Sasha Issenberg’s tour-de-force, 900-word chronicle of “America’s quarter-century struggle over same-sex marriage” might have been even better had it been given even a few illustrations.
The New Yorker contributor Michael Shaw’s cartoon of 1 Maart 2004 would have been one candidate. Its arch question, “Gays and lesbians getting married – haven’t they suffered enough?”, seems to encapsulate how an unlikely issue, consistently championed, achieved a broader vision of “gay liberation” than many dreamed could be attained so rapidly.
Thanks to works of scholarship like Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis en The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini, it has become clear that the seemingly impossible is often achievable. With The Engagement, Issenberg adds to such proof that one can write LGBTQ+ history in a way that is engaging, authoritative and impeccably sourced.
He conveys a telling truth for activists beyond the campaign for gay rights. Brimming with a promise of inclusion, of acceptance beyond mere toleration, his book shows there are indeed more ways than one to skin a cat. Awakened and empowered by Black Lives Matter and Trumpism’s exposure of widespread white supremacist alliances, many progressives were certain that only the most radical policy positions – “defund the police”, anyone? – and candidates offered any real remedy. But older black voters were certain of a different way of maneuvering. And it looks as if they were right, just as proponents of marriage equality were right – to a point at least.
If The Engagement lacks snappy cartoons or colorful or insightful photographs, Issenberg manages nonetheless to present compelling depictions of fascinating individuals. Their pursuit of gay marriage propels his narrative, lawsuit by lawsuit, legislative victory by legislative victory and political endorsement by political endorsement.
False starts, setbacks, losses – they are all here too. But then finally, aan 26 Junie 2015, with Obergefell v Hodges, the supreme court invalidated same-sex marriage bans all across the land. In time, a court-sanctioned right to self-determination expanded the rights of transgender people too.
If the quest began with an almost stereotypically flamboyant figure, Bill Woods, Issenberg shows with deft sensitivity how for all Woods’ drive and flair for manipulating media and politicians, two more reticent lesbians played a pivotal role. Their relatable story is one of opposites determined to fashion a life together, just three months after meeting in 1990. Initially, the LGBTQ+ community was compelled to fight just to be allowed to love one another. But this committed couple’s saga goes a long way to showing how marriage, as opposed to a brave new world of sexual revolution and limitless pairings, emerged as the definitive cause of gay civil rights.
When Genora Dancel, a broadcast engineer, presented a ruby ring to Nina Baehr, she “thought our love could withstand anything”. Coming home to find Baehr in pain from an ear infection, Dancel learned otherwise. Baehr’s university health coverage had yet to take effect. Her new “wife” had two policies from her employers but could not use them for her partner. She had to pay out of pocket to to aid her.
Out of this practical desire to care for each other, the pair joined two other same-sex couples organized by Bill Woods. Aan 17 Desember 1990, in Honolulu, they applied for marriage licenses. When they were denied, Dan Foley, an attorney who was straight, sued the state on their behalf. After a battle lasting nearly three years, they were vindicated. The Hawaii supreme court was the first in the US to determine that the right to wed was a basic civil right.
Many, like the lesbian feminist Paula Ettelbrick, were convinced there was an alternative to marriage and that “making room in our society for broader definitions of family” was better. They saw little utility in such a gain.
Jasmyne Cannick, a journalist from Los Angeles, was dubious as well. Following the passage of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California, she outlined the looming disconnect between disaffected queers of color and our sometimes oblivious white brethren.
In books such as Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Elizabeth Drexel Lehr’s King Lehr and the Gilded Age, one gets a poignant look at how especially for upper-class gays, conventional alliances, with partners of the opposite sex and children, are as old as time, assuring inheritances and perpetuating dynastic ties. George Chauncey’s Gay New York tells of how in Harlem same-sex couples, from the 1920s on, staged elaborate nuptial ceremonies, anticipating current trends.
Ja, one way or another, even in the realm of queers, marriage still seems to constitute a profound idea.
Issenberg contends that without overwhelming opposition, gay marriage would never have subsumed gay activism; that conservatives, lying in wait, biding their time, are poised to try to take it away. Wanneer hulle dit doen, will we be ready, armed with the lesson of Issenberg’s book?
Vandag, self-segregated into competing camps of righteous activists and dogged pragmatists, freedom fighters still at struggle and insiders who just happen to be gay, do we sincerely value the efficacy of throwing down our buckets where we stand? Have we lost hope that every road leads to a common victory? That in a street fight, every contribution adds value to our effort?