Vol. 25 No. 4 (April 2015) pp. 50-55
WINNING MARRIAGE: THE INSIDE STORY OF HOW SAME-SEX COUPLES TOOK ON THE POLITICIANS AND PUNDITS—AND WON by Marc Solomon. Lebanon, NH: ForEdge. 2014. 360pp. Hardcover ISBN: 9781611684018.
Reviewed by Joseph Fischel, Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program, Yale University. Email: email@example.com.
“‘Well, what’s Stonewall?’ Obama asked.” (p. 270)
The then candidate for the U.S. Senate posed this question to an aide in 2004, nearly ten years before he would assuredly tell the nation, in his second Presidential Inauguration speech, that equality is the “star that guides us … through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” a series of synecdoches placing gay rights on moral par with women’s rights and civil rights (pp. 313-314).
Marc Solomon’s WINNING MARRIAGE: THE INSIDE STORY OF HOW SAME-SEX COUPLES TOOK ON THE POLITICIANS AND PUNDITS—AND WON has little to do with the Stonewall Riots, and yet everything to do with the country’s about-face on same-sex marriage, a transformation in policy and public opinion so crisply captured by Obama’s “evolving” speech acts (pp. 280-300). The legislative, litigation, and ballot battles for marriage equality chronicled in WINNING MARRIAGE occur roughly between state senator Obama’s naïve question and President Obama’s defiant appeal for gay recognition. Solomon, former executive director of MassEquality, the foremost Massachusetts LGBT rights organization, and current national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, reports on the fight for marriage equality from the trenches: rural lesbians’ living rooms, state senate backrooms, steps of city halls, street protests. Adorably wonky and unexpectedly enthralling, WINNING MARRIAGE tells a tale of the same-sex marriage struggle too often drowned out by dominant narratives of big gay money, go-it-alone visionary attorneys, and salvation from enlightened judges. Solomon’s political memoir reminds us of the politics of marriage equality: with riveting prose, he relays the deal-making, pavement-pounding, and heart-changing all social movements must undertake for success. Although WINNING MARRIAGE was published before marriage was finally, federally “won” (OBERGEFELL V. HODGES 2015), the book is prescient, at once a social history of marriage equality and a blueprint for future (LGBT or not) justice organizing.
WINNING MARRIAGE is divided into five substantive parts. “Massachusetts” and “New York,” the first two, are the lengthiest and best sections of the book, detailing Solomon’s and his team of staffers, volunteers and lobbyists’ multi-pronged campaigns to legislatively secure marriage equality in the eponymous states. In part three, “Winning at the Ballot,” readers travel with Solomon and Freedom to Marry across four 2012 state ballot initiatives regarding marriage for same-sex couples. Marriage equality advocates score victories across the board, revitalizing the movement after its [*50] crushing 2008 defeat on Proposition 8 in California, the infamous ballot proposition which re-redefined marriage to exclude same-sex couples. The fourth part, “A Presidential Journey” tracks President Obama’s shifting opinion on and eventual championing of marriage equality, and evidences how critical (and steadfast) Solomon and other activists were in changing the avowed position of Obama and other top political leaders. The final and briefest part of the book, “Courting Justice,” contextualizes UNITED STATES V. WINDSOR and HOLLINGSWORTH V. PERRY, two 2013 landmark Supreme Court rulings for marriage equality (although OBERGEFELL and Obergefell may now be metonymies for the movement), within the panoply of ongoing public relations strategies, fundraising efforts, lower court victories, and grassroots organizing that culturally legitimated same-sex marriage as not merely justiciable ((cf. BAKER V. NELSON 1972) (“The appeal is dismissed for want of a federal question”)), but as a judicial no-brainer ((e.g., BASKIN V. BOGAN 2014) (“The discrimination against same-sex couples is irrational…”)).
