There Is A Lot More to the Gay Marriage Story Than What Is In Jo Becker's Book 'Forcing the Spring'
As anyone on Twitter knows, there’s some truth to the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But Jo Becker might think otherwise.
Her first and recently published book Forcing the Spring is about the legal challenge to Proposition 8 mounted by two famous lawyers on opposite sides of the political spectrum, David Boies and Ted Olson. It finds itself in the kind of controversy most writers don’t crave. Leading figures of the mainstream gay marriage movement, like the conservative Andrew Sullivan, the progressive Michelangelo Signorile and John Aravosis, have excoriated Becker for what they argue is a book that ignores the decades of activism that led up to the Prop 8 trial, and for effectively erasing their roles in that prior history. They also criticize her and Chad Griffin, head of the gay organization Human Rights Campaign, for casting him as a civil rights hero involved in bringing Boies and Olson to the table. Critics come from all parts of the political spectrum (and occasionally criticize each other). Griffin recently went on record effectively distancing himself from some of Becker's characterizations, but the anger is still mounting.
To be fair to Becker, most of her critics appear not to actually have read her book, relying on the opinions of others or an excerpt published in the New York Times. There is much ire in the mean streets of LGBT activism, and the gay mainstream has greeted this book with a ferocity usually reserved only for homophobes of the Westboro Baptist Church ilk, or queer radicals who dare criticize the priorities of the mainstream movement.
But Becker is neither a homophobe nor a queer radical. She is deeply sympathetic to the gay equality agenda and is clearly on board with its message of equal rights. So what explains all the anger over her sturdily packaged 470-page book? Is her book a lie or the truth?
The short answer is that it’s both, and the long answer requires a fuller examination of the book’s structure and politics than has been accorded to it so far.
Complaints by writers and activists like Sullivan and Aravosis that they have been erased from the pre-history of Prop 8 are not entirely unwarranted, even if they are self-serving (Signorile points out that Sullivan has not hesitated to write out parts of gay history when convenient). Any movement has its spokespersons, chroniclers, writers, and activists, and lawyers or professional activists like Griffin are not the only people whose voices should be validated in what purports to be a historical text. The history of gay marriage is a history of a conservative cause which deems married people as more worthy of receiving benefits than the unmarried, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a long and complicated history that is indeed left out of this tome.
Becker, recently making the rounds of talk shows and book presentations, has insisted that the book is only meant to portray a slice, the inside of the Prop 8 challenge itself. But historical events don’t happen out of the blue, and Becker could at the very least have spent a chapter in her copious book quickly drawing out that history.
To do that would have required her to move beyond the circle of Griffin-led people, who are more concerned about enshrining their own place in history. This is one of the book’s chief failings: that it relies not on any even-handed bird’s-eye-view of how events unfolded, but is entirely driven by Griffin’s consciousness; it should have been titled "The Book Of Prop 8 According to Chad Griffin." Becker is a prize-winning journalist, but she approaches her subject as a starstruck acolyte, over-awed by the company of rich and powerful men and women.
She freely refers to herself as an embedded journalist, and her position as such seems to have clouded her judgment. At one point, noting Griffin’s appointment to HRC, she writes about his “unique ability to leverage the legal proceedings into front-page attention and rebrand a cause that for years had largely languished in obscurity....”
I’ve been following and writing on and against the gay marriage movement for nearly two decades now, and I can attest to the fact that it was hardly languishing but slowly and surely gathering steam and momentum long before Chad Griffin came on the scene.
In her eagerness to spin her story, Becker crafts a narrative full of bombast and shaky parallels. Take, for instance, her first sentence in the book: “This is how a revolution begins.”
Every gay marriage activist in the country would have greeted that sentence, in all its wild exuberance, approvingly if it hadn’t been followed by the next paragraph, worth quoting in full because it crystallizes many of the book’s problems:
It begins when someone grows tired of standing idly by, waiting for history’s arc to bend towards 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 in 2008.
