Americans’ views on same-sex marriage have undergone a revolution in a few short decades.
Public opinion on the issue swung so swiftly and decisively — and so little uproar resulted once it was legal nationwide — that one might easily assume the march toward marriage equality was a neat, steady progression.
But it was in fact a decades-long project that moved in fits and starts. As with pretty much any other political movement, there was disorganization and internal squabbling — many in the LGBTQ+ community didn’t even see marriage equality as a priority (or even a worthy goal at all) a couple of decades ago.
And, as with other political movements, copious amounts of money provided a lot of the momentum.
All of that is recounted in The Engagement, journalist Sasha Issenberg’s exhaustive, engrossing account of the decades-long fight for marriage equality. The NPR Politics Podcast‘s Danielle Kurtzleben spoke with him for the show’s regular book club feature. Their conversation is transcribed below and is edited for length and clarity.
Danielle Kurtzleben: Let’s start with a very basic question: Why was this book important to write for you? Was the goal just to lay out the history of same-sex marriage, or was it something bigger?
Sasha Issenberg: I came to realize as I was working on it, that this was a kind of history of the American culture wars over the last generation — basically over my lifetime.
You know, I’m 41 years old. I started work on this 10 years ago, and it was the point when we were starting to talk about this as the defining civil rights movement of my generation, and I realized I’d been alive for the whole life of this as an issue. And I did not understand how it had emerged, and in many ways eclipsed not only other concerns to the LGBT community, but lots of other points of conflict or tension within our politics. It came in many ways to dominate American social policy debates for much of my adult life.
DK: This book also gets at how many of the people fighting for marriage equality were in the same boat, but rowing in different directions, is maybe a way of putting it. What are some good examples of how strategy got so messy?
SI: One thing that I think we as political journalists do terribly, and are often unaware of how terribly we do it, is write about conflicts within movements. You’ll read or hear stories that say, ‘the labor movement is doing X’ or ‘evangelicals are doing Y,’ and anybody who has spent any time talking to labor leaders or evangelical clergy will realize that they spend much more time often bickering among themselves than they do necessarily thinking about how to work in a unified way.
As I dug into this history, that really became clear. What we would call the “gay rights movement” or the “LGBT community,” that’s a very big coalition, and there are a whole lot of different constituencies: gay men and lesbians who are invested in marriage, [as well as] bisexual and transgender people who often could marry the people that they love, regardless of what state law was about marriage.
And within the LGBT community, there are a lot of different policy concerns. You go back to the 1990s when this debate emerged, and there were people whose top priority was desegregating military and government service so openly gay people could serve, or who wanted just basic nondiscrimination protections, [like] writing sexual orientation into hate crimes laws.
And one of the sort of remarkable parts of the story is not just how ultimately gay marriage campaigners triumphed over opponents of same-sex marriage, but how within their own LGBT community and political movement, they raised the issue of marriage so that it went higher and higher on the list of priorities.
Frankly, a lot of that was driven by money. I told the story of a circle of very wealthy donors led by Tim Gill, who had been a software pioneer. And [he] decides that a lot of his philanthropy is going to be about gay rights. And marriage is the issue that resonates most with him.
And he ends up bringing together a circle of like-minded donors, almost all of whom are men who have either made their money through founding companies or through inheritance, who are very concerned about marriage — I think in part because very wealthy people spend a lot of time worrying about estate planning.
They build an infrastructure that is focused on marriage above — and maybe at the expense of — some of these other priorities and help bring together some of the leading lawyers and strategists in the movement.
I write about a meeting that they had in the spring of 2005, when a lot of gay rights activists saw this cause at a low point, and they set out a path to get a winning case before the Supreme Court within 20 years.
That forced other, established gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to adjust their priorities, because they realized that the major money within their community cared about marriage. And if they weren’t doing marriage work, they were going to lose out on some of that funding.
DK: Let’s talk about the Supreme Court, which of course is a huge part of this book. You really get at the complex relationship between the Supreme Court and public opinion, and this is the thing that I’m always curious about: is it something justices pay attention to, and how does it affect them?
SI: We have a tough time figuring out what justices pay attention to because they’re often not in real time public about their thoughts. But all the folks who are working on this issue operated from the assumption that the justices were not operating in some sort of vacuum — purposeful or inadvertent — in which they were oblivious to what was going on in the world around them.
