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Narrative in New Jo Becker Book on Fight for Marriage Equality Called 'Absurd', 'Distorted', 'Deceptive'

Fts_becker

BY LISA KEEN

To say there’s been a flurry of discussion around the release of a new book Tuesday on the legal case that challenged California’s Proposition 8 would be an understatement. The book, Forcing the Spring, by New York Times writer Jo Becker, has been thoroughly pilloried by many plugged-in LGBT activists and journalists this week, both publicly and privately.

Griffin_olsonWhile a few have attempted to cut Becker some slack for documenting some behind-the-scenes litigation and political strategies, most fault her for an approach that seems hell-bent on making Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and conservative icon attorney Ted Olson into the white horse heroes of an upcoming Hollywood docu-drama about How the Marriage Equality Movement was Won.

Hollywood movies do have a tendency to skew the historical record for audiences that have not been paying attention to the real world events; and, if it does come to the silver screen, Forcing the Spring will carry an impressive credential --that it was based on a book by a “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist” (even though she co-authored the entry that won).

The intense negative reaction from the LGBT community to Becker’s book indicates the prospect that the marriage equality movement’s real history will be lost is very troubling to many LGBT people who have watched and been part of that movement. It did not begin with the Griffin-Olson lawsuit in 2009, but with individual couples as early as the 1970s and with veteran civil rights legal activists beginning in Hawaii in the 1990s.

SullivanConservative gay commentator Andrew Sullivan led the assault on Becker’s book this week. In his April 16 blog entry for his The Dish, Sullivan berates Becker for suggesting Griffin is on par with legendary black civil rights activist Rosa Parks. He dismissed the book as riddled with “jaw-dropping distortion,” such as Becker ‘s claim that the marriage equality movement “for years had largely languished in obscurity.”

Sullivan’s assault was joined quickly by an impressive string of critiques: writer-activist Dan Savage (“a bulls--t ‘history’ of the movement for marriage equality”), former New York Times columnist Frank Rich (“For a journalist to claim that marriage equality revolution began in 2008 is as absurd as saying civil rights struggle began with Obama.”), and White House strategist Jim Messina.

Becker offered a defense against the criticism, explaining to politico.com that she hadn’t tried to write a definitive history of the marriage equality movement or the “gay rights” movement.

“Many people have contributed to the success the movement has experienced. I have the [utmost] respect for all the people who contributed to that success,” wrote Becker. “My book was not meant to be a beginning-to-end-history of the movement. It’s about a particular group of people at an extraordinary moment in time, and I hope that people will be moved by their stories.”

Unfortunately, her intro to the book and the slick public relations material sent out to promote that book proclaim otherwise.

On page 1 of the book, she writes that the marriage equality “revolution... begins with a handsome, bespectacled thirty-five-year-old political consultant named Chad Griffin….” Her own summary of the book calls it is “the definitive account of the fight to win the rights of marriage and full citizenship for all….” And the Penguin Press release that accompanies review copies of the book calls it, “A deeply insightful and riveting account of a national civil rights struggle….” It quotes such celebrity legal commentators as Jeff Toobin as saying the book is “a superb, behind-the-scenes account of the legal battle to bring marriage equality to the nation.” The NAACP’s former president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, calls it “the definitive account of one of the great civil rights struggles of our times.”

This is the kind of hype that accompanies many books. It’s how publishers, in a very competitive environment, woo attention and favorable comments from reviewers, television talk shows, and other vehicles in a position to stoke book sales.

But critics of Forcing the Spring take issue with the book beyond the exaggeration of its marketing campaign.

D_blackForcing the Spring just doesn’t get it right,” writes BuzzFeed legal reporter Chris Geidner. He notes that Becker quotes Hollywood screenwriter Dustin Lance Black as being rebuffed by an audience of potential LGBT major donors to the litigation organized by Griffin’s American Foundation for Equal Rights. Becker also reports that the donor meeting’s organizer, Tim Gill, “denounced Black outright.” Geidner provides a link to a video of the closed-door meeting about which Becker was writing that shows Black’s speech was interrupted with applause five times, and won a standing ovation from at least a few in the audience. And Geidner says Gill’s alleged denouncement of Black was “more of a nuanced defense of ‘gradualism’” strategy for winning marriage equality.

Hollywood movies require conflict and struggle, and it may be that the book –whose inside cover touts it as a “gripping behind-the-scenes narrative with the lightning pace of the greatest legal thrillers”-- fell prey to the need to dramatize some hurdles for her heroes to overcome. A more journalistic approach might have conveyed the mixed reaction of Black’s audience and contrasted that with Black’s personal interpretation of how he was received.