That “handsome, bespectacled” political consultant is here compared to none less than Rosa Parks, whose own complex history as an activist in the civil rights movement is erased. Today he is the 41-year-old executive director of Human Rights Campaign, the world’s largest and wealthiest gay organization in the world (its budget is $40 million, enough to turn things around quickly for several tiny, impoverished countries). At the time of events recounted in this book, he was the president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), which he co-founded with Hollywood actor and producer Rob Reiner. Griffin was previously, at 19, the youngest White House staff member ever when he worked for Bill Clinton’s administration and he and his friend and former business partner Kristina Schake are well known for their lobbying and fundraising abilities.
Griffin is the hero in Becker’s book, which attempts to be an epic tale of a band of brave heroes and the foolish combatants who dared to try to vanquish them, a kind of gay "Lord of the Rings," but with men in dark bespoke suits instead of magic armor and cloaks. He is placed uncritically in the center of events, and his cohort comprises of a band of men represented here in equally gushing terms: Todd Olson, David Boies, Lance Black, Rob Reiner, Cleve Jones and Bruce Cohen. The dialogue, and that is what it reads like, is painful. Recounting her conversation with Griffin about Olson taking the case, Schake tells Becker her words: “I was just shocked ... We thought, ‘Game on.’” In another scene, Rob Reiner exults over an Olson moment: “Unbelievable. Did you kill the guy? Yes! Did you use this knife? Yes!”
Too often, the book reads like a screenplay in waiting, for a film most likely produced and directed by Reiner himself, and Becker’s fawning over him is too obvious to miss. As the co-founder of AFER and one of the main people behind the case, it makes sense to give Reiner a degree of play. The problem is that much of this is gratuitous. At one point she writes, with a clumsy attempt at humor, of a court deputy “scolding Rob Reiner for smuggling snacks into the courtroom.” At another point, she describes how Boies would deliberately mispronounce the last name of a witness, David Blankenhorn, just to make him lose control, and she inserts a parenthetical statement that “Rob Reiner joked that either version sounded like a character out of a Groucho Marx movie.” It’s an entirely silly moment, whose intention is nothing other than painting Reiner as the humorous Grand Daddy of the group.
There’s no real mystery to this excessive fawning: Reiner is a Hollywood stalwart, with considerable influence and money, and Becker at one point refers to the fact that he is interested in making a film of the events in and around the Prop 8 trial. It’s hard to escape the sense that this entire book is written in a way that makes it easy to be optioned as a screenplay for a major motion picture starring, perhaps, George Clooney as Boies, Neil Patrick Harris as Chad Griffin, Ashley Judd as Schake, and Reiner playing himself.
Becker goes into detail about the trial itself, but excessive detail, especially in a book as stilted as this one, does not guarantee truth. For that, a discerning reader should wait for several such accounts to come forth before ascribing any degree of truth, or even “truthiness,” to this tome. This is not an even-handed book, but a sycophant’s love poem written in thanks for having been granted unfettered access.
Despite such obvious flaws, Becker’s book is not entirely useless, and it inadvertently exposes several truths about the gay marriage movement.
Take, for instance, the gay mainstream’s failure to consider and think through what has always been for it the thorny matter of race. On various occasions, Schake and others echo the contention that gays are more oppressed than African Americans and other racial minorities. At one point, Becker describes an email from Schake who writes about objections that the judge Vaughn Walker would be biased in favor of the plaintiffs: “No one would say that a black or woman judge was biased simply because of their gender or skin color, but it is ‘perfectly acceptable to say it about a gay person ... [it] proves how discriminated against gays are.’” The experience of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who had to endure Ricky Ricardo jokes and face challenges about her gender and race bias during her confirmation, clearly escaped both Schake’s and Becker’s notice and memory.
The text is replete with such assertions that gays are the most oppressed minority, as if somehow systemic racism has been mitigated or even erased by the simple presence of legal protections granted to ethnic and racial minorities. But the greatest truth Becker reveals is in the matter of gay marriage as an elitist cause that benefits the few and is driven by their interests. When the lawsuit was first announced, law professor and founder of the ACLU’s LGBT Project Nan Hunter publicly stated that the works of other groups were being “thrown off by an organization with a small number of people who are wealthy enough to pay for a major litigation effort.” Becker notes this statement, and does not contradict its charge.