And so in that 2005 strategy meeting I mentioned, they map out a 20-year path to a successful Supreme Court decision. What is seen as wildly optimistic at that point is getting before the Supreme Court in 2025. What they assumed was that the court would be willing to take bold stands for civil rights, as it has in its history, but that they did not want to be seen as working from a minority position — that the court wanted to be in a position where they were happy sort of reining in outlier states, as they did when they struck down school segregation, for example.
DK: But why would the court be worried about public opinion if they’re ruling on constitutionality?
As people have said, the court gets its legitimacy from the other branches of government, from state and local governments, and thus from the public. And so, whatever the joke was that the Supreme Court doesn’t have any army — they have no ability to enforce their decisions with anything other than both the public and governments that will go along and accept them.
One of the things I certainly expected after the Supreme Court ruled in 2015, that there would be more examples of local resistance in conservative states, mostly in the South and the rural West, where I thought there would be county clerks, county executives, governors, state attorneys general who said, “We will not enforce this order.” And ultimately almost all of them dropped their opposition pretty quickly. I think that is a sign of a legitimacy that the court has earned over years by not taking decisions that public opinion and local politicians would not be willing to sustain. I think that’s the big deal that we’ve had since the founding of the republic that gives court decisions their force.
DK: Another big question that I think a lot of us have continually had is, how exactly did opinion on same-sex marriage change? It has swung so decisively towards marriage equality during our lifetimes.
SI: Yeah, this is one of the things that drew me into this mystery 10 years ago. I was having a lot of conversations with pollsters who would tell me they had not seen opinion on a single issue move as quickly as it moved on marriage. And at that point, attitudes were moving 4 or 5 percentage points a year, only in one direction.
People now, in part, I think because of pop culture or general cultural acceptance, feel more comfortable coming out than they did a generation ago. People are realizing that they know people who are gay. Social scientists call this “contact theory” — the idea that we become more sympathetic or friendly due to the concerns of people once we’ve had personal contact with them. And it becomes a lot easier to be open, I think, to the arguments for same-sex marriage and more resistant to the arguments that were made against it when you know somebody in your life who is gay or lesbian and see the fundamental humanity of them, and in a certain way, the fundamental modesty of the demand for them to share their life with somebody they love.
DK: There’s one question that we got from various listeners, including Vidya Ravella. She asked, “What’s the action plan for all the legal challenges that are expected? If there’s a concerted effort to overturn this right, as is expected, this is the next fight, particularly if Roe is overturned this summer.”
So before we even get to this question, maybe let’s back up and ask how likely do you think it is that Obergefell could be overturned?
I do not think that there is any serious likelihood that the core holding of Obergefell, that the fundamental right to marry should extend to same-sex couples, is in doubt. And I think a large part of that is that it is politically unappealing. There’s not a political demand for it the way there is a political demand for a change in abortion laws around the country.
I certainly understand why the fear is there for folks. But I think it’s worth looking at the intersection of law and politics. Since the Obergefell decision, there were three Supreme Court justices appointed by a Republican president. Many people wanted to know their positions on Roe v. Wade. Nobody cared [about] their positions on Obergefell. Groups are focused on other issues now. Once you get to a point where these justices see 70% of the country looking the other way, regardless of what their sort of personal preferences might be, I think that that becomes a really significant impediment to them taking up this cause.
DK: Does that make marriage equality a unique issue, in that it’s much harder to make the case that a same-sex marriage infringes upon your personal rights if you are in a heterosexual marriage? It’s harder to make that case than, for example, to make the case that abortion opponents do, that an abortion hurts someone, or as another example, that affirmative action takes something away from someone. Is marriage equality just in its own class?
SI: You can look back at the history of social movements in the United States as on one hand, as these sort of contests over public values, over justice, liberty, freedom, privacy, fairness. You can also often read them very clearly as competitions for scarce resources.
So when women demanded property rights, husbands and fathers saw that as a challenge to their wealth. When women and African Americans demanded the vote, white men saw it as a threat to their political power, and the effort to expand rights or opportunities for immigrants has been seen by native-born people as a threat to their jobs and public benefits. Desegregation of schools set up this rivalry for places in neighborhood institutions on which people saw their property values implicated.
As you say, affirmative action, maybe in the purest sense, sets up a rivalry for jobs or places in academic institutions. Even the Americans with Disabilities Act may force landlords or developers to shift some of their budgets to paying for things that they might not have wanted to pay for. In every case, the majority had to give something up, something tangible to the demands of justice by a minority, right? And I think that that is a really important difference here, and I think made it very difficult to sustain opposition to this, because there weren’t really stakeholders on the other side.