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Thursday, December 9, 2021

A conversation with Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Engagement”

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Courtesy of Pantheon Books
Journalist and author Sasha Issenberg sat down with attendees from across the university on Sept. 28 to discuss his new book, “The Engagement.”

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In the Biden Institute’s first in-person event since March of 2020, journalist and author Sasha Issenberg sat down with attendees from across the university on Sept. 28 to discuss his new book, “The Engagement.

“The Engagement” is a chronological narrative of the struggle for marriage equality in the United States, from Hawaii in the 1990s to the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015 that made same-sex marriages legal across the country. 

Before the event, Issenberg sat down with The Review for an exclusive interview:

Question: This was a really large project — writing such a comprehensive account of the history of marriage equality — and I assume, many years in the making. Where was the starting point for you? 

Issenberg: “So it was basically a decade from the point where I had the idea for this in 2011, to this summer [when it was released]. My initial ambition was to write a single volume narrative history of the whole arc of the marriage battle. And, you know, I’ve done books before this, and they were all on subjects that I kind of defined … With this one, it existed apart from me … I was trying to document something that it was not up to me to define … So the first thing really was just mapping out the arc of this and understanding, you know, not just what was important, but what was distinctive. And one thing that’s novel about this as a subject is that because of the nature of marriage being something that’s largely controlled by state law, there are in the United States, you know, I could say 50 different stories … Every state has had its own path, right? Sometimes through the legal systems, sometimes the political systems, sometimes some interplay of the two … And every state’s path is intrinsically interesting, if told right.” 

There are obvious benefits to writing a book that’s so current — most major players are still alive and you can still go look at materials that are pretty recent — however, what are the challenges of writing about something that’s currently unfolding in front of you?

“So I’ve been a newspaper reporter, magazine writer and editor. I had to turn off the part of my brain that is just drawn to the news … Some of the natural instinct is like, ‘Oh, let me text this person and find out why they just decided that someone’s going to give the oral argument before the court!’ Well, if there’s anything good there, you know, a reporter from The Washington Post, The New York Times, is gonna have that tomorrow … There’s little I can add to it in real time. There might be things I can add to in retrospect … What I came to realize was, I need to turn that off, and that there were huge gains for the time that I spent reconstructing what had happened in the 2000’s. It wasn’t really until 2004 that the media in total treated this as a serious issue. I think generally it was treated as a kind of cultural sideshow: ‘Here’s the crazy thing that people are fighting about,’ not like, ‘Here’s some major civil rights movement that is underway in the states’ … And so there were huge opportunities for me to go back to that period and try to make sense of things that never got written about … and there were far fewer opportunities, once this did become a huge national story, to shed light on things. And so the challenge for me was kind of keeping my eyes on the prize …” 

What differences do you see between this movement for marriage equality and the civil rights movements that preceded it?

“The big one, in retrospect, is how fast this one was. Basically, it’s 25 years from a local fight in Hawaii sprawling out of control, to the Supreme Court determining that marriage equality is a law of the land … [Also,] we know that the biggest, strongest predictor of liberal attitudes on on on a whole range of gay issues, and not just marriage, is how somebody answers the polling question, ‘Do you know somebody who is openly gay or lesbian?’ … And so that’s what became an engine of familiarization and ultimately, chang[ed] attitudes in a way that some other movements [could not].” 

What role do college campuses, college students and academia play in the fight for marriage equality?

“One thing we saw — and this is true, not just on marriage, but on the whole suite of LGBT issues — is that young people have always been more liberal … So even when there was, you know, broad … opposition against same sex marriage, the college educated were the most likely to be supportive … Partially as a result of that … a lot of colleges and universities were among the first … in the 80s to offer partner benefits to gays and lesbians … So I think it’s fair to say that colleges and universities broadly led that sort of project of acceptance … The flip side of that is there actually wasn’t a whole lot of activism on college campuses around this issue … There’s surprisingly few examples of real activism focused not just on campuses but with college-aged people, generally because, frankly, of all the things 19-year-olds have had to worry about in the last two decades — a couple of wars and a major financial crisis, and a whole bunch of other identity-based divides in American life — this was probably seen seen less urgently.”

How did your own identity, experiences and beliefs help you but also challenge you in writing this history?

“So I’m a straight guy. I got married basically midway through writing this book to a woman … Growing up, I assumed I would get married … but not because I really thought about it. But just because I kind of defaulted to some expectation … So I was drawn into this as a subject for [its] political conflict, not necessarily something that I have a personal investment in … So, I was in this very unusual situation where now I’ve been married for three and a half years, and now I understand why marriage matters, but I have not really given much thought to that before. And so, a lot of my thinking on this was shaped by reading the court briefs, and or legal briefs or court opinions about marriage … I’m sure there’s great writing by poets and novelists, but the stuff that moved me [were] things [that] were written by judges … Chief Justice Marshall writes that marriage is among the most momentous acts of self definition … Bizarrely, those were the things [that stuck with me] — you know, not poems or pop songs or whatever else. And so it is good that this ended up taking me a decade because I had that sort of overlapping experience.”

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