It also would have been helpful for Becker to have talked in some depth with LGBT legal activists who have been working on the marriage equality movement for many years.

A number of LGBT legal activists have pointed out significant factual errors in Becker’s account as reported by the press thus far (none had received a copy of the book in advance) and expressed astonishment at her cavalier pronouncement that the marriage equality movement had been “languishing” in “obscurity” before Griffin and Olson came along.

Becker wrote that LGBT legal activists planned to win marriage equality in 30 states before filing a federal lawsuit.

“Lambda Legal did not have a strategy of getting to 30 states with marriage equality (or any particular number for that matter) before we would consider bringing a federal case,” said Lambda Legal’s Jon Davidson.    

KaplanBecker’s portrayal of Roberta Kaplan (right), attorney to Edith Windsor in the Supreme Court case that struck down the key provision of DOMA, as an “outsider” to the establishment legal activists was also widely disputed.

“Robbie was not an outsider,” said GLAD spokeswoman Carisa Cunningham. “She had worked for the ACLU for years, just as she did on Edie’s case. She also worked with Lambda on the New York marriage case, Hernandez.”

Becker was not hired by the movement to write its history. If she and her book promoters had just been a little more careful to pitch the book as a behind-the-scenes picture of the Proposition 8 litigation, the hue and cry might not be so harsh as it is.

The drama achieved by portraying the marriage equality movement pre-Griffin-Olson as “languishing” and “obscurity” extracts a price from Becker’s credentials. For LGBT people, the Baehr v. Miike trial in Honolulu and its subsequent legal victories --and even its political defeats, including passage by the U.S. Congress of the Defense of Marriage Act-- warrant neither of those dismissive assessments. There ensued an intense political war over marriage equality on state ballots around the country beginning in 1998, and, while supporters of same-sex marriage lost those battles, they came back with a steady, methodically planned and executed series of legal challenges that won civil unions in Vermont in the late 1990s and marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2003.

And just a month before Griffin and Olson first joined that battle with the filing of the Proposition 8 lawsuit, Lambda Legal won a unanimous victory in Iowa. The decades of cultural and legal combat opened up the country to a conversation that became both personal and national and moved public opinion. The Proposition 8 case was definitely part of that effort and, near the last paragraph of her book, Becker tempers her assessment of the Griffin-Olson effort as having brought the dream of equality “within reach.”

The Proposition 8 litigation enabled same-sex couples in California to be married, and other political activists and lawsuits have won marriage equality in more than a dozen other states. The legal team of Olson and David Boies is back at work with a case in the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and other legal teams have similarly situated cases in other federal appeals courts. Each is hoping to win marriage equality for all states. Almost certainly, one of them will succeed. But the credit will belong to the many, not the few.

© copyright 2014 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. I'll always remember my great aunt who lived during the 1920s in Harlem as an out lesbian woman. When I last saw her, in 1990, she said that "living in the life" with her wife was the best experience of her life.

    We may not have had legal recognition, but gay and lesbian people have been living in marriage for a long, long time. It's saddening when hacks try to diminish our collective experience and struggles to a narrow media-filled time frame.

    Posted by: poorblackblindlesbianwoman | Apr 22, 2014 8:58:25 PM


  2. As a Canadian, I am not familiar with Jo Becker, and from I've heard and read, I don't want to be, either. Not interested in her book.......

    Posted by: David From Canada | Apr 22, 2014 9:03:40 PM


  3. "The intense negative reaction from the LGBT community to Becker’s book..."

    The community's reaction is not 'negative'--this is a nonsensical, agenda-driven fiction.

    Andrew Sullivan, Evan Wolfson, Dan Savage, Chris Geidner and a handful of other petty, embittered do-nothing queens have yelped and shrieked that they didn't get as much mention as they felt deserved, or that they weren't consulted for their persecptive. But they do NOT represent the LGBT commmunity. Rather, they represent their OWN careers.

    They attack Becker's book for failing to do what it never set out to do--cover the entire historical arc of the Equality Movement. But the content of their criticisms makes it crystal clear that they are offended that their own self-perceived contributions to the struggle for LGBT rights wasn't given more coverage. Becker was not attempting to tell THEIR stories. She was recounting Griffin's, Olson's, and Boies', and Black's experiences.

