A new book on the advancement of marriage equality and the lawsuit that overturned Proposition 8 is stirring controversy over its lionization of HRC President Chad Griffin and its depiction of the federal lawsuit he helped initiate against the California ban.
The book, “Forcing the Spring,” was written by Jo Becker, a New York Times journalist who was embedded with Griffin and the Prop 8 team as their lawsuit moved forward. The book hit shelves on Tuesday, but has already incurred the ire of many in the LGBT movement who say it heaps too much praise on Griffin and ignores others who led the marriage equality effort for decades.
The notion that Griffin, a board member of American Foundation for Equal Rights, is the hero who saved the marriage equality movement pervades the 437-page work.
One part of the book that addresses his move to D.C. in 2012 to become head of the Human Rights Campaign includes a farewell discussion in which fellow AFER board member Rob Reiner says of Griffin, “If there ever is going to be — and there will be at some point — the first gay president, you’re looking at him.”
As noted by gay blogger Andrew Sullivan in his tirade against the book, “Forcing the Spring” opens with a comparison of Griffin and civil rights icon Rosa Parks, saying a revolution begins when someone “grows tired of standing idly by” against the tide of injustice.
“It begins when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a bus to white man in the segregated South,” Becker writes. “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.”
It’s this comparison between Griffin and the iconic figure of the black civil rights movement that Sullivan, who helped pioneer the idea of same-sex marriage in the 1990s, says is only the start of “jaw-dropping distortion” throughout the book.
Andrew Lane, a prominent New York-based gay donor, called the book a “travesty” and said Becker knew that was the case as she was putting the book together.
“She chose to give us a shallow and incomplete history that fetishizes the role of celebrities and PR hacks and either trashes or ignores the real heroes who fought for years to help make the moment possible,” Lane said. “That vapid gay men are attempting to re-write history by centering themselves is not news. That they conscripted a New York Times reporter to do the heavy lifting for them certainly is.”
HRC didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the perception that Griffin and the Prop 8 case are given undue credit in the book for their role in the marriage equality movement.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to the behind-the-scenes action leading to President Obama’s announcement in favor of marriage equality in 2012. Although Obama campaigned in 2008 in opposition to same-sex marriage (despite supporting it in 1996), he later said he could evolve on the issue, leading to his announcement in favor of same-sex marriage during his re-election campaign.
According to the book, when Vice President Joseph Biden appeared to endorse same-sex marriage on NBC’s “Meet the Press” just days before Obama’s announcement, the White House reacted furiously. In a chain of emails sent through the White House, senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett through an intermediary accused Biden of “downright disloyalty.”
Griffin gets credit as a key voice for moving these evolutions forward. A passage in the book recounts Griffin briefly asking the president during a fundraiser, “How can we help you evolve more quickly?” Obama gave a non-committed response, but pointed to his work on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Defense of Marriage Act as evidence of his commitment to LGBT rights.
Further, it recounts Griffin attending a Los Angeles fundraiser with Biden prior to his appearance on “Meet the Press.” After Griffin asked Biden what he really thinks about marriage equality, the vice president said being against it in the future will be a “political liability.” A top Biden aide is quoted as saying it was a moment when “his hard drive got erased.”
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, criticized the depiction of Griffin as being a driving factor in Obama’s evolution, especially because others who contributed to the effort — like his own blogger who got Obama to say he could evolve on marriage — are absent from the book.
“I had high hopes for Chad taking over HRC, and said so publicly, but I don’t honestly know what Chad did to get the president to evolve on marriage,” Aravosis said. “You wouldn’t know it from Jo Becker’s self-proclaimed ‘definitive account’ of the gay marriage battle these past five years, but the president used that word in response to a question from then-AMERICAblog deputy editor Joe Sudbay, who questioned the president in the White House in October of 2010. Becker gives neither Joe, nor AMERICAblog, any credit, for the now-famous answer.”
Also depicted as contributing to Obama’s evolution on marriage is Ken Mehlman, the former head of the Republican National Committee who came out as gay in 2010. Mehlman attended Harvard with Obama, so the two had known each other for decades.
According to the book, Mehlman e-mailed Obama senior adviser David Plouffe some talking points and suggested soft lighting for the interview and that it be conducted by a female reporter (it ended up being Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America,” who was closeted at the time).
It’s not the first time the events leading up to Obama’s announcement in favor of same-sex marriage have been reported. The 2013 book “Double Down,” which chronicles Obama’s re-election campaign, also discusses the lead-up to the endorsement. The book similarly recounts the fervor in the White House after Biden’s words on “Meet the Press” and Mehlman’s advice to Obama for his interview, although Griffin makes no appearance in that narrative.
