Nathaniel Frank trained as a historian, but found his calling covering what he calls "first drafts" of recent events.
"In graduate school we used to make fun of people who were doing recent history and call them sociologists. It didn't seem like history could ripen into a really substantive and useful interpretation until some number of years had gone by," Frank explained. "I no longer think that way, because I'm very happily doing contemporary history. It's sort of my activism."
Marriage equality, the subject of Frank's recent book, Awakening, only became federal law in 2015. Frank, however, began chronicling the fight in 2009, when the New York state legislature considered legalizing same sex marriage. In 2014, after reading his work on Slate.com, Harvard University Press approached Frank to write what has become, in his words, "the first full scale history of the marriage equality movement."
The earliest calls for same-sex marriage are found in occasional articles in 1950s lesbian and gay publications. "It was natural for me to start at mid-century and show how the ideological and strategic differences really began very early within our movement," Frank said. But for decades, marriage remained inconceivable for many, even for the happily partnered Edie Windsor, who later became the face of the lawsuit that smashed DOMA to bits.
Starting around the 1980s, marriage became a fascinating legal cause for a generation of lawyers to advance. Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto, who worked in LGBTQ rights, were enraptured by the marriage equality fight, but even they were wary of attacking the issue fully, preferring to see legal groundwork laid in other areas first. Some gay lawyers even wondered if supporting marriage was selling out to straight ideals. Simultaneously, mainstream culture perceived growing LGBTQ visibility as a threat, throwing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA in the faces of the LGBTQ public.
By 2014, developments were occurring at breakneck pace. Every few months another state would legalize same-sex marriage, and lawsuits like Windsor's and Hollingsworth vs. Perry, which challenged California's Prop 8 amendment, were winding their way up the courts. "Things were coming so quickly, particularly the court cases, I remember reacting by saying to myself, 'don't necessarily follow this development too closely, you're going to come back to it,'" said Frank.
His narrative lay in the tension between lawyers who made marriage equality their Holy Grail but wanted to be strategic about their approach and outsider activists who were tired of waiting. "The nice part about history is that it has an obvious structure of its own," Frank said. "There were so many different thoughts and ideas at any given time about how to move forward, when to move forward, whether to move forward. I was trying to present them all and tie them together, but without necessarily pronouncing one strategy more correct than the other, except inasmuch as I developed an interpretation about what worked."
As he wrote, Frank found new appreciation for both the activists and the legal team. "I was always so impressed with the strategic prowess of the legal thinkers, and the legal organizations, which took a lot of flak for their decisions sometimes to decline to support a case or to urge people to hold off. Even when they had disagreements among themselves, which were frequent, they were having a highly respectful debate about strategic differences. They very rarely took it personally, and they very rarely, if ever, assumed bad faith."
But even unsanctioned efforts like the early 90s attempt to marry same-sex couples in Hawaii were crucial steps. Though it was a premature move, in retrospect Frank saw that Hawaii got the nation talking. "You often need outsider activists, who are not working in concert with a heavily vetted professional strategy, to put something on the map that otherwise wouldn't be there," Frank said. "One of the things the legal strategists encountered constantly was the recognition that they couldn't control the game entirely."
Overall, Frank views the lawyers' plan to secure marriage as "very strategic and very pragmatic." He cites some intangible aspects to the concept's success: queer people come from straight families, leading to a certain kind of visibility and possible acceptance, and the LGBT movement has rich financial backers with a vested interest in their own dignity. And marriage itself is quite traditional. It seems like no accident to Frank, who's written books on both, that fights for LGBT military service and same-sex marriage have ultimately been won.
"Even choosing those issues was an example of being pragmatic, and sounding conservative themes in order to achieve liberal ends," Frank explained. "Some people were reluctant to do that. I think those that were willing to be practical are among the ones who have had the biggest impact on improving people's lives."
As an example of this pragmatism, Frank referred to research that indicated "straight-acting" gay people and their straight family members were the movement representatives with the most effect on the "moveable middle", or those who could be persuaded to support marriage equality. "You can say that's not nice and that's not fair and that's upsetting and all of those things are true, but if the goal is to achieve equality for all people, then you may lose very little by using the messages and faces that the research is telling you works better," Frank said.
Having studied in the inner workings of the marriage equality movement, Frank feels it has lessons for the left: collaborate, and don't be afraid to engage with people you don't agree with. "There are times where it may feel like you're compromising your principles or objectives too much," said Frank. "If you're someone who believes that marriage is oppressive and patriarchal and you don't want to extend any effort into strengthening the institution, then you may not be willing to make compromises. There may be compromises that people are more willing to make once they think about the greater good. Changing hearts and minds takes time, and it takes pragmatic effort, and you can't necessarily do what you want to do overnight."
Ultimately, Frank said, a lot of marriage's detractors on the left found themselves swayed. "By the end of the story, they had occasions to cry at lesbian weddings; in many cases, gotten married themselves, gotten married for more nuts and bolts reasons and then maybe found that the ceremony was more emotional than they thought it would be," he said. The book's title, "Awakening", "speaks to that sense of arising awareness about the meaning of marriage and its connection to advancing the dignity of same-sex love."
Frank said he hopes that future historians will follow the state-by-state efforts for equality, and perhaps delve into the political pressures behind legislation. Though he interviewed around 50 people,
Edie Windsor was the highlight. "She was just divine," said Frank. "I'm absolutely not the first person to say that, and that's one the reasons why she became so inspiring and such a hero to so many people. In some cases plaintiffs in high profile cases are carried along by the developments of their case. In some cases for impact litigation they're recruited. Edie Windsor was someone who sought out representation for a lawsuit because she was very cognizant of having been wronged."
He recalled worries that a wealthy, singular plaintiff would make for a disastrous lawsuit, and the lawyer, Robbie Kaplan, was a corporate litigator who was only loosely affiliated with those working on marriage equality. "I thought it was fascinating to see that case evolve, and see the reactions," Frank said. "[Windsor] just proved all of those naysayers wrong and showed the power of a story. Talk about commitment and care and responsibility through sickness and health. There was just no way you hear about her story and meet her and not be moved, no matter who you were."
Windsor underwent her own revolution when it came to political activism. "She and Spyer basically passed by the embers of the Stonewall uprising on their way back from a swank trip to Italy, and said, 'what do I have in common with them?'," Frank said Windsor told him. "Years later, as she made her way into the movement, she realized, 'those queens changed my life.'"
And Frank still has an affinity for those earlier on in gay liberation. "They were going to change society and not let society change them," he said. "I understand why the idea of marriage was a threat to that vision they had almost a utopian vision of remaking the way that society would structure its relationships, but history often unfolds through unintended steps and with unintended consequences. And in one sense, marriage equality was one of them."