Awakening: Review by Hank Trout

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Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America
by Nathaniel Frank
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Reviewed by Hank Trout

Nathaniel Frank’s thoroughly researched Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America is as definitive a history of the fight for marriage equality as we are likely to get. While other recent histories of marriage equality have focused on one or another recent case—the Windsor DOMA case, for instance—Frank begins his history in the 1950s with the foundations laid by early pioneers of the LGBTQ movement. Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and the Daughters of Bilitis, early LGBTQ rights groups, get special attention. The internal debates regarding the movement’s essential identity—were we to be assimilationist joiners or deconstructionist rebuilders of society?—divided LGBT groups and activists from the very beginning through to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

Along the way to marriage equality, we learn more about the legal and societal arguments both for and against; from days that now seem somehow “quaint” (pie-facing Anita Bryant, for instance) through the hardcore protest actions of ACT UP to the lengthy, detailed lawsuits both to secure and to deny marriage equality, Awakening provides an excellent charting of the strategies and philosophies that led to securing our right to marry.

Of particular note to A&U’s readers is the third chapter, “We Are Criminals in the Eyes of the Law,” in which Frank discusses the effect of the AIDS crisis on the battle for marriage equality. He attributes a change in many straight people’s perceptions of LGBTQ folks to their seeing how badly we were often treated—denied access to lovers’ hospital bedsides; stripped of inheritance rights; denied spousal health insurance benefits; denied Social Security and other pension benefits—all of which “exposed the insidious unfairness of denying equal treatment to same-sex relationships.” Once thought of as “just a piece of paper,” marriage became an invaluable tool for LGBTQ folks to take care of themselves and each other. He notes, “…the acute medical and legal needs of those afflicted with AIDS were inspiring thousands of new foot soldiers…to join the push for relationship recognition.” For many of us, marriage equality could mean the difference between a partner’s living or dying.

One word of caution to the casual reader: This is not a galloping run-through read; it is rather dry and slow-going in places, but that is understandable considering the gravity and the complexity of the subject matter. Awakening is every bit as meticulously researched, sourced, and presented as any Supreme Court presentation could be. For that, it will prove to be an invaluable addition to LGBTQ histories.


Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-seven-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.