The Engagement: America’s Quarter Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage by Sasha Issenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this because I was peripherally involved with some of these cases because of the organization I worked for, and I knew many of the people mentioned in the book. It’s a massive history that covers 25 years, and it has some interesting insights into why it went from DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and states from every part of the country amending their constitutions to exclude gays from marriage, to the overturning of DOMA and the legalization of same sex marriage. But he does give a hint — basically in the last paragraph — that there is a coming battle over the right to discriminate for religious reasons, a battle that was more or less encouraged by the Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch in a 2020 decision he wrote. But that’s not yet become history — that’s “next era.”

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I wanted to use this space to write a little more than I could in a Goodreads review. One thing I realized as I absorbed the entire scope and 25 year process of getting to legal gay marriage, is that the conservative backlash that began with the Hawaii case (which the book makes perfectly clear was a total debacle and basically, a mistake because of one person’s egomania), is that the conservative states amended their constitutions and did everything they could within their state to vilify and demonize gay people who wanted to marry, while glorifying and sanctifying heterosexual marriage. And those same conservatives passed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which was a law that Clinton signed in the middle of the night because he was opposed to it, which they thought would be the end of it. There were attempts to amend the United States Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, but the difficulty of amending the U.S. constitution is so profound, those notions never left the committees. In spite of what seemed like near universal sentiment against same sex marriage, there were states (liberal ones, like Massachusetts, Vermont, California and New York, plus Connecticut and the other New England states), which did not ban gay marriage or make it illegal, and in fact, started to look for ways to promote an equality under the law of same sex relationships versus different sex relationships. Even with a minority of states, the fact that there were a few people and judges and legislators in those states who could see that marriage was a right and that it was discriminatory to not allow gays to marry, that small insistent group of people continued to “walk,” so to speak, in the same direction. And ultimately that is what led to the defeat of the conservatives. In other words, even if the Republican party gerrymanders the hell out of the red states, and blue becomes almost a permanent minority (though actually the majority), Republicans can only do so much to entrench themselves and hold their grip on power. They will fail because a small group of people will not give up and they are on the wrong side of the equation, just as the Nazis were.

And it was also a Republican who was instrumental in changing the flow of the tide: Rob Portman realized when his son came out to him in college, that he was on the wrong side in opposing gay marriage, and he publicly changed his mind. That little brick allowed a throng of others to start expressing their support for “love” and “being free to love.”

And the book I think does a good job dragging Anthony Kennedy over the coals for his wobbly opinion that allowed gay marriage in all fifty states. As is apparent, gay marriage was won, but gay equality was not. You can marry, but still be fired. You can get engaged and go to a baker for a wedding cake, and be told the baker hates you and won’t cook for you. This is specifically what Evan Wolfson, who called himself the “little Paul Revere,” because he kept shouting “Marriage is coming,” thought gay marriage would lead to: that all gay rights would hang like ornaments on a Christmas tree from this right to marry. But in fact, it has not. Part of that has to do with Kennedy’s decision, which was grandiose but in fact, irrelevant when it came to issues like the bigoted baker. And as I said in my shorter review, Gorsuch has practically begged people to come to the supreme court with “religious rights,” and “religious exceptions,” cases, a giant cooked turkey for which he seems almost to have an erection, in anticipation of being able to carve it up with exceptions. With Covid super spreader Amy Comey Barrett on the court, you can bet that the right to marry will mean, ultimately, nothing. And that is probably the next 25 year battle they will lose. One thing this book did help me deal with in terms of current events, is the fact that it is a long struggle against forces like Trump and paranoia and conspiracy theorists.

I was unclear from the book — my one criticism in a massive work that took him seven years to write — whether gays are considered a protected class under the law, (in the same sense as race or gender) because I thought they were, falling under the gender class. But now I’m not so sure. Anyway, the book is an essential piece of history and from my perspective in knowing some of these people, and having worked for Lambda and had a bit of an insider perspective, I think he gets everything right and fair.