    Sullivan is a writer. He's written several books. He should write his own story, to make sure he gets the starring role he feels he so obviously deserves. Same for Dan Savage. Stop tearing down someone else's work simply because it doesn't flatter you. WRITE YOUR OWN DAMNED STORIES!

    This is the purest, most infantile example of petty jealousy imaginable at a time when the true battle is for equality is far from over, and far from won. These whining queens should focus their wrath on the REAL opponents of equality, rather than sniping and backbiting with allies for credit.

    Andrew Sullivan is dead to me as a credible voice in the LGBT movement, and every time he opens his infected mouth from here on out, I will fiercely ignore him. As far as I'm concerned he has contributed nothing positive to the LGBT movement in the last 10 years. He should stick to the bathhouses and the barebacking websites.

    Posted by: No Backbiters Allowed | Apr 22, 2014 9:07:14 PM


  4. "Geidner provides a link to a video of the closed-door meeting about which Becker was writing that shows Black’s speech was interrupted with applause five times, and won a standing ovation from at least a few in the audience...."

    I watched the link for myself. With my own eyes. I don't need Geidner's deliberate mischaracterizations of what happened. The applause for Black is barely polite, quite tepid, FAR from the entire room. Plus, you can't see the audience to know whether their arms were crossed or not, or what the expressions on their faces were. Geidner attempts to claim that Black received a standing ovation at the end of the speech, the only thing you can see from the video is a couple of heads popping up in the front row. If anything, the video tends to corroborate Becker's account of Black's recollection FAR more than to refute it.

    It's clear that Geidner is attempting to misuse a video to attack Becker, figuring that most people won't actually watch it. He completely misrepresents the content of the video and attempts to contort an ambiguous audience response into something far more enthusiastic.

    Conclusion: Geidner is not a reliable journalist, and anything I read from him in the future will take the distortions in this story into account.

    Posted by: With My Own Eyes | Apr 22, 2014 9:22:41 PM


  5. Darn, I wish I cared what Andrew Sullivan thinks about anything.

    Posted by: Tony | Apr 22, 2014 10:09:38 PM


  6. NO BACKBITERS ALLOWED and WITH MY OWN EYES are the same person. Both have the same naming style, the same heckling that could all fit into one post without seeming at all incongruous, and both clearly didn't read the whole article. They read it diagonally at best.

    Jo Becker: Now this here's a true story that I just made up!

    Posted by: VitalPocket | Apr 22, 2014 10:53:49 PM


  7. Hey NO BACKBITERS ALLOWED--you have no right to call Evan Wolfson a "petty, embittered do-nothing queen."

    No right.

    And no credibility.

    Besides, he has refrained from commenting on Becker's treatment of his work, so you just sound silly accusing him of "yelping and shrieking."

    Posted by: JeffNYC | Apr 22, 2014 11:05:13 PM


  8. VITALPOCKET is one of Andrew Sullivan's former barebacking buddies.

    Posted by: I'M READING THE BOOK | Apr 22, 2014 11:09:35 PM


  9. Please. Jo Becker didn't write the whole history of the marriage movement, but she makes it clear that the movement didn't even start until Chad Griffen entered the scene. There were many, many more people who worked to moved the movement forward. Of course, there were a lot of losses in the beginning -- any movement of this magnitude starts out with losses, not wins.

    There has been no reporter gay or straight, who has been more diligent, hard working, or analytical than Chris Geidner, to dismiss means you haven't been folowing the movement at all. any one who dismisses him has no credbiility whatsoever.

    Posted by: Randy | Apr 22, 2014 11:41:27 PM


  10. Any discussion of marriage equality in the US necessarily must discuss marriage equality in Canada, which influenced the activism and the courts in the US, starting with the June 10, 2003 Court of Appeal for Ontario decision in Halpern v. Canada, which brought marriage equality to a North American region for the first time.


    Posted by: Randy | Apr 23, 2014 12:33:24 AM


  11. One woman wrote a book that contains her perceptions. Perhaps the people not pleased with her perceptions should write their own book.

    Posted by: NotSafeForWork | Apr 23, 2014 12:50:58 AM


  12. "The intense negative reaction from the LGBT community to Becker’s book..."

    There is no such thing as the "LGBT community." There is an LGB community, and no, these few activists don't represent it.


    Andrew Sullivan didn't like the book because it didn't falsely accuse Matthew Shepard of being a drug trafficker. That is the criterion for Sullivan to approve of a book.