In “Massachusetts,” Solomon journeys back to the 2003 “decision heard ‘round the world” (p.3), GOODRIDGE V. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH, a founding marriage equality victory with nasty fallout. The backlash to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, which held that the state Constitution guaranteed the right to marry for same-sex couples, was swift and fierce. At the state level, the Catholic Church and then-Governor Mitt Romney spearheaded the crusade to restrict marriage to one woman and one man by constitutional amendment. States across the nation passed such amendments, and marriage became an invidious wedge issue in the 2004 presidential race, perhaps accelerating President Bush’s reelection (but see Hillygus and Shields 2005).
Solomon concentrates on his and MassEquality’s determination to immunize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, under attack for nearly four years after GOODRIDGE. This protection demands, inter alia, convincing legislators, mostly socially conservative state Democrats, to change their minds and flip their votes. This is no easy task, requiring mass mobilization and politicization of constituents, as well as credible guarantees to incumbents that supporting the cause will not kill their political careers. The anecdotes in “Massachusetts” are deeply moving. A middle-aged lesbian couple, heretofore uninterested in politics, befriends their “pro-life, pro-gun Democrat” state representative, who finally comes around to support them (p. 105). In a tender (and indeed, gayest) tale, Solomon asks the gay author of WICKED to reach out to an unsympathetic freshman state representative, who nonetheless happens to be “a passionate fan of Broadway musicals” (p. 118). The author, punning the musical adaptation of his book, emails the representative: “I hope we can defy gravity on this one!” (p. 120).
Solomon and MassEquality play offense too, going after Democratic hostiles in statewide primaries. In a David and Goliath saga missing just the slingshot, Solomon and his team throw their support behind an unlikely 25-year-old gay candidate who, amidst cruel bullying [*51] and threats, upsets a stalwart and resolutely homophobic incumbent (pp. 58-77). What emerges from “Massachusetts” is a movement that is formidable and fierce.
If securing marriage equality in Massachusetts is largely the story of convincing reluctant Democrats, the New York battle is the unlikelier story of persuading Republicans. In “New York,” we see Solomon and statewide LGBT organizations methodically assemble an alliance of pro-equality lawmakers in the wake of a humiliating 2009 state senate loss. As in Massachusetts, advocacy groups organize, fundraise and mobilize to knock out anti-equality incumbents with pro-equality freshmen. In New York, marriage equality is buoyed by a relentless ally in Andrew Cuomo, who promises and delivers requisite bullying from his gubernatorial pulpit. Solomon’s nail-biting play-by-play of the 2011 New York Senate vote on marriage equality reads like a Frank Underwood master scheme, a meticulously planned offensive nearly derailed by unpredictable bonkers. In the eleventh hour, Democratic state senators scheme to wriggle out of the vote, hoping to reap another round of gay donor money for the next election cycle. One even fakes a court appearance for an indictment (p. 208). Spurred by Solomon and other advocates, Governor Cuomo and his advisers indecorously herd lawmakers to the Senate floor, and marriage equality takes the win.
The remaining three parts of the book are fascinating (and particularly helpful, one would imagine, for nascent movement organizers and operatives), but not quite as engrossing as the thriller-paced first two, perhaps because Solomon is not as deeply embedded (although he is equally invested) in these arenas. In “Winning at the Ballot,” we witness the political education of a social movement, as Solomon and Freedom to Marry help fuel successful marriage equality ballot initiatives in Maine, Washington and Maryland, and help quash a “traditional marriage” amendment in Minnesota. Reeling from the Prop 8 fiasco, advocates shift messaging frames in their media outreach, emphasizing the “love and commitment” of same-sex couples instead of their “constitutional rights” against discrimination (p. 231). The maneuver appears to work. Most compellingly narrated is the ballot fight in Maine, led by Solomon’s former employees, Matt McTighe and Amy Mello. In a stirring episode, Mello has her (Christian) staff members go around in a circle saying “Jesus,” to help them speak from, rather than against, their faith (p. 242). It is a beautiful moment, one sadly resonant today as media coverage and activism around statewide religious freedom acts reductively pit faith against gayness.