Indeed, the entirety of the book demonstrates the truth of Hunter’s statement, though perhaps not in the way she intended. From the start, it becomes clear that this was not a battle undertaken by the proles of the gay marriage movement, like the thousands who showed up in plazas across the country to protest the passage of Prop 8. A partial account of the money and influence at play: Becker records without irony the fact that Griffin, Reiner and others had their first meeting at the Hollywood hot spot, the Polo Lounge, that the team and the plaintiffs flew about in Boies’ private Gulfstream jets, that they attended $1,250-a-plate fundraisers for President Obama, that Kristina Schake became Michelle Obama’s communications director, and that both she and Griffin had access to some of Hollywood’s and D.C.’s wealthiest and most powerful men and women. Early on, their funders included J.J. Abrams, the creator of “Lost,” who gave them a check for $100,000, as did the billionaire Ron Burkle.
Becker writes of how the "biggest breakthrough” came when Reiner reached out to David Geffen, whom she describes breathlessly as “an entertainment mogul who had made billions in the music and movie business, a huge Democratic donor, and a philanthropist who had been one of the largest contributors to the fight against HIV/AIDS” and “who not only had kicked in $1.5 million of his own money, but... convinced Steve Bing, another billionaire Clinton friend with whom Chad had worked on environmental causes, to match that gift.”
At one point, billionaire David Koch, of the Koch brothers, declares his support. At another, they receive over a million dollars from a single meeting with the Gill Action Fund, and Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson of "The Simpsons," donates a million to AFER. Smith jokes that her donation “cost her less than her two divorces and brought her more joy.”
This is not a world of grassroots organizing, but a world of immense power where the players literally hover miles above the realms of grassroots organizing. Despite clear evidence of the power and wealth that keeps the cause afloat, gay organizations across the country like to keep alive the myth that individual donations of $5, $10 and $20 actually make a difference. In the world Becker paints with such awe, none of that matters, and the truth is that gay marriage is largely a cause that benefits the few.
Approximately 3.8 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, and there are approximately 598,791 gay couples in the U.S. Of these, not all will want to marry and/or are likely to have the kind of wealth that compels them to fork over the $363,000 the lesbian Edith Windsor was asked to pay, as part of the estate tax upon her spouse’s death.
Windsor, objecting to the taxes, became the plaintiff in United States vs. Windsor, the landmark case that essentially declared DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, unconstitutional. Becker writes about the case, and her critics have lambasted her for not giving enough credit to Windsor’s attorney, Roberta Kaplan, but the central point about Edith Windsor has been entirely missed in all the coverage.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, “[the] unlimited spousal exemption [which is what Windsor sought and got] ... allows a person to leave any amount of assets to his or her spouse without incurring estate tax liability. As a result, wealthy married couples can exempt twice as much wealth from estate taxes as single people can and thus can often pay lower estate taxes than they would if they were married.”
In other words, while Windsor is now celebrated as an everyday lesbian hero who fought for the cause of gay marriage and vanquished the state, it’s highly unlikely that the average straight or gay person will ever inherit an estate like hers. The chances that the average gay or lesbian will ever have to pay what Windsor was asked to pay are slim to none, because most of them are unlikely to accrue that kind of wealth.
This is the genius of the gay marriage movement, its ability to make a privilege for the few seem like a necessity for the many.
In that sense, the history Jo Becker has produced and the history her mainstream gay critics would write are the same. Becker’s critics have no quarrel with the lopsided benefits given to wealthy gay couples or in demanding that the state only reward those who are married.
But what would a more expansive history of gay marriage really look like, if it’s neither about the proles nor the elites alone, and if it actually considered the inequalities being perpetuated by a state that gives so much to the married?
