From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage by Michael J. Klarman (Oxford University Press, 2012) $28; 276 pp.


In the years after World War II, gay rights faced “daunting hurdles.” Organized activism was rare because homosexuality was widely criminalized. Homosexuals — and those merely suspected of homosexuality — were subject to police raids, surveillance, loss of jobs and worse. They were believed to be “possibly as dangerous as Communists.”

But by the 1960s, social mores had relaxed enough for major news outlets to gingerly cover homosexuality. That change, says Michael J. Klarman is his new book, was made possible in part by the Supreme Court’s relaxation against pornography, which opened the door for gay literature. By this time, gay rights organizations were also plentiful and more vocal.

Same-sex marriage at that time was largely a non-issue. Monogamy was practiced, but family life was often sneered at by activists. Still, the possibility of marriage was pretty enticing.

There were pioneers. In Minnesota in 1971, two men were married in a church, though the state refused to recognize their marriage. In 1975, two Phoenix men applied for a marriage license; a local court voided the union. That same year, couples in Colorado found a “more obliging” court clerk and several were married before the state stopped her from issuing more licenses.

By 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, the Moral Majority reigned and public sentiment was definitely against same-sex marriage. Still, anti-discrimination laws were widely passed across the nation, giving proponents hope … until AIDS took the focus off the issue.
And then came Bill Clinton….

Klarman begins his book by discussing how the Supreme Court has often followed social convention. That made me afraid I was getting myself into something dry and emotionless. I’m happy to say I was wrong.

From the Closet to the Altar is an interesting, lively look at the history of gay rights, as well as that of same-sex marriage. Klarman sets the tone for every history-making milestone by explaining how it’s connected to the event that came before it, which makes it easy to understand how we got where we are now. In between, he makes some excellent, valid points as he looks at the future of the institution, including how and why it’s just a matter of time before nationwide acceptance. And with the recent decision by the High Court to review DOMA and Prop 8, it couldn’t be more timely.

Starry-eyed dreamers won’t find romance here, but historians and realists will love the facts that From the Closet to the Altar presents. If that’s you, then read this book because, really – doesn’t “We’re married” have a nice ring to it?

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 14, 2012.