    Posted by: miko | Apr 23, 2014 1:41:33 AM


  13. I'M READING THE BOOK/NO BACKBITERS ALLOWED/WITH MY OWN EYES

    "VITALPOCKET is one of Andrew Sullivan's former barebacking buddies." REALLY?! I suppose the appropriate response to such a SAD, CHILDISH stab in the dark would be,
    I know you are but what am I?

    Did you really think I would believe your sockpuppet "imreadingthebook" was a real OTHER person defending "nobackbitersallowed/withmyowneyes"?

    Pathetic uncreative troll. 1/10

    Posted by: VitalPocket | Apr 23, 2014 1:54:51 AM


  14. Feels good to see a bit of vindication for bucking the marriage tide, as I did in numerous comments on this site. This cast of characters can be credited with making us "oppressed victims" -- realizing that long held dream of gays to be "just like everybody else" in the name of equality. They got it wrong. Don't be fooled. America has not embraced anything. I hear that tired refrain about being on the "wrong side of history" when is has always been the wrong side of our anatomy. With impending molestation scandals, and congressional elections ahead, anticipate a swift blow to the right. Gay sex will be on the ballot. But I did find out that one of these guys is married--to an underwear model. Does it get better?

    Posted by: GEB | Apr 23, 2014 2:24:10 AM


  15. I thought Jo Becker's NYTimes Magazine piece was great. I'm buying her book!

    I never did read Sullivan's "Nearly Normal" or "Relatively Normal" or whatever he called it, but his reaction to Becker's account has been anything but normal. Instead, he seems narcissistic, misogynistic and bitter. Guess he's getting the attention he needs, but it comes at a cost. Mean is mean. Too bad, because I used to like reading him once in awhile. Now he seems to have become completely unhinged.

    He lost me on the whole Eich(mann) thing, too.

    Posted by: gpmiii | Apr 23, 2014 2:51:28 AM


  16. I have been Involved with Hawaii's historical ongoing role in Same-Sex marriage battle since the beginning of the first case in 1990. The local and national people who REALLY were and remain the visionaries and made the difference when no one else gave a dam
    were Dan Foley,Evan Wolfson,Bill Woods,Judge Chang and Judge Levinson,and the local couples and activists who worked on it for 21 years and won. David Smith(from HRC) and author John Boswell & Andrew Sullivan provided early inspiration,heart and support.
    Strategy for Vermont,Mass. and Ontario Canada began here as well(thanks to Dan and Evan). In 2015 there will be a comprehensive book coming out that will do a QUALITY job gelling the story out to the world. Be patent. It will be worth it. Aloha,David McEwan MD

    Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2014 3:26:35 AM


  17. Jo Becker is incredibly bad at research and she is a barefaced liar.

    Her work of fiction had better not be turned into a movie.

    Posted by: MaryM | Apr 23, 2014 3:35:27 AM


  18. Been following the subject over on the Dish (yes, Sullivan has his undies in a bunch about this but rightfully so); reading the article here, it suddenly struck me what Becker is really after: film rights. This would make a neat and tidy gay marriage film...
    Hope Hollywood doesn't take the bait.

    Posted by: Jim | Apr 23, 2014 3:38:33 AM


  19. Andrew Sullivan is no longer a "conservative" and hasn't been for years since there is no money in it for him.

    Posted by: Perry | Apr 23, 2014 8:42:22 AM


  20. I think 2008 is pretty spot on. The average person didn't really care much about gay marriage until California's Prop 8 and that is the vote that really got us fired up with many new gay lobby groups starting. That's what got the NOH8 campaign started for sure. Adam Bouska wouldn't have done it if not for the Prop 8 vote. He was busy doing modeling photography for ads and magazine covers at the time.

    Posted by: Richard Harney | Apr 23, 2014 9:12:44 AM


  21. Becker's marketing strategy misleads about the book, but clearly the reaction of Andrew Sullivan is over the top, both selfish and petty. Still, it is annoying that the book claims more than it offers. Any history of the marriage equality book has to offer leading roles to Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, among others, to say nothing of the ACLU, Roberta Kaplan, and Edie Windsor.

    On the other hand, the epic battle against Prop 8 is a fascinating and central story. The decision to go for a federal suit that might achieve marriage equality throughout the nation was a risky but brave strategy. It stirred the grass roots and yielded a trial that demonstrated the paucity of the opposition's arguments. Even though the Prop 8 case did not yield the ruling that will extend marriage equality throughout the nation, it is a crucially important story and I intend to read Becker's book to learn more about the backstory.

