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Jo Becker's Prop. 8 Trial Book, 'Forcing the Spring,' is Hardly 'Dangerous' Revisionism

The central problem with New York Times investigative journalist Jo Becker’s new book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, is the title. It’s presumptuous, preposterous and wrongly sets up an expectation for a full history rather than a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a significant fight in California’s long battle for same sex marriage rights. Not content with a powerful epic story featuring conservative attorney Ted Olson, his one-time rival David Boies and rising gay leader Chad Griffin, Becker has turned the flame of illumination about the Prop. 8 trial into a wild fire that may now scorch her best intentions.

What does “forcing the Spring” mean, for instance? Forcing and capitalizing on a set of circumstances so a social justice “revolution” can occur? If that’s the case, scores of “revolutions” in the gay community have foreshadowed the fight for marriage equality – especially the excruciating societal devaluation of relationships during the AIDS crisis.

Even in California, the fight for marriage equality didn’t begin in 2008 with Prop 8. Metropolitan Community Church founder Rev. Troy Perry performed the first same sex marriage in 1969 and filed the first marriage lawsuit in 1970.

L.A. residents Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams were married on April 21, 1975, by a county clerk in Boulder, Colo., and Adams immediately filed a green card petition with INS to have Australian Sullivan recognized as his spouse. He was rejected with one-sentence: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” Adams has since died and Sullivan is still fighting.

The discrepancy between what the book title promises and what the book actually delivers has set off a firestorm of controversy, with gays across the political spectrum blasting Forcing the Spring as a “travesty” and “dangerous” to history, especially in terms of “who gets credit” for the marriage equality movement.  Critics have excoriated Becker for lax fact-checking and her “shameful” treatment of marriage movement icons Evan Wolfson from Freedom to Marry; Mary Bonauto from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan. Perhaps most egregious is the perceived disrespect afforded Edith Windsor and Roberta Kaplan, the plaintiff and lawyer who won the DOMA case before the Supreme Court.

Becker defended herself on NPR’s Fresh Air.  

"The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today," Becker told Terry Gross. "But what changed in this moment was the strategy—to the extent that a group of people came together in what was a really dark moment in the gay-rights movement—a moment when California, of all places, enshrined a ban into its constitution—and said [this] state-court-by-state-court and ballot-box-by-ballot-box strategy isn't working. ... They wanted to do something quite radical, really quite radical, which is bring this cause to the Supreme Court."

And the gay legal establishment was pissed. “It just felt like there was a lot of disrespect for the fact that a lot of people who had been working on these issues for a very long time had a different viewpoint,” Lambda Legal’s Jon Davidson told Becker later. “I was like ‘who are you?’” 

The gay legal establishment had a longterm strategy and were terrified that a random gay couple with a dreadful publicity-seeking lawyer would bring a case that could lead to a set back. The memory of the Supreme Court upholding laws criminalizing sodomy in Bowers v. Hardwick was burned in their brains. “The consensus was that the case had been brought too soon, at a time when nearly half the states had a criminal sodomy laws on their books,” Becker writes. “How long would it take for a reversal on marriage, and what other precedents might be set, if Olson was to lose?”

But this was Ted Olson—star of The Federalist Society, the former Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, friend of Antonin Scalia! That he was now paired with David Boies, his former opponent in the historic Bush v. Gore, was an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, air-sucking moment of genius, thought many of us who covered the over-the-top American flag-festooned announcement that May 2009 introducing the lawsuit and the American Foundation for Equal Rights.  Political consultant Chad Griffin owned that stage. He was clearly the team leader, with Rob Reiner and Dustin Lance Black sitting in the front row and Bruce Cohen showing up later. 

Griffin made sure I got to ask my question, which I directed to Olson (about 23 minutes into the tape). “Why should the gay community trust you?” Olson’s whole demeanor changed. He leaned over the podium, as if wanting a measure of intimacy, as if convincing me of his sincerity, passion and commitment was the most important thing in the world at that moment. He was genuinely captivating.

This is not a moment recounted in Becker’s book. But it is an example of how easily it might have been for a professional journalist embedded with the AFER team and given an all access pass might have fallen in love with her subjects.

Throughout the long, agonizing process—Olson, Boies, Griffin—the plaintiffs, especially L.A.-based couple Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, were accessible, authentic, sincere and mindful of the burden they carried, standing in for the gay community. But there was also a fire in their bellies. They were willing to sacrifice because they believed they could win marriage in the Supreme Court and with that win, bring dignity to closeted youth and civil rights to a whole community.

On every conference call I remember, as well as one-on-one interviews, Olson and Boies always said they wanted to bring the Prop. 8 case to the Supreme Court to seek equality and justice for their clients first, and therefore, for same-sex couples in California. They also hoped to convince the justices to grant gay individuals the freedom to find love and happiness in marriage in every state. And they stressed that they would need to do a lot of education before they got there.

The AFER team hoped that the Prop. 8 trial in Judge Vaughn Walker’s district court would be televised. Americans have been fascinated with judicial proceedings since the OJ Simpson trial and the public could see the pain of discrimination in the plaintiff’s stories and grasp the testimony of their expert witnesses, contrary to the lies of the Prop. 8 supporters. But the Supreme Court nixed a live broadcast and the team was forced to find other ways to raise consciousness and awareness.

So the “odd couple” appeared everywhere. And opinions—especially among Republicans and independents—changed.

By the time of the victory in District court, so many of the shocked and angry gays who marched against  Mormon Temples after Prop. 8 passed and pledged they’d never take their rights for granted again, showed up at rallies in West Hollywood and San Francisco and treated Ted Olson and David Boies like rock stars.  

While legal scholars and Becker critics might think the Prop. 8 court victory was less than stellar, the people who showed up at those rallies and lined up in California to get married celebrated and gulped deeply from the spring of equality after being parched for most of their lives.   

In her interview with NPR, Becker says she heard in the Prop. 8 court battle “echoes of the kind of similar debate” during the civil rights era, where people told leaders like Martin Luther King, "You're moving too fast! The courts aren't ready!"

I suspect the embedded journalist thought she was witnessing the birth of a King-like leader in Chad Griffin. What she didn’t realize is that the LGBT community likes to do its own myth-making, and there hasn’t been a gay MLK yet.

Finally, while I understand all the fuming and found a few errors myself, my copy of Forcing the Spring is dog-eared and marked up on almost every page. I appreciate the book Becker actually wrote, rather than the title the publishers wanted to sell me. 

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  1. Clay P posted on 05/04/2014 09:46 AM
    Trouble is, it's not just the title. This, for example, is the very first paragraph.

    "This is how a revolution begins. It begins when someone grows tired of standing idly by, waiting for history’s arc to bend toward justice, and instead decides to give it a swift shove. It begins when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in the segregated South. And in this story, it begins with a handsome, bespectacled thirty-five-year-old political consultant named Chad Griffin, in a spacious suite at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco on election night 2008."
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