Nearly 10 years ago, on the heels of the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage in the state, gay-rights advocates faced a strategic decision. With the Legislature about to consider a constitutional amendment reining in the court’s decision, they could either push legislators to back civil unions as a compromise or face the full wrath of the opposition.
Marc Solomon, national campaign director for LGBT-rights group Freedom to Marry, called Los Angeles City Councilman (now mayor) Eric Garcetti to ask for advice. “Fight for love,” Garcetti said. Civil unions were about legal status, about “rights”; marriage was about love.
Like many of the plot points in Solomon’s recently released, breakthrough account of the struggle for marriage equality, “Winning Marriage,” the decision seems at once fateful and banal in retrospect. With the tally of states recognizing same-sex marriage at 33 and the Supreme Court set to weigh in in the spring, gay marriage has gone from politically risky to morally obvious, from being a liability for Democrats to a pall on Republicans. A solid majority of Americans now support the freedom to marry.
As the gay-marriage saga hurtles toward its conclusion, the outcome may seem — there’s that word — “inevitable.” But “Winning Marriage” harkens back to the days when the movement had few friends. In the year following the Massachusetts court decision, 13 states amended their constitutions to prevent a repeat. The public opposed gay marriage, as did U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and — going back on a 1996 pledge to support such unions — Barack Obama. Even LGBT-rights supporters questioned whether the movement should focus on marriage, viewed by some as a patriarchal vestige of less-enlightened times.
How did we get from there to here?
In fact, it involved making the case for rights as much as love, in the court of law and the court of public opinion. It took big money from wealthy gay donors; an expansive lobbying and public-relations effort; and the visionary leadership of people like Evan Wolfson, the indefatigable “father of the marriage movement”; GLAD lawyer Mary Bonauto, its legal architect in New England; and expert politicos like the Human Rights Campaign’s Marty Rouse.
Solomon dedicates more than half of his book’s pages to the gritty political battles for gay marriage in Massachusetts and New York, which is fitting given his focus on the social history. With conservatives descending on Massachusetts like locusts to try to reverse the state Supreme Court’s decision, LGBT groups had to stave off attempts to unseat pro-marriage legislators and work to change the minds of lawmakers who were either opposed to marriage equality or undecided. In New York, winning marriage involved getting the Republican-led Senate to allow a vote in the first place — two years after Democrats in the chamber, then a majority, voted it down.
“Winning Marriage” brings readers into the living rooms where gay and lesbian couples changed their legislators’ minds, the conference rooms where negotiations took place and strategy was settled on, the streets where supporters and opponents of marriage equality engaged in raw democracy. Far from inevitable, at this level the marriage battle looks like quite a slog, which is not to say the tale is tedious; one of Solomon’s achievements — and a credit to his skills as a narrator and writer — is his ability to sustain the dramatic tension while conveying the intricacies of the marriage showdown in rich detail. We all know how this story ends, and yet waiting for the roll-call results in Albany, one is still left biting one’s nails.
This feat also hints at the book’s implicit, overarching argument: Social change is messy, halting and a lot of work.
Solomon names names. He criticizes President Obama’s slow “evolution” on gay marriage, which was widely understood to be a purely political stance; the president did, of course, come around to supporting marriage equality just before the 2012 election. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is portrayed as an unflagging champion of gay marriage — willing to expend political capital and dedicate staff and resources to the cause. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney is a “stone-cold” and “emotionless” foe. In one jarring passage, Romney is confronted by Julie Goodridge, one of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts marriage case. “What would you suggest I say to my eight-year-old daughter about why her mommy and her ma can’t get married because you, the governor of her state, are going to block our marriage?”
“I don’t really care what you tell your adopted daughter,” Romney responded (Goodridge is in fact her daughter’s birth mother). “Why don’t you just tell her what you’ve been telling her for the last eight years?”
Most people are not as hard-hearted: Faced with gay couples and their children in countless meeting arranged by organizers, voters and legislators alike changed their minds. Each win served as an answer to the opposition. The sky did not fall in Massachusetts as social conservatives warned, and in 2011 New York defeated the talking point that gay marriage had only been imposed by the courts. The final retort would be winning at the ballot box, a goal gay-marriage advocates achieved just four years after a humiliating defeat in liberal California, where a gay-marriage ban had passed by a comfortable margin in 2008.
On Election Day 2012, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington voted to extend marriage rights to gay couples; in Minnesota, voters defeated a proposed ban. This was a turning point. In the two years since, courts have colored in the marriage-equality map with astonishing speed, buoyed by last summer’s decision from the Supreme Court overturning Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed by President Clinton that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions performed in the states.
When it comes to civil-rights battles, there’s a reason it’s tempting to think the outcome is inevitable, and it’s not entirely about being trigger-happy in declaring victory, or lack of appreciation for the efforts of organizers and advocates. It stems from the belief in a just world; if the world is a good place, it follows that what we think is moral will be the end result, however long it may take.
Of course, that’s not how things really work. As Solomon shows, social change is the process of transforming the moral universe itself, one person at a time.