In “Winning at the Ballot,” readers also encounter the critical force of the gay and gay-friendly dollar behind media blitzes, local outreach, and statewide lobbying, as Solomon recounts often unexpected and always whopping donations to the cause. That movements take money should surprise no one, but it does raise the specter of counter-majoritarianism, a popular and not unreasonable trope among opponents of marriage equality (but again, see BASKIN: “Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law”). In any case, the [*52] significant sums of donor money never detract from the exhausting, exhaustive campaigns waged by marriage equality volunteers—many of whom put their careers and education on hold for years (p. 260)—to win the ballot measures.
“A Presidential Journey” documents the coordinated, concerted labors of LGBT bloggers, attorneys and political leaders to nudge a resistant President Obama toward a publicly proclaimed pro-marriage stance. Reaching this goal entails confrontational White House meetings, careful lobbying of Cabinet members, and some forced-hand political maneuvers. Among these sticks was Solomon’s initiative to include a “freedom to marry plank in the platform ratified at the Democratic National Convention” (p. 295). Along this journey, the Obama Administration and the Department of Justice, largely at the urging of prominent marriage equality leader Evan Wolfson, announced that sexual orientation ought to receive “heightened scrutiny” judicial review, and that under such a standard the DOJ would no longer enforce the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Courting Justice” is a bird’s-eye view of HOLLINGSWORTH V. PERRY (2013) and UNITED STATES V. WINDSOR (2013), game-changing judicial wins for marriage equality. PERRY held that the proponents of Prop 8 did not have standing as a legal party in the case, thus authorizing the resumption of same-sex marriages in California. WINDSOR struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, thus requiring the federal government to recognize state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. WINDSOR has been central to the landslide of lower court marriage equality victories from 2013 onward. In this final part, Solomon describes the work he, Wolfson, and scores of activists and litigators undertook to cultivate a politically bipartisan climate most likely to yield favorable rulings from the Justices. This story importantly reminds us that democratic activism is elemental to, and not severable from, judicial recognition, Chief Justice Roberts’ latest remonstrations notwithstanding (OBERGEFELL, pp. 25-27, Roberts, C.J, dissenting).
While WINDSOR and PERRY were a triumph for the mainstream gay rights movement, other Court rulings of that session were devastating setbacks for progressive, antiracist causes, namely SHELBY COUNTY V. HOLDER (2013), ADOPTIVE COUPLE V. BABY GIRL (2013), and FISHER V. UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS (2013). Solomon might have referenced those decisions to gesture toward coalitional activism, or more strategically, to preempt criticisms of a deracinated, single-axis, assimilationist gay politic.
WINNING MARRIAGE is not an academic text, but it would provide an excellent case study in undergraduate classes on social movements, communication and framing, political participation, political psychology, U.S. LGBT history, and perhaps even for courses on democratic theory. It might be a worthy foil, too, for the invariable “marriage week” in a queer theory or LGBT studies class. Staged against, say, Conrad (2014), Duggan (2003), Eng (2010), or Warner (1999), it would yield a much more challenging, ultimately more generative debate than the usual cast of tendentious gay marriage [*53] proponents (e.g., Rauch 2004; Sullivan 2003) so easily bested by queer critics. WINNING MARRIAGE would also couple fruitfully with Deva Woodly’s THE POLITICS OF COMMON SENSE (2015), a magisterial comparative analysis of the policy achievements and political messaging of the living wage and marriage equality campaigns in the United States. As Woodly’s data-rich, theory-rich study covers the marriage equality campaign from 1994-2004, and as Solomon’s political memoir recounts battles from 2004-2014, the books together capture a two-decade panoramic of this dynamic movement from rather different but productively contiguous perspectives.
