THE BLOG
11/17/2014 10:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New Book Sets Record Straight on Who Won Marriage Equality -- and, More Importantly, How

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Photo: Jeffrey S. Trachtman

The race is on to shape history's account of the marriage equality movement, even with the final chapter yet unwritten. Two recent books -- Redeeming the Dream, by Proposition 8 slayers David Boies and Ted Olson, and Forcing the Spring, by New York Times reporter Jo Becker -- position the famous bipartisan duo as the saviors, if not creators, of the movement.

The latest entry in this genre, Marc Solomon's Winning Marriage, is a welcome antidote to this super lawyer spin. A brisk, readable, and often exhilarating first-person account of key battles that set the stage for today's astonishing momentum, it makes clear that parentage rights for this success belong to many.

Solomon's account understandably focuses on episodes in which he played a role on behalf of MassEquality and Freedom to Marry -- in particular, the struggle to beat back a constitutional override of the historic first win in Massachusetts and the two campaigns, the first disappointing and the second triumphant, to pass a marriage bill in the New York State Senate. His blow-by-blow descriptions are rich in personal detail and nail-biting suspense, even for those who know each story's punch line.

While acknowledging that his account is not exhaustive, Solomon gets the big picture right. Among other things, he properly credits the seminal, decades-long efforts of two visionary leaders -- Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry and Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston -- groundbreaking litigators and master strategists widely hailed as the Thurgood Marshalls of LGBT marriage equality.

In contrast, Forcing the Spring portrays the marriage issue as languishing in obscurity until 2008, when political consultant Chad Griffin, frustrated by Prop 8, harnesses Hollywood money to hire Boies and Olson. The book opens with a tone-deaf rhetorical flourish -- anointing Griffin as the Rosa Parks of marriage equality -- and goes on to suggest that Boies and Olson rescued the movement from a discredited state-by-state approach and transformed marriage equality into a national civil rights issue by boldly taking it to the Supreme Court. It essentially treats Bonauto and Wolfson (and everyone else who worked on the issue prior to 2008) as chopped liver. 2014-11-13-winningmarriage.jpg

This is nonsense. As Winning Marriage more accurately recounts, the state-by-state approach crafted by Bonauto, Wolfson, and others has worked brilliantly. The Prop 8 case -- while far from the disaster the LGBT rights establishment feared at its inception and certainly an important chapter in the overall story -- served only to restore marriage rights in California originally won by others. It was, rather, the DOMA litigation (in which GLAD won the first trial court victory) and ultimately Edie Windsor's case (litigated by Robbie Kaplan and the ACLU) that yielded the game-changing Supreme Court ruling.

Perhaps Solomon's greatest contribution is portraying the hard work of social change -- how victory emerged from a broad-based team effort planned and executed over two decades, in which hundreds of activists, organizers, and families had meeting after meeting and conversation after conversation with countless elected officials, staffers, journalists, and voters across the country. He shows how the victories in Massachusetts and New York, along with a crucial handful of other jurisdictions, established a beachhead for a nationwide campaign that won millions of hearts and minds -- including, eventually, the president's. This gradual, painstaking public education process was mapped out and underway for more than a decade before Griffin had his Rosa Parks moment -- though of course Boies and Olson lent the effort their own clout and luster.

Solomon's focus on politics and public education inevitably leaves out a lot on the litigation side. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which like GLAD won several crucial early victories (including Iowa), is scarcely mentioned; same for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a major player in winning marriage in the California Supreme Court. And the New York segment might have benefited from a bit more backstory on the earlier state court constitutional challenge brought by Lambda Legal and the ACLU (with pro bono teams headed by me and Robbie Kaplan). The public education impact of the litigation (including incredulity at the weakness of the court's stated justifications for sustaining discrimination) helped fuel passage of a marriage bill in the State Assembly within a year -- the point at which Solomon picks up his narrative with the ensuing psychodrama in the dysfunctional State Senate.

Winning Marriage recognizes that even such stinging losses can plant the seeds for later triumphs. After Prop 8, advocates became more adept at communicating with religious and other swing voters and, continuing the hard work on the ground, began racking up legislative wins in 2009 and then popular vote victories, including in the 2012 Maine campaign Solomon details in a later chapter. And of course the lessons of the 2009 New York Senate loss informed the better coordinated, victorious 2011 campaign.

Solomon demonstrates that social change doesn't occur spontaneously or arrive as a gift from above. Even Thurgood Marshall's victories were built on decades of unglamorous labor by hundreds of others organizing, educating, and persuading as well as litigating. Winning Marriage shows the LGBT community and allies building on that model to make real change. Who won marriage? It may be premature to put that question in the past tense, but Solomon provides the eventual answer: We all did.