While praising Griffin, the book doesn’t present as favorable an image of other leaders in the marriage equality movement. Among them is Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, who spoke out on marriage equality when it was much less popular — even among LGBT rights groups — in the 1990s.
One portion of the book disparages Wolfson for having unkind words for “Milk” screenwriter and AFER board member Dustin Lance Black after he pledged in his Oscar acceptance speech that equal rights will come very soon for gay people across America.
“Wolfson had berated the younger man over his Oscar speech, explaining as though to a willing but ignorant child his ongoing, twenty-five year plan to build support for marriage equality,” Becker writes. “Twenty-five years? Black had practically gasped. But he had said little; it was intimidating, to say the least, to be dressed down by a pioneer of the marriage equality movement.”
In response to a Blade inquiry on whether he’s given a fair shake in the book, Wolfson spoke in holistic terms on progress made on marriage equality and future goals to advance it further.
“As a movement, we have secured a strong majority of public support for the freedom to marry and a critical mass of Americans living in marriage states,” Wolfson said. “Together, we gutted the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, and, as we again head toward the Supreme Court, have built irrefutable momentum showing America is ready. But we are not done. Freedom to Marry is going to stay focused on finishing the job and achieving the goal we’ve long been aiming toward: winning marriage nationwide.”
Another person whose role is minimized in the book is Mary Bonauto, the civil rights director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who successfully argued the case almost 11 years ago that brought marriage equality to Massachusetts, making it the first state in the country with same-sex marriage. She has also led efforts against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Her role in “Forcing the Spring” is reduced to commending the Prop 8 lawsuit for enabling a trial of the issue of marriage equality. “They turned that trial into a truth commission,” Bonauto is quoted as saying of the attorneys behind the lawsuit.
Carisa Cunningham, a GLAD spokesperson, dismissed the omission of Bonauto’s work on marriage equality by saying the book was meant to capture the narrative of another effort to advance the cause.
“This book wasn’t Mary’s story, and it’s clearly not a history of the movement,” Cunningham said. “Someday someone will write a book about Mary, and in the meantime, Mary’s story has been told in plenty of public ways and she and GLAD get a lot of well-deserved credit. We’re in it for the work – on principle and how it makes a difference in people’s lives.”
Cunningham also criticized the depiction of Griffin in the book, saying although he offered significant contributions to advancing marriage equality, the book “may do a disservice to those contributions by portraying him as a savior of the movement.”
But the crux of the book is that the lawsuit against Prop 8 litigated by Ted Olson and David Boies restructured the marriage movement. The title itself, “Forcing the Spring,” suggests the Prop 8 case was responsible for bringing marriage equality to the entire country — or at least getting the ball rolling for successes in other states besides California.
But it was the decision in the DOMA case — not the Prop 8 case — that established legal precedent enabling courts since that ruling to rule in favor of marriage equality in now 10 states. The U.S. Supreme Court on the Prop 8 case sidestepped the merits of whether a state can ban same-sex marriage, ruling that proponents of the law had no standing to defend the ban in court after California state officials declined to do so.
The conclusion of Becker’s account gives credit to the lawsuit against DOMA, but says the arguments in the Prop 8 case influenced U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision in striking down the federal law.
“By intertwining arguments from both cases, Kennedy gave the Windsor decision a heft and precedential value it might not otherwise have had, providing powerful legal ammunition for a slew of future challenges to state bans on same-sex marriage,” Becker writes.
It should be noted, as previously reported by the Blade, that Olson and Boies’ assistance in the Prop 8 lawsuit came with a hefty $6.4 million price tag. Moreover, HRC, now headed by Griffin, was among the nine signatories of a letter that came out the day before the Prop 8 lawsuit was filed and urged restraint in taking the case to court.
“It is by no means clear that a federal challenge to Prop. 8 can win now,” the letter says. “And an unsuccessful challenge may delay marriage even longer, not only in California but in other states, and seriously damage the rights of LGBT people on many other important issues.”
Nonetheless, HRC in the past week has been promoting the book and its depiction of the Prop 8 case in various blog postings on the organization’s website. One March 26 posting in the weeks prior to the publication of the book calls it “an unparalleled testament to the last five years in the American civil rights movement.”
Suzanne Goldberg, co-director for Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, said she’s read the Becker book and faulted Becker for not telling the Prop 8 story in a way that better shows its place among other contributions to the marriage movement.
“I think the Perry case was, along with other cases, legislative and community-based advocacy, influential in shaping the marriage equality movement,” Goldberg said. “The problem with Jo Becker’s book is not the up-close story she tells about the Prop 8 case and media work, which in itself is interesting, but rather the uncritical telling of that story as an account of the marriage equality movement. There are numerous places where she gives both the case and the media advocates far more credit for inventing advocacy strategies and changing the landscape than either deserves.”