    The case that actually will lead to marriage equality is the Windsor case. I hope someone is writing a book about it as well. It is likely to be somewhat less dramatic and featuring fewer flamboyant characters, but it will no doubt be very interesting as well.

    Posted by: Jay | Apr 23, 2014 9:39:30 AM


  22. Though, like everyone else here, I haven't yet read the book, it sounds like she should have written a narrow book about Prop 8 rather than aiming at something larger. It sounds like she was too closely embedded with the Prop 8 team and failed to grasp the bigger context. The other problem is the book doesn't have the dramatic ending the Prop 8 team and probably Becker were hoping for: they didn't get the big win. They didn't achieve their goal of nationwide marriage equality. Marriage returned to CA, yes, but on a technicality. Not exactly a movie ending. (Not that AFER's work isn't important in other ways. Olson/Boies may still be the ones who get to the Supreme Court.)

    The truth is the marriage movement started well before 2008. Crucial work was done in Hawaii, in Vermont and Massachusetts and elsewhere, in the 1990s. This work led to the cases that led to the overturning of DOMA Section 3, a more significant victory than Prop 8. It's the Windsor case that's become the precedent for the string of victories since. Mary Bonauto may not be the fresh face Becker was looking for, but she's among the people who is much more responsible for where we are now than Griffin.

    Some of the grumbling may be personal (Sullivan, after all, has a personal stake in how the history is written) but much of it is from people who aren't bitter or jealous or wanting personal glory. They're simply want to offer a corrective to the book's tunnel vision.

    Other histories will come forward. For instance, a documentary is in the works that focuses on the Vermont story and the amazing work Beth Robinson and Susan Murray did in Baker v VT.

    Posted by: Ernie | Apr 23, 2014 10:26:53 AM


  23. What's infuriating about the book are several things:

    1. This "definitive" history of the movement for marriage equality was obviously written by someone who has NO connection to the people involved, and the key turning points in its history. Otherwise, the book would be different. So, it's a "Pulitzer award winning NYT reporter" cashing in without doing a thorough job of figuring out up from down.

    2. Chad Griffin obviously sucked her in, which shows her naiveté but also makes him look like an egotistical jerk. He could right now, today, make s statement deflecting his over prominent role and crediting those before him. He has not. Why would anyone support HRC right now?

    3. The Prop case was thrown out of SCOTUS on standing grounds. If anyone is Rosa Parks and if any case was super historical, it was Edie Windsor and DOMA. The Kennedy language in that case, echoing the brief written by Robbie Kaplan, is being used all over the country in other cases as we speak.

    4. The marriage equality tidal wave hit shore on election day 2012 when marriage equality (or ending a hate ballot) were won in four states: WA, MN, ME and MD. This was not a legal strategy, this was a PR strategy based on the view that the way to win is public opinion. The straight, moderate middle class public cares little for arguments about gay civil rights in the Constitutional perspective (they see it as the whinings of a minority with an "agenda," and judges who respond to that as "activist."). If there ever was a holy sh*t day in marriage equality movement it was November 2012. So, one can say that "well that is another part of the history that is another book," but if her book tries to claim that everything was failing until AFER came along that is SIMPLY WRONG AND FALSE...

    Posted by: richard | Apr 23, 2014 11:39:18 AM


  24. Nationwide support for marriage equality in 1993 was at about one third. Over the next 15 years that has increased to now over one half. Much of that rise occurred well before 2008.

    So how could marriage equality support have risen so much if all those people were doing nothing? This book makes it sound like nothing really happened until 2008 when Chad Griffin entered the picture. That is so preposterous I don't even know what to say.

    And who can forget the fact that the human rights campaign throughout the 90s was against pushing marriage equality? Even the first part of this decade they were against it. Worse, in both elections that George Bush one, HRC was nowhere to be seen. I distinctly remember many debates on TV when the head of HRC refused to promote marriage equality, and refused to defend gaze at all. Instead, they kept saying that voters just want to talk about health care, because that's with their focus groups were telling them. And so at a time when we were being bashed by every conservative and religious group out there, HRC just gave up the public flight altogether.

    HRC should be the very last organization on earth to be taking any credit for the marriage equality gains would've seen.

    Posted by: Randy | Apr 23, 2014 12:11:44 PM


  25. Fight it out boys. This is the tip of the iceberg, and we haven't even won over the folks in Mississippi. Would someone please tell Neil Patrick Harris to get off the stage, go home and take care of his children?

    Posted by: Arrow | Apr 23, 2014 1:40:41 PM


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