Lessons from the Jo Becker Gay Marriage Book, Part 1: Driving Rosa Parks


Now that the great public gnashing of teeth has subsided over New York Times reporter Jo Becker’s history of the Proposition 8 litigation, Forcing the Spring, there’s an opportunity to chew on some of the book’s useful disclosures.

Parks_griffinFor all the consternation it has caused, Becker’s trespass in portraying American Foundation for Equal Rights founder Chad Griffin as the Rosa Parks in the fight for marriage equality is not much worse than all the many times newspapers, magazines, and even knowledgeable people in the LGBT community have casually pronounced Stonewall as the start of the gay civil rights movement and rioting drag queens as the pioneers. The movement started decades earlier, and its pioneers were people who pushed back against discrimination in many different ways.

It also appears that Becker’s idea for dubbing Griffin, now president of the Human Rights Campaign, as a Rosa Parks type hero came from a National Archives development official. On page 381 of Forcing the Spring, Becker recounts how Jesika Jennings was showing Griffin and the plaintiffs around the Archives’ “Courting Freedom” exhibit. According to the Archives website, the exhibit “explores the evolution of American civil liberties with highlights from the evidence and judgments in important court cases, including documentation from the police report on the arrest of Rosa Parks.” While showing the group through that room, wrote Becker, Jennings told the plaintiffs that she was honored to show them around and that their own records “will be here in twenty to twenty-five years.”

“It’s like having the opportunity to give Rosa Parks a tour of the Declaration and the Constitution,” Jennings said, according to Becker. And Jennings, who now works elsewhere, confirmed the Rosa Parks quote as “quite accurate.”

SmithIt’s also worth noting that much-respected gay legal activist Paul Smith (right) called the Proposition 8 litigation “hugely significant,” according to a quote on page 387. Smith is the attorney who successfully argued the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down sodomy laws in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case. He was also, according to what Olson told Becker, the first co-counsel Olson sought to work with on the Prop 8 case, but Smith turned him down. According to Becker’s account, which she said she got from an interview with Smith, Smith had “entertained the idea of bringing a federal challenge to same-sex marriage bans” in the wake of his 2003 victory in Lawrence. He had just joined the board of Lambda Legal when Olson approached him about filing such a challenge in 2009. But Smith declined, telling Olson that he decided against filing a challenge to the marriage bans “after talking to a number of former Supreme Court clerks.” The clerks had convinced Smith that it would not be easy to win Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote to strike down state laws banning marriage for same-sex couples.

SullivanBecker said Olson “considered” asking another respected openly gay attorney for his co-counsel: Kathleen Sullivan. Sullivan had been co-counsel on one of LGBT legal history’s biggest losses: Bowers v. Hardwick. That 1986 decision at the Supreme Court, upholding the right of states to prohibit private sexual relations between people of the same sex, was used to the detriment of gays for years, by courts far and wide on a range of issues –from employment, military, adoption, and custody of one’s own biological child. It essentially labeled all gays as law-breakers and, in some states, as felons. And the hostility and disregard for gay people in the language of the Hardwick decision affected public discourse for years to come.

Olson never asked Sullivan, concluding that, because her name was mentioned in the press as a potential nominee for President Obama to name to the Supreme Court, it wasn’t a good idea.

“If she joined the [Olson] team and then was nominated and confirmed,” wrote Becker of Olson’s thinking, “she would have to recuse herself in the event the case reached the Supreme Court, which would make the odds of winning much steeper.” (Left unsaid was what working on the Prop 8 legal team might have done to Sullivan’s chances of being nominated.)

Becker also famously paints a dramatic scene in which two well-respected legal activists from Lambda Legal and two of their allies from the ACLU storm out of a meeting early on with Griffin, several of his associates, and attorney Ted Boutrous from the Olson team. Becker wasn’t at that meeting, which took place on May 14, 2009. It was a meeting at which Griffin and his team were reportedly trying to seek support for their lawsuit from the LGBT legal establishment groups.

This was eight days before Olson’s team filed the lawsuit and arguably not the best time to make a sincere solicitation of input from lawyers who have been in the trenches representing the LGBT community’s legal rights for decades. It may have felt a little like, “Rosa Parks, we’re taking over this bus and driving all the way to the Supreme Court!” LGBT legal activists knew they were heading to the Supreme Court over marriage equality eventually, but they had been working meticulously on building the correct vehicle for the journey to maximize their chances for victory and avoid another Hardwick setback.

According to Becker’s account of the meeting where the AFER-Olson lawsuit was unveiled to LGBT legal groups, Hollywood producer Rob Reiner, who hosted the meeting at his home and was helping raise the money to fund the litigation, gave the four invited attorneys a synopsis of the plan, and Olson colleague Boutrous noted, “Someone is going to bring a federal marriage lawsuit and you won’t find a better advocate than Ted Olson.”

Next week: The big blow-up revisited: When Hollywood met the LGBT movement’s hired guns.

© 2014 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.


  1. anon says

    As I understand it, the “gnashing of teeth”, as you call it, could have been avoided if Becker had referred to her book as the history of the Proposition 8 litigation in its opening pages instead of claiming it to be the history of the LGBT marriage equality movement as she did.

  2. Sergio says

    Chad Griffin has probably done some good work, but he will forever be tarnished by the negative publicity surrounding this book. That image of a callow ‘boy wonder’ grasping for full credit where only some is due is now indelible.

  3. ColinATL says

    It’s not about the book, Lisa Keen, it’s about the PUBLICITY for the book. You can try to argue the facts that support the publicized claims, but that doesn’t change the “disingenuity” of the publicity campaign. It was poorly done and tone deaf.

  4. petensfo says

    I’m a gay man and Chad’s reputation is not in any way tarnished with me.

    From the beginning, I’ve seen this as a bunch of bitter pills on the interweb that should put a lid on it and write their own darned book, if they’re so unhappy.

    This article reads like the big, get-over-it, that has been long overdue.

  5. JMC says

    Seriously can’t stand how nobody seems to be able to write anything about the gay rights movement without appropriating from or forcing comparisons to the civil rights movement.

  6. Håkon says

    Griffin does come off as too eager to claim the throne as a gay Martin Luther King Jr.. As the children nowadays would say: NAGL (‘not a good look’).

  7. Garygdw says

    I don’t believe that the “the great public gnashing of teeth has subsided” Jo Becker should be ashamed. Nobody is saying that the Prop8 trial wasn’t significant, but the approach, glorification and misleading context of her book is enraging. Her downplaying of the Windsor case in the context of history is not acceptable.

  8. pablo says

    If anyone in the political/legal realm deserves to be the “Rosa Parks” it is Mary Bonauto, hands down.

  9. MaryM says

    PetenSFO makes a remarkably STUPID comment when he says that people angered by the blatant lies and untruths in Becker’s book should write their own book.


    If Becker is writing a book and makes false claims and tells barefaced lies about the subject in question then of course her books needs to be discredited – otherwise people may believe it’s an impartial book.