of interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign. For instance, I learned that “[a]s late as 1963, when the ACLU prepared a list of nine items to include on its future agenda, homosexuality still did not rate as ‘a pressing problem in civil liberties terms’” (p.6), and that the same organization formally endorsed marriage equality in 1986 (p.20).
The book also has a treasure trove of statistics. Nearly every page contains some percentage of what America or one of its subdivisions thought about this or that aspect of the gay rights evolution. In fact, one of the very few ways in which the volume could have been improved would have been through the inclusion of a set of charts graphing all of these valuable data over time. An index of such diagrams would have been a handy reference. In any event, anyone needing a statistic about America’s gay rights story need look no further than From the Closet to the Altar.
The last numbered chapter is titled “Looking to the Future: The Inevitability of Gay Marriage” and makes a compelling case that “eventually [the U.S. Supreme Court] is almost certain to rule in favor of gay marriage” (p.207), with the rapidly improving public-opinion climate (especially among younger adults) as Exhibit A in [*332] Klarman’s evidence folder. Nonetheless, that such a dogged scholar should have to comb the historical record so thoroughly in 2012 to marshal proof for an eventuality ‒ and still be unprepared to commit to a time certain for his prediction ‒ truly demeans and embarrasses the United States in light of the fact that, as of July 2013, 15 other countries (Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay) have already legalized gay marriage. How many more nations will be added to the list “eventually”? Indeed, the true inevitability here may well be that America will bring up the rear among industrialized democracies. Klarman is too modest ‒ or too much of a gentleman ‒ to announce this inescapable and depressing conclusion.
Now to a few cavils. Near the end of the book, Klarman explores at length the familiar debate between courts as either facilitators of social change or fomenters of political backlash, and concludes that “[o]n balance, litigation has probably advanced the cause of gay marriage more than it has retarded it” (p.218). No disagreement there, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent invalidation of Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in United States v. Windsor. Yet Klarman’s next sentence is “But such litigation has also probably impeded the realization of other objectives of the gay rights movement [like banning workplace discrimination and penalizing hate crimes], and it has had significant collateral effects on politics.” The grounds for at least the first half of that assertion are far more speculative.
For example, he states that “[w]ere it not for the Baehr litigation, DOMA probably would not exist” (p.212). That’s a remarkable statement in light of the rest of his astute political examination, because the congressional passage of DOMA was only a question of when, not if. Surely there’s no doubt that the Hawaii litigation triggered a national backlash. But any such notable first step by a state judiciary (or legislature), whether in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, or another place, would have prompted the same political response in the nation’s capitol. Baehr itself was not a necessary condition for DOMA.
More importantly, Klarman presumes that, without the same-sex-marriage litigation, American public opinion on gay rights issues would have continued to advance at the same breath-taking rates since the 1990s, noting, for instance, that “[b]efore 2009, the annual rate of increase in support for gay marriage was about 1.5 percentage points, but since then it has been closer to 4 percentage points” (pp.196-97). In light of Klarman’s own convincing argument that the many marriage cases over two decades moved lesbians and gay men to come out of the closet in droves, he cannot sustain a concomitant claim that public opinion in support of, say, the prohibition of sexual-orientation discrimination would have necessarily accrued at the same rate, because the increased visibility of gay people was an essential ingredient for the public support of all their rights.
With regard to assessing judicial impact, Klarman invites consideration of experiences elsewhere: “In other countries, where courts typically play a [*333] less central role on issues of social reform, gay rights progress has occurred more incrementally through legislatures and has generated less political backlash” (p.167). But more nuanced attention to cross-national comparisons provides a different understanding than what From the Closet to the Altar offers. For example, Miriam Smith proved in her masterful Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada how the porous American political system facilitates grass-roots retrenchments in civil rights. A system of federalism that places at the subnational level the most important governmental powers touching minority rights, coupled with democratic checks such as referenda and citizen initiatives to amend subnational constitutions, necessarily produce the most opportunities for the political backlash that Klarman abhors. Whereas, in a country like Canada, where governmental power is concentrated at the national level in a Westminster parliamentary system among numerous competitive national political parties, the occasions for the suppression of minority rights are vastly reduced. Thus, as Smith highlighted, Canada’s parliament decriminalized consensual sodomy nationwide as long ago as 1969, thereby removing the criminal stigma surrounding gay Canadians that might later have retarded their civil rights advances. Yet it took until the 2003 ruling by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas to invalidate all sodomy laws here. And the 34-year lag between the two actions is not unparalleled. The Canadian parliament in 2005 legalized marriage for all same-sex couples there, whereas only about one-third of gay and lesbian pairs in the United States may legally wed eight years later, and with nationwide marriage equality nowhere reliably in sight. As Smith clearly demonstrated, these dissimilar gay rights outcomes are not attributable at all to cultural or social differences between the two countries. Rather, political structure is the key explanatory variable. Accordingly, it’s no wonder gay people in the United States turned to courts for civil rights remedies. Legal tribunals provided them the only meaningful hope for enduring reform. And the inevitable backlash that is guaranteed by America’s institutional organization should not have surprised ‒ or unduly alarmed ‒ any knowledgeable observer.
Yet these quibbles should not blur the magnificent historical achievement of From the Closet to the Altar. Klarman is an historian after all, not a social scientist systematically testing hypotheses. Instead, his book comprehensively synthesizes the American gay rights narrative. Who could ask for more.
D’Emilio, John. 1983. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority In The United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Baehr v. Lewin 74 Haw. 645 (1993).
Baker v. State 170 Vt. 194 (1999).
Goodridge v. Department of Public Health 440 Mass. 309 (2003).
Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
United States v. Windsor 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
Copyright 2013 by the Author, Daniel R. Pinello.