This reviewer (whom, along with his foreign-born same-sex spouse, has benefitted enormously from the marriage equality successes—and most calculably from Solomon’s and his team’s GOODRIDGE-fort-holding activism in Massachusetts) remains skeptical of the political, moral, and, especially, financial primacy marriage assumed in the contemporary gay rights movement. I mourn, perhaps unadvisedly, the opportunity costs: might we have mobilized for statutory recognition of a wider variety of kinship and intimacy arrangements beyond the exogamous, amatory, adult couple form (for a cogently argued liberal defense of such a position, see March 2010; 2011; Governor Deval Patrick’s assertion, the first sentence of the Forward to WINNING MARRIAGE, that “Today in Massachusetts, you can marry whomever you love,” is flatly untrue)? Indeed, for a book facially about political relations and conjugal ones, surprising and touching is its brief for friendship—Solomon recounts how his late best friend, soul mate, and most critical interlocutor, Alex, provided unparalleled emotional and intellectual nourishment (pp. 150-151; for an argument that the state recognize friendships and other care relationships in its allocation of rights, benefits, and responsibilities, see, e.g., Brake 2010). Or might marriage myopia have diverted greater resources and public attention from pressing queer injustices, like trans incarceration, stubborn HIV incidence, or woefully impoverished publicly funded sexual education programs? And yet, such skepticism is all the more reason to read this terrific contribution, a veritable playbook for successful social and political transformation. As Solomon overtures in the opening pages of WINNING MARRIAGE: “My fervent hope for this book is that it is helpful to those who seek to build and grow movements for social change in America and around the world” (p. xv). Here’s hoping.
Brake, Elizabeth. 2010. “Minimal Marriage: What Political Liberalism Implies for Marriage Law.” ETHICS 120: 302-337.
Conrad, Ryan (ed.). 2014. AGAINST EQUALITY: QUEER REVOLUTION, NOT MERE INCLUSION. Oakland: AK Press.
Duggan, Lisa. 2003. THE TWILIGHT OF EQUALITY? NEOLOLIBERALISM, CULTURAL POLITICS, AND THE ATTACK ON DEMOCRACY. Boston: Beacon Press.
Eng, David. 2010. THE FEELING OF KINSHIP: QUEER LIBERALISM AND [*54] THE RACIALIZATION OF INTIMACY. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hillygus, D. Sunshine and Todd G. Shields. 2005. “Moral Issues and Voter Decision Making in the 2004 Presidential Election.” POLITICAL SCIENCE AND POLITICS 2: 201-209.
March, Andrew F. 2010. “What Lies Beyond Same-Sex Marriage? Marriage, Reproductive Freedom and Future Persons in Liberal Public Justification.” JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHILOSOPHY 27: 39-58.
March, Andrew F. 2011. “Is There a Right to Polygamy? Marriage, Equality and Subsidizing Families in Liberal Public Justification.” JOURNAL OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY 8: 246-272.
Rauch, Jonathan. 2004. GAY MARRIAGE: WHY IT IS GOOD FOR GAYS, GOOD FOR STRAIGHTS, AND GOOD FOR AMERICA. New York: Times Books.
Sullivan, Andrew. 2003. “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” TIME. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,460232,00.html.
Warner, Michael. 1999. THE TROUBLE WITH NORMAL: SEX, POLITICS, AND THE ETHICS OF QUEER LIFE. New York: Free Press.
Woodly, Deva R. 2015. THE POLITICS OF COMMON SENSE: HOW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS USE PUBLIC DISCOURSE TO CHANGE POLITICS AND WIN ACCEPTANCE. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ADOPTIVE COUPLE V. BABY GIRL, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
BAKER V. NELSON, 409 U.S. 810 (1972).
BASKIN V. BOGAN, 766 F.3d 648 (2014).
FISHER V. UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
GOODRIDGE V. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEATH, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003).
HOLLINGSWORTH V. PERRY, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
OBERGEFELL V. HODGES, 576 U.S. ___ (2015).
SHELBY COUNTY V. HOLDER, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
UNITED STATES V. WINDSOR, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
© Copyright 2015 by the author, Joseph Fischel.