The Book About Marriage Equality That Has So Many Gay Activists Up in Arms
Undoubtedly, when "Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality" was published this spring, author Jo Becker was anticipating a wave of accolades from LGBT activists and pundits. So it must have been all the more surprising when her insider’s look at the legal-eagle and public relations superstars who argued California’s Proposition 8 all the way to the Supreme Court instead was engulfed in a tsunami of criticism.
"Criticized" hardly does justice to the reaction. "Trashed" even may be too tame a word. "Savaged," maybe (Dan Savage was among those piling on). "Eviscerated" works.
Becker came to the project with an impressive resume. As an investigative reporter for the New York Times, she had previously done investigative work for the Washington Post - the two gold standards in journalism. The Pulitzer Prize was only the top of a heap of brand-name awards bestowed on her.
If this was not exactly the first-out-of-the-gate book devoted entirely to recounting the legal battles over same-sex marriage, it was the first by a highly respected journalist and writer with insider knowledge.
The ocean of ink finally inspired one of the players Becker sidesteps, Tobias Barrington Wolff, to write a brilliantly facetious take in the New Republic worthy of Jonathan Swift. Wolff assumed that, rather than being hopelessly off track, Becker had actually pulled a Sasha Baron Cohen-type punking of her readership.
"Becker," Wolff asserted, "replaces Baron Cohen’s absurd foreigner with the softer clich of the invisible, embedded reporter." According to Wolff, like the redneck protesters who riot in Cohen’s film "Bruno" after two male wrestlers started making passionate love in a staged grudge match, Becker is enjoying the spectacle of LGBT leaders rising to the bait. He anticipates her gleefully taking off the mask a few years from now and laughing at the suckers.
If true, Becker must be an awfully good actor, because her "deer caught in the headlights" response certainly looks genuine. Obviously caught unawares by the ensuing maelstrom, Becker, in a terse identical email sent to two online columnists, claimed she only meant to capture a particular moment in time. "Forcing the Spring," she wrote, "was not meant to be a beginning-to-end history of the movement."
Andrew Sullivan, Becker’s earliest and most relentless critic, wasted little time responding. He pointed out that the title itself is pretty clear that Becker was chronicling the "spring" of the marriage-equality movement. Sullivan quotes a passage where Becker attributes the ability of Chad Griffin, the hero of her narrative, "to rebrand a cause that for years had largely languished in obscurity." Not only that, he "had gone a long way to bringing the establishment gay rights community around."
The annus mirabilis that Becker cites as the turning point when gay marriage finally reached the attention of the American public and apathetic LGBT leaders was 2008.
Writing History While Ignoring History
Forget lawyers from organizations that include Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights who had been toiling in the mahogany vineyards of courtrooms starting in Hawaii and Vermont 15 years earlier. Evan Wolfson, founder of Marriage Equality and the guiding light throughout the long, hard-fought battle that now is bearing so much fruit in state after state, has demonstrated once again what a mensch he is by refusing to defend himself against his brief appearance in "Forcing the Spring" as a crusty feller.
In the framework of Becker’s narrative, it was the Hollywood community that really got things going when director Rob Reiner and Griffin launched the American Foundation for Equal Rights in 2009 to fight Prop. 8 in court. Griffin is a consummate D.C. insider. A wunderkind who at age 19 already had a mid-level post in the Clinton administration, he now heads the Human Rights Campaign, which many see, fairly or not, as the pinnacle of "Gay Inc."
When Griffin saw that, rather than enshrining him as the most important advocate of marriage equality, he was being painted as a willing collaborator in a fatally flawed book, he attempted his own damage control.
"Simply put," he wrote in an Advocate op-ed responding to what many saw as the most risible passage in "Forcing the Spring", "I have nothing in common with the trailblazing courage of Rosa Parks." (Yes, Becker compares Griffin to the woman whose refusal to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., was a major catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement.) He runs as fast as he can from Becker’s description of him as jump-starting the gay-marriage juggernaut.
It’s true that some of Becker’s fiercest critics have a proverbial dog in this hunt. Both Sullivan and AmericaBlog’s John Aravosis seem to be most put out by Becker’s failure to acknowledge their blogs. And everyone knows that, once a meme goes viral on social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to counter what quickly becomes accepted wisdom - or the mob’s bloodlust, depending on your perspective.
It must be especially galling for Becker to read damning stuff in the pages of the New York Times. The Times is known to circle the wagons if one of its own comes under attack. This has led to some unfortunate consequences, the most recent example being its admission, well after the damage had been done, that Judith Miller’s series of articles on Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction" were, in fact, all lies.
While praising Larry Kramer, Times columnist Frank Bruni added this dig: "Any serious discussion of credit has to travel back many decades." "Forcing the Spring," he wrote, "focuses narrowly on a few key figures" and, he implied, ignores "scores of pioneers who fought for the baseline recognition of gay and lesbian people that was a prerequisite for ’I do.’"
Becker, however, had begun her race to be first out of the gate with a definitive history of the key Supreme Court marriage-equality ruling by betting on the wrong horse. The Prop. 8 case, which her protagonists arrogantly predicted would be the key Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, ended up a nonstarter, wheezing its way to the finish line while an old mare won the Derby. Sure, the court struck down Prop. 8, but it was only on a technicality that the plaintiffs lacked standing in the eyes of the court. The decision was of far more interest to legal scholars for its refining of the concept of certiorari than to everyday LGBT Americans who wanted to get married.
While Becker was spending her time following Griffin around the corridors of power, an octogenarian New Yorker, Edie Windsor, was patiently making her case. In retrospect, it’s not that hard to see that a little old lady who looked like she should be sipping tea in the parlor would pale against the high wattage of Hollywood celebrities like Rob Reiner, Dustin Lance Black and David Geffen.
Hers was a deeply personal narrative that hardly had the historical arc of a referendum approved by the same California electorate that overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama. Windsor owed money on her partner’s estate that she wouldn’t have had to pay if she’d been a legal widow.
Did the criticism have an effect on Becker’s book? As of this writing, it has not only disappeared from the best-seller lists, it ranked 24,428 on Amazon.com. So why does it matter?
Journalists like Becker and Bob Woodward thrive on inside-the-Beltway "access." The danger in such reporting is that they often don’t see the forest for the tall trees. Ever since the first "scientific" historian, the Greek writer Thucydides, history has been framed as the actions of great statesmen, religious leaders and generals. But others (like Leo Tolstoy) have argued that these heroes are merely spectators to the real players, the thousands of unnamed small fry.
Bruni sums it up thusly: "Perhaps history isn’t simply written by the victors. Perhaps it’s written by the publicity-conscious participants with the foresight to glue journalists to their sides." The dozens of spontaneous demonstrations that erupted across the country after the 2008 election were the real story behind the defeat of Prop. 8, not the big shots, Becker.
Becker, it turns out, chose the wrong path not only in which court case to follow but also in her entire worldview. The heroes are not Joe Biden, who casually mentioned his support for marriage equality on a Sunday-morning chat show, or the "road to Damascus" revelation by Tom Olson, the GOP lawyer, who got the Supreme Court to decide in favor of George W. Bush in the contested 2000 election.
Windsor, now 84, was a successful businesswoman who had homes in Greenwich Village and the Hamptons. Rosa Parks was a secretary coming home from work who didn’t feel like giving up her seat on a bus. Those are the people who really make history.