The answer might be found in a recent Salon critique of Becker’s book, by Nathaniel Frank:
One fall day in 1990, Ninia Baehr found herself with an ear infection and no health insurance. When the pain became unbearable, she and her partner, Genora Dancel, called Bill Woods, a lawyer at a Honolulu gay and lesbian community center, to see if there were any options for domestic-partner insurance benefits. Woods said no, but as it happened he’d been looking for couples to challenge the Hawaii law barring gay couples from getting married.
But what if, instead of simply suing for the right to marry, Baehr and Dancel had decided to fight for a change to healthcare laws? What if they had demanded not the right to marry, but the right to healthcare for all, regardless of marital status — in short, for the right to life itself, without the condition of marriage being set upon people?
It’s easy now to scoff at such a lawsuit as unrealistic and pie-in-the-sky, but then we have forgotten that the queer community once marched for universal healthcare in the wake of the AIDS crisis. That crisis is not over, and the kind of rising inequality we now face can not be resolved by marriage, so what accounts for the sharp turn in a gay community that now fights for the right to healthcare to be contingent upon marriage? A more honest history of gay marriage would try to answer that question.
That’s the history of gay marriage that still needs to be written: the story of how a community that once marched for a more radical agenda turned into one led mostly by well-funded, wealthy and powerful organizations and individuals like AFER, HRC, Reiner and Griffin insisting on marriage as “full equality.” It’s also a history of a world where a millionaire like Edith Windsor fights like hell to prevent the government from taxing her inheritance, the taxes on which could contribute to a failing public school system and better roads and go a long way toward the inequality so prevalent in our times.
That history exists in several places, as in the powerful work of queer writers in anthologies like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation or the archives of Against Equality. It’s a history that both straight and gay people would do well to be acquainted with, because it provides a more accurate portrait of how gay marriage — and marriage in general — is at the core of neoliberal inequality.
There can be no doubt that Prop 8 was a vile, discriminatory and deeply wounding attempt to cast gays and lesbians out of the pale. There can be no doubt that not allowing people to marry, or serve in the military are forms of discrimination. But marriage and the military do not in themselves constitute progressive or radical causes; neither furthers the health of a society, certainly not in the way we envision. Marriage is not a choice in the neoliberal state, and there is a wider push to no longer allow domestic partners to retain healthcare: gay or straight, they must marry because now everyone can (in states where gay marriage is recognized). Gay marriage activists across the spectrum make the case for marriage as an essential bond in a healthy society. When such claims emerge from the mouths of Christian fundamentalists, the left is duly shocked but silent when gay advocates say exactly the same thing (and ignore the fact that marriage is in fact declining sharply among straight people). The U.S. military remains a force of neocolonial domination, and the source of widespread abuse, both within and outside its ranks.
The task ahead for the gay and straight left is to discern the politics of discrimination but to understand that simply ending the same is not the end goal. A just society is not one where people are compelled to marry for benefits or where joining the military becomes a way to signal acceptance. Rather, the fight ahead is to ensure that everyone receives healthcare and other benefits regardless of relationship status, and that we work toward ending our unjust wars and occupations, not to engorge the military with even more bodies under the rhetoric of “inclusion.”
At this current moment in time, medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in the United States, a country rich with cheap electronics but which leaves the average person without any kind of safety net in the face of inevitable disasters. As the sociologist Joshua Cohen recently put it, in a Washington Post article, “America is a place where luxuries are cheap and necessities costly. A big-screen TV costs much less than it does in Europe, but health care will sink you.”
None of this is reflected in the criticism of Becker’s book; neither she nor her critics are concerned with the politics of marriage itself, and ignore the larger costs of the battle. It remains to be seen what the ultimate fallout will be, but so far the book has been gaining popularity.
Forcing the Spring is a comforting book for those who like their gay history pre-digested into easily understood narratives driven by Hollywood-style epic sweeps and clumsy dialogue. In its pretense that only a small band of people mattered, this book is a lie, but in its inadvertent exposure of the elitism that undergirds the gay marriage movement, this book may be as close to the truth as we will ever see.