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Can Queer People Change Marriage from the Inside?

A new book, 'Awakening', explores the battle for gay marriage equality. Author Nathaniel Frank told us whether queers who warned that marriage meant assimilation were right.

Matt Baume

Matt Baume

Photo via Flickr user Elvert Barnes

With America having enjoyed nationwide marriage equality for about two years now, it's easy to forget just how hard we fought to achieve it.

But fight queers did, for decade after exasperating decade. That struggle is captured in Awakening, out today from Harvard University Press. Written by historian and commentator Nathaniel Frank, it's a fascinating account of the modern battle for equality—particularly given how many LGBTQ people were against gay marriage while that fight raged.

The concern in decades past was that marriage was a clunky, obsolete institution, burdened irreparably by misogyny and racism and the myth of monogamy. Queers, many felt, could do better.

As Frank recounts, it took years of debate and infighting—and a plague—for that attitude to change. AIDS made clear that marriage equality was as much a moral imperative as an institutional one. As queer populations were decimated by the virus, it became commonplace for people with HIV to find themselves with few legal protections, and for their partners be left with nothing after their death. That led to a more unified campaign for marriage equality, particularly in the early 90s, via a steady growth in lawsuits—and a backlash of discriminatory laws.

But now, as that battle recedes into the background of history, we finally have the opportunity to dust ourselves off, take a deep breath, look around, and ask: What's next?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: Why were so many activists resistant to marriage equality when the conversation started in the 1950s?
Nathaniel Frank: Back then, many who worked in gay politics and queer subcultures were enjoying levels of community they hadn't known before, which they found tremendously novel and exciting and utopian. They were creating networks of friendship and socializing and care-taking and sex that few had thought possible.

So the idea of joining marriage seemed anathema to that exciting project that so many people felt part of. They thought they could be the vanguard of a new way of organizing society and family that didn't focus on retreating into the private sphere in duos. And I think it was threatening and alienating to the vision that they shared together for many people.

Were they right? Now that we have marriage, could we lose those networks of queer support that built up over decades?
I think there's always loss in gains. This is a classic phenomenon for minorities of any kind. When you gain acceptance and greater measures of equality, you lose some aspects of your identity that were built around marginalization. You don't have to lose everything, but there is a loss.

Did the fight for marriage equality change how people think about marriage?
While I do think that the effort to win marriage equality questioned norms about marriage—for example, gender disparities—I don't think the LGBT activism around marriage changed the definition of marriage. It may have expanded people's expectations of what marriage was becoming.

Marriage has always been changing. Always, always, always. Once upon a time, it was exclusively for nobles and about tying kingdoms together and consolidating power. When it was finally extended to ordinary people, it was about sharing labor and divvying up chores on the farm. And then, within nation states in the modern era, marriage meant that women lost their legal identities. Often marriage was something that consolidated racial privilege. And then marriage became about none of those things. That was happening long before same-sex marriage gained traction in the 1990s.

How much credit can Republicans take for marriage equality?
Republicans were certainly instrumental in getting marriage passed in several states. I think progressives would be wise to recognize that. It's often critical to have broad support, including bipartisan support, when you're fighting for big social changes. Particularly so if you want them to be durable.

When you grow your coalition, you have more buy-in from different kind of people, and your changes are less likely to be vulnerable over time. That's something that many of us woke up to on November 9.

Republicans have a mixed record on marriage equality, and for the most part, it's a very bad record. As a party, Republicans were all too happy to sell gay people down the river in order to consolidate their own power. The Democratic Party wasn't too far ahead, but they can't be blamed in the same way that Republicans can for thinking up and ensuring the passage of DOMA as a wedge issue in the 1996 election.

Now that we're included, can queer people improve the institution of marriage?
I think that creating a national discussion about marriage equality has already, according to some evidence, made the institution of marriage stronger. You wouldn't have had President Obama and Justice Kennedy and all these people articulating the role and function of marriage if it hadn't been something that was contested.

You'll even find straight people quoting rulings on equality in their own wedding vows now. I had many conversations with my straight brothers about what marriage was for.

This is something that [marriage equality activist] Kate Kendell said a lot—she met [fellow activist] Evan Wolfson at one of those legal roundtable discussions and came in as a novice lesbian feminist queer type, saying "I think marriage is patriarchal." She said Evan almost jumped across the table.

Over time, she saw that you had to join the institution in order to reshape it. And she looks forward to the next generation being able to do that.

Matt Baume is the author of Defining Marriage: Voices from a Forty-Year Labor of Love, a personal and political history of marriage equality. Follow him on Twitter.