Vol. 29 No. 8 (September 2019) pp. 91-93

AWAKENING: HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS BROUGHT MARRIAGE EQUALITY TO AMERICA, by Nathaniel Frank. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Edward F. Kammerer, Jr., Department of Political Science, Idaho State University. Email:

Nathaniel Frank’s AWAKENING: HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS BROUGHT MARRIAGE EQUALITY TO AMERICA provides a through, detailed account of how same-sex marriage went from a fringe idea laughed out of the Supreme Court in the 1970s to the law of the land, supported by a majority of the American public, in less than 50 years. The book is largely organized chronologically, moving through early gay and lesbian activism in the 1950s to early same-sex marriage litigation in the states to the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, OBERGEFELL V. HODGES in 2015. Frank concludes the work with post-OBERGEFELL actions around implementation and briefly touches on future issues regarding recognition and non-discrimination laws.

The chronological organization supports the author’s goal of demonstrating the country’s gradual awakening to the importance of same-sex marriage and the incremental process by which it was achieved. Throughout the book, Frank provides significant detail into the legal and political strategies used to argue for, and eventually win, marriage equality. This detail is the book’s clear strength. The path to marriage equality was not straightforward or singular and Frank highlights many of the internal debates over goals and strategies. The detail that Frank provides contributes to the literature on cause lawyering, impact litigation, and social movements.

In Chapter One, Frank provides an interesting jumping off point for the debate on marriage equality by framing it as a movement goal. He discusses two articles published in ONE, an early gay magazine, that addressed the topic of marriage for gay men. Frank first describes an article from 1963 in which the author makes the case that marriage is preferable to singlehood, and that marriage is a path toward self-respect for gay men. He juxtaposes this with an earlier article, from 1953, whose author was horrified that acceptance of gays and lesbians in society would lead to the kind of confining respectability that marriage entails. Frank starts with these articles to show that the idea of same-sex marriage is not as recent as many might assume, but also to show the divisions within the LGBTQ community with respect to marriage and its importance. He continually makes reference to this division as he recounts the history of marriage equality. The following chapters discuss early efforts at relationship recognition, starting with the first push for marriage equality itself in the 1970s. While the marriage equality movement did not take root, other forms of relationship recognition did at this early stage. Domestic partnerships and other local laws provided some protection for same-sex couples in limited circumstances. More importantly, though, Frank notes how these local changes became the foundation on which marriage would later be built. He discusses the impact of AIDS, sodomy law repeal efforts, and gay and lesbian parenting.

Several chapters in the book are dedicated to key junctures in the marriage equality movement. The lawsuits in Hawaii and Massachusetts each receive a chapter, as do movement setbacks like the Defense of Marriage Act and the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Later chapters address the incremental state-by-state approach the movement adopted, and then the federal lawsuits that finally brought same-sex marriage to the entire country. These sections are rich in detail, but cover information that will likely be familiar to anyone who has previously studied the issue. But even those who are more familiar with the movement may learn new information about strategy debates and the behind-the-scenes discussions of movement actors. Those [*92] unfamiliar with these moments in LGBTQ activism will find these chapters particularly helpful in understanding the evolution of marriage equality and the context in which that evolution occurred.

Frank also outlines the formation of what would become the movement infrastructure, particularly organizations like Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and the Task Force. The interactions among these groups, and how the movement leaders interact with non-movement actors, are an important part of the book and one of its most significant contributions to the literature. Frank’s detailed account shows how the movement’s various groups fit together, how their goals shifted over time, and how factors beyond the movement’s control shaped the legal and policy agenda. In doing so, he also demonstrates how movements can lose control of the agenda. This happened in the 1990s, when actors disconnected from the larger LGBTQ rights movement filed suit in Hawaii seeking same-sex marriage. It happened again after Proposition 8, when Ted Olson and David Boies teamed up to challenge the law in federal court, ignoring the objections of the movement’s lawyers.

The discussions of movement strategy, both active and reactive, are important and incredibly detailed. This is perhaps the work’s greatest strength. By outlining the key debates within the movement on goals, timing, and strategy, Frank helps expand our understanding of the ways that the LGBTQ movement functioned collectively and, occasionally, at odds with itself. He also shows that the general gay and lesbian public could, by pressing claims that the movement deemed unwise, force the movement’s hand on certain issues. He also details how many felt that the organized movement was failing. By exploring the relationship between formal movement institutions and the communities those institutions are designed to serve, Frank adds to the literature on social movements and advocacy.

