Karen Ocamb

Forcing Which Spring?

Filed By Karen Ocamb | April 24, 2014 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality
Tags: California, Forcing the Spring, gay marriage, Jo Becker, marriage equality, Prop 8, Proposition 8, same-sex marriage

For the past week, gay rights and marriage equality advocates across the political spectrum have weighed in -- sometimes furiously -- on the historical accuracy of Jo Becker's new book about the federal challenge to California's Prop. 8, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality.

jo-becker-ronan-farrow.jpgFor four years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist was embedded with and had unprecedented access to the entire team at the American Foundation for Equal Rights, from the legal "dream team" of Ted Olson and David Boies to AFER co-founders Chad Griffin, Rob Reiner, Kristina Schake and the team behind the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, as well, of course, as the extraordinary plaintiffs: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo.

But any book that purports to tell the "inside" story about the "fight for marriage equality" cannot ignore marriage equality pioneers, argues Andrew Sullivan, whose Aug. 28, 1989 New Republic cover story "Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage" raised the issue when few gay politicos could think beyond domestic partnerships.

Nor should Becker have ignored or dissed the contributions of such "monumental" marriage movement figures as Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), argues Michelangelo Signorile, who covered the Hawaii legal cases in 1991. The most "egregious problem with Forcing the Spring," Signorile writes, is that Becker offensively and consistently undercuts other people's work, distorting the truth in an attempt to give her insiders credit for ... everything."

Buzzfeed legal reporter Chris Geidner calls the book "a dangerous draft of history," and, having long covered the people and issues involved with marriage equality, he says Forcing the Spring "just doesn't get it right."

Becker has her defenders, including gay Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart:

Sullivan raises a valid concern about how the history of the quest for marriage equality is being portrayed. But his characteristically harsh tone obscures the fact that Becker's book is not an exhaustive look at that history. Instead, it is an exhaustive look at a moment in the overarching civil rights fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans: what happened between Election Night 2008 and the 2013 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal again in California.

After reading select chapters of the book to be released next week, I can say Becker gives readers an insider's view of what they watched in real time over four and a half years. Her interviews and observations are presented in a riveting fashion that reminded me of Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters," the first of three books on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement.

That connection to the African-American civil rights movement is an interesting one. Sullivan, Signorile and a slew of other reviewers are apoplectic that Becker seems to equate Chad Griffin to civil rights icon Rosa Parks in the opening 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.

In an op-ed responding to his controversial portrayal in the book, Griffin wrote:

I came out of the closet after many of these people [LGBT icons] had been active in the struggle for years. I'm not going to lie and say it wasn't a challenge for me. I grew up in Arkansas, where I went to a Southern Baptist church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night too. I spent my childhood thinking I didn't know a single other gay person in my town. And when I did finally come out, it wasn't due to some newfound personal fortitude; it was because the world had changed around me thanks to a national conversation on equality started by every single one of those advocates--and countless more. Simply put, I have nothing in common with the trailblazing courage of Rosa Parks.

I was not given an advance copy of the book or even selected paragraphs, so I have refrained from commenting until after I read the book. It just arrived from Amazon yesterday. But I confess, a number of red flags have been raised, not the least being the apparent minimizing of any other "spring" offensive prior to the federal legal effort to overturn Prop. 8.

gavin_newsom-winter-of-love-2004.jpgI was not in Hawaii -- like Signorile, for instance -- but I certainly covered the Hawaii case when two of the same-sex couples came to Los Angeles with attorney Dan Foley to fundraise to support their lawsuit. Most LGBT groups were horrified that these grassroots couples had dared go ahead with their case and provoke a massive anti-gay backlash. Lambda Legal's Evan Wolfson believed in them, however, as did L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center Executive Director Lorri Jean, who hosted one of the fundraisers in the early 1990s.

That certainly "forced the spring," if by "spring" you mean a kind of grassroots revolution akin to the Arab Spring or even a warlike "Spring offensive," which we later discovered was spawned by an anti-equality collaboration between the Mormons and the Catholic Church.

California also witnessed a "forcing of the spring" on Feb. 12, 2004, when newly-elected San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom -- working behind the scenes with NCLR's Kate Kendell and EQCA's Geoff Kors -- directed city-county clerks to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The same day at the Beverly Hills Courthouse, Robin Tyler and Diane Olson and Rev. Troy Perry and Phillip De Blieck (legally married in Canada on July 16, 2003) had their marriage applications denied and their attorney Gloria Allred announced she was suing the state of California to overturn Prop. 22.

Meanwhile, approximately 4,000 same-sex couples were legally married between Feb. 12 and March 11, when the court ordered an injunction. That August, the California Supreme Court voided those marriages, prompting a number of lawsuits subsequently consolidated into the ultimately successful In re Marriage Cases.

On Dec. 6, 2004, gay Assemblymember Mark Leno introduced the first same-sex marriage bill, AB 19, to overturn Prop. 22 and define marriage as a union between two persons. Leno subsequently authored two marriage bills (in 2005, 2007) that were passed by the legislature but vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That Valentine's Day love fest on Feb. 12, 2004, not only "forced the spring" but preceded the May 14, 2004, ruling in Massachusetts that brought marriage equality to the first state in the union.

I also covered the May 2009 news conference where political consultant and AFER co-founder Chad Griffin introduced Ted Olson and David Boies and explained the lawsuit they filed. Everyone knew it was a bold move, risky. But that news conference was the beginning of a change in the way many Americans have come to view marriage equality.

And because of that, I don't want to rush to judgment about the actions, words or insights of people in a book I haven't yet read. I will have a more thoughtful review shortly.

Meanwhile, meet the author, Jo Becker, who defends the book to MSNBC host Ronan Farrow.

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