The saying goes, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." But the Hollywood version of a victory doesn't have room for a thousand fathers, does it? Won't somebody think of the screenwriters, not to mention casting directors? Within the gay community, a just-released book has caused some fairly loud fractures by apparently reducing the entire work and battle for gay marriage recognition to a handful of elite people in positions of power and acting as though the struggles didn't begin until 2008, making a potential movie or documentary narrative nice and pat.
The book, Forcing the Spring, by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Jo Becker, was released on Tuesday, and the response from those who know the history of the gay marriage movement has been loudly negative. Major names in the gay community like Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, and Michelangelo Signorile have blasted the book for whitewashing the lengthy history of activism for gay marriage recognition that goes back decades, not just years. Journalists Chris Geidner and Lisa Keen, both of whom have lengthy histories writing about the gay marriage movement, have documented many of the problems with the book. Current Amazon reviews are not kind.
The book focuses mostly on the battle to strike down California's Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment that outlawed gay marriage recognition. Opponents of Proposition 8 ultimately succeeded, but because the Supreme Court ultimately determined that the federal government had no authority to rule on the matter because backers of the initiative lacked standing, the win does not extend beyond California. It's the Windsor ruling, the Supreme Court decision that struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, that's being invoked now to take down laws against gay marriage recognition in other states. Thus, trying to make the Prop. 8 fight central to the narrative creates a situation where those who were involved in this one battle are elevated over the many, many other people involved in the fight. Geidner notes at BuzzFeed in his analysis:
The book appears to have been carefully, but narrowly, fact-checked. It excels in covering the actual case, however, whether it's the 2010 trial in San Francisco, the four plaintiffs and their families, or any of the case-specific details. Becker fastidiously details every aspect of the preparation, trial, and appeals that the lawsuit took on its four-year path, providing information and insights never before published. She marshals the access she received from the Prop 8 case team and plaintiffs to provide a comprehensive and compelling narrative of an important piece of the marriage equality story in this country.
But Becker's reliance on the [American Foundation for Equal Rights] AFER (and, later, [Human Rights Campaign] HRC) team—primarily lawyers [Ted] Olson and [David] Boies, staffers [Chad] Griffin and Adam Umhoefer, and consultants [Hilary] Rosen and Ken Mehlman—is ultimately the book's downfall. Almost any contextualizing of the case is done by people with a vested and open interest in advancing the narrative that Griffin, with Olson's help, rescued a cause that Becker claims "had largely languished in obscurity."
Claiming that the gay marriage cause "had largely languished in obscurity" prior to Prop. 8 is just a crazy thing to say. Even if Becker looks only at California, Proposition 8, an amendment to the state's constitution, itself only existed because the California Supreme Court struck down a previous ban created by a previous initiative (Proposition 22) as unconstitutional on the state level.
I've just picked up the book myself and am planning my own review. Because some of the critics of the book are so heavily involved in gay marriage debate and activism, I did wonder if there weren't some sour grapes from those the book failed to acknowledge. But here's how the book opens:
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.
This is just absurd. You don't have to be a major gay marriage activist or an insider to realize how wrong this opening is. You don't even need to be gay. You just need to have paid attention. But it makes for a great opening establishing scene for a movie, right? Just think of the casting opportunities for a handsome, bespectacled 35-year-old political consultant! I vote for Ryan Gosling.