An additional area where Frank’s work shines is in how he humanizes the movement’s key actors. Too often, legal and policy change is discussed in abstract terms. Frank provides a welcome alternative to that by providing detail about the lawyers, politicians, activists, and everyday Americans who were working toward making marriage equality a reality in the United States. He describes both well-known leaders in the movement, like Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto, and also those folks who were less prominent but still instrumental in advancing the cause of marriage equality. He talks, in detail, about the everyday gay and lesbian couples who sought the right to marry and what prompted them to seek to challenge their states’ bans on marriage. He also includes the contributions of several conservative actors like Ken Mehlman—George W. Bush’s reelection campaign chairman and later head of the RNC—whose role in pushing for marriage equality may be less commonly known. By providing the human side of legal and policy change, Frank makes the importance of marriage equality all the more real.
Frank’s depictions of individual actors and the movement as a whole are, however, sometimes contradictory. For example, at one point he describes Obama has having shown “true leadership” in building public support for same-sex marriage once he himself had fully evolved on the issue (p. 284). This praise comes after discussing Obama’s slow evolution to support marriage equality, which, Frank notes, only occurred after Vice President Biden came out for marriage equality before Obama himself was ready to do so. Even after coming out in support of same-sex marriage, Frank notes that Obama preferred to frame the issue in states’ rights terms. He supported the marriage equality personally, but wanted the issue decided state by state. To call this “true leadership” is problematic at best.

In another example, Frank praises the movement’s strategy and its “tenacious and persistent” leaders. He says that, ultimately, their strategy prevailed with “what can only be described as lightning speed” (p. 337). This praise, however, comes immediately after he acknowledges that significant gains in the movement for marriage equality came at key moments when the movement cautioned against [*93] such action. He writes, “the astounding speed of ultimate victory is a testament to the virtue of taking such risks” (p. 337). The very risks the movement’s leaders counseled against taking are the ones that led to the astounding speed of success. He rightly acknowledges that the fight for marriage equality did not play out as the movement planned, but he seems to gloss over the fact that significant progress only occurred when the movement’s leaders and plans were ignored. While the incremental strategy was important, Frank would do well to remember his own words from his prologue: “the story of winning marriage equality is a story of the unintended consequences that so often characterize how history unfolds” (p. 6).

The central theme of the book, as evident from the title, is that marriage equality was not an inevitable goal of the LGBTQ movement. It was something that people, both LGBTQ and straight alike, awoke to over time. This awakening allowed gays and lesbians to see their relationships as equal in value and dignity to heterosexual relationships, and to then convey that dignity to the broader society. It was only after awakening to the potential for equal relationship recognition and value that marriage equality became first a goal and then a reality. Throughout the book, Frank focuses on marriage equality as the path to dignity. By equating marriage and dignity, however, he discounts other types of relationships and the belief that dignity should be inherent in the individual, regardless of the approval of the state or society.

This framing weakens the overall impact of the book. By portraying marriage equality as an enlightened view that people came to over time, after waking from their previous state of slumber Frank discounts the significant critiques of marriage as an institution generally and same-sex marriage as a movement priority specifically. He makes reference, in passing, to these critiques but fails to truly engage with them in any meaningful way. In one example, he discusses an op-ed by Katherine Franke, a law professor and liberationist critic of marriage. He writes, “Franke’s op-ed reflected the passionate liberationism of an older generation of lesbian and gay activists who insisted on full citizenship and equal respect without the need to conform. But it was swimming against the tide of thought occurring in homes across the country, including the White House” (p. 267). He acknowledges the existence of the critique, but dismisses it simply as outdated without substantively engaging with it. Earlier in the book, he writes, “Gay marriage promised to finally dislodge the notion that marriage, sexuality, and pleasure must be pegged to—indeed, justified by—procreation. What could be more radical than that?” (p. 43). While his initial point is well-taken, and same-sex marriage could, in fact, alter our understanding of marriage itself, many liberationist thinkers could come up with far more radical ideas than simply joining the institution of marriage. Frank’s insistence on assimilation as the ultimate mark of success is clearly evident throughout the book. And, ultimately, assimilationist-style arguments won the day. The book would, however, be a much stronger work if Frank had better engaged with the liberationist critiques of that assimilationist view.

Frank’s work provides a very detailed account of the movement for marriage equality and the role that lawyers and other activists played in it. While he relies too heavily on an assimilationist view of marriage equality, AWAKENING is an important contribution to the literature around same-sex marriage, LGBTQ politics, and social movement lawyering.

© Copyright 2019 by author, Edward F. Kammerer, Jr.