The author of a controversial book on the fight to overturn California’s Proposition 8 defended her work Friday during a promotional event at a D.C. bookstore — although differing accounts have emerged over whether she cancelled an appearance at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters the next day.
Jo Becker, who wrote “Forcing the Spring,” spoke at an hour-long event at Politics & Prose Bookstore and touted her book, saying it wasn’t meant to encompass the entire history of the marriage equality movement.
The book’s praise for Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin’s contributions to that effort — while leaving out others or casting them as obstacles to the Prop 8 lawsuit — has ignited controversy in the LGBT community.
Asked by the Washington Blade during the Q&A portion of the event whether she thought this criticism was unfair, Becker said the book is “one chapter in a much longer narrative.”
“I chose to write about this chapter because it was a defining moment in the sense that there was a decision that was made to go to the federal courts — and that was not the consensus of the established gay rights legal groups who had been fighting this for years, who had given a great deal of thought to this,” Becker said.
Becker noted her book also talks about the case against the Defense of Marriage Act, the tension between that lawsuit and the Prop 8 case and concerns over bringing both cases to court. Additionally, Becker said she had received a “rave review” in the New York Times Book Review.
“The movie ending of this would have been the Supreme Court [issues a] 50-state ruling, everybody that brought this case gets what they want,” Becker said. “It wasn’t the ending that the people that I write about in the book wanted, but it was an ending that was very important to the people at [San Francisco] City Hall and as a result of this case, a fifth of the country has been able to resume…having marriage equality.”
When the Blade asked whether she had any conversations with gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, the chief critic of her book, Becker replied she had no such talks, but has “put herself out there on forums and on TV.”
“I think that their criticism is of a book I didn’t write,” Becker said. “The criticism is how could I leave out characters, really important people, in the marriage equality movement. And the answer is I chose to write about this case and in this case and this litigation effort, they weren’t a part of that.”
Expounding on the criticism, Becker said, “Some leaders in the gay community are divided about this book in the same way that they were divided about this case.”
Asked by The Bilerico Project’s John Becker (no relation to Jo Becker) about a line in the book saying the marriage movement previously had “languished in obscurity,” Jo Becker talked about the work of Mary Bonauto, the attorney who brought marriage equality to Massachusetts.
“Mary talked about this, none of the cases just didn’t garner the same amount of attention,” Becker said. “This became a headline in the way that it hadn’t been in part because of the odd-ball, odd-couple pairing of these two straight guys who came from opposite sides of the aisle, fought Bush v. Gore. Mary told me her cases didn’t get that kind of attention.”
Before opening the event up to questions, Becker began the event by reading from her work the personal tales of individual gay people who spoke at the Prop 8 trial, and what being gay — and unable to marry in California at the time — meant for them.
“The political change that we’ve seen, it’s moved with a rapidity unseen in modern political history,” Becker added. “And one of the really big reasons is people, sort of, have come out and told stories. When you come to know someone — 9 out of 10 Americans now say they know someone who is gay. When you know someone who is gay, you’re more likely to support this issue.”
The bookstore event came on the same day that blogger Sullivan published an apparent schedule of her tour from Penguin, her publisher, indicating she was set to appear at an event at the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday. Following controversy over the book, HRC spokesperson Charles Joughlin said reports of her making an appearance at the organization were “incorrect,” but declined to clarify if something was once scheduled but then cancelled.
Differing accounts have emerged of what happened. After her event at Politics & Prose, the Blade asked Becker whether she planned to appear at an HRC event the next day. She replied, “no,” adding that she’ll make an appearance on MSNBC. When the Blade asked whether there ever was an event scheduled for her at HRC, Becker said she was “not aware” of anything.
The next day, the Blade went to HRC headquarters at 11 a.m. as the Penguin schedule indicated she would speak. An attendee near the desk, who identified himself as “Carl,” said an event was indeed taking place, but it was a private meeting for high-dollar HRC donors and not open to the public. Asked whether Becker would make an appearance, Carl said she was scheduled to come, but she cancelled to appear on MSNBC.
[UPDATE: Sarah Hutson, a spokesperson for Penguin Press, offered another explanation for what happened regarding the HRC event, saying the company is responsible for Becker's schedule.
"Penguin Press publicity had discussed with HRC a possible appearance on Saturday 4/26 and we entered it into our database as a placeholder," Hutson said. "It was erroneously marked as a confirmed talk/signing in our system and thus was automatically loaded onto Penguin.com’s event listings which should never have happened. We instead decided to have Jo appear on MSNBC that day. We’re pleased to have many interview and event requests for Forcing the Spring and we make scheduling decisions, not the author."]
During the bookstore event, the questions that Becker took from the LGBT media and other attendees were decidedly different. While the gay media challenged her over complaints about the book, others were apparently unaware of the controversy and sought more information on the LGBT rights movement.
One woman apparently unaware of the Prop 8 lawsuit interrupted Becker as she spoke to ask, “Who was Charles Cooper?” Becker informed the audience member he was the attorney who had defended Prop 8 in court.
Another audience member expressed concern about the focus on marriage equality as opposed to workplace non-discrimination protections. Becker eagerly responded with information about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, saying in more than half the states employers can legally discriminate against workers because they’re gay.
“I don’t think it is a wedge issue; it just isn’t,” Becker said. “The country is changing so rapidly. Demographically, leaders of the Republican Party that I’ve talked to — they understand the demographics of this issue. This is a long-term losing position for the Republican Party, and so there’s a lot of discussion around that.”
As reported by Bilerico, Becker spoke at the D.C. bookstore on the same day it was revealed the Ford Foundation approved a $150,000 grant for her in 2013 “to research and write a book on the marriage equality movement in the United States.”
Asked by the Blade whether she sees a potential sequel to “Forcing the Spring,” and if so, what would be an appropriate topic, Becker said any of the more 60 marriage lawsuits making their way once again to the Supreme Court would make a good “epilogue” to her book.
“There’s a bunch of books in the works,” Becker said. “This was an extraordinary five years and there should be books written about all different aspects of it. Like I said, this is just one, but there should be lots of books. There’s going to be a case that eventually does make it to the Supreme Court.”