Journalist Jo Becker has a new book out on the marriage equality movement. The revolution began, it appears, in 2008. And its Rosa Parks was a man you would be forgiven for knowing nothing about, Chad Griffin. Here’s how the book begins – and I swear I’m not making this up:
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.
After that surreal opening, the book descends into more jaw-dropping distortion. For Becker, until the still-obscure Griffin came on the scene, the movement for marriage equality was a cause “that for years had largely languished in obscurity.” I really don’t know how to address that statement, because it is so wrong, so myopic and so ignorant it beggars belief that a respectable journalist could actually put it in print. Obscurity? Is Becker even aware of the history of this struggle at all? Throughout the 1990s, marriage equality had roiled the political landscape, dominated the national debate at times, re-framed and re-branded the entire gay movement, achieved intellectual heft, and key legal breakthroughs, such as the landmark Hawaii case that vaulted the entire subject from an idea to a reality. The man who actually started that revolution was Dan Foley, a straight man from the ACLU, who filed the key lawsuit. Foley does not make Becker’s index. Why would he? If the revolution only began in 2008, he is irrelevant. The courage and clarity it took to strike that first blow is nothing for Becker compared with that of two straight men, David Boies and Ted Olson, and one gay man, Chad Griffin, who swooped into the movement at the last moment and who were, not accidentally, Becker’s key sources for the entire tall tale.
The intellectual foundation of the movement is also non-existent in Becker’s book – before, wait for it!, Ken Mehlman and Ted Olson brought Republican credibility to the movement. Yes, that’s her claim. My own work – penning the first cover-story on the conservative case for marriage equality in 1989, a subsequent landmark re-imagining of the gay rights movement in 1993, and a best-selling book, Virtually Normal in 1995 – is entirely omitted from the book, along with the critical contributions from other conservatives and libertarians, from Jon Rauch and Bruce Bawer to John Corvino and Dale Carpenter. I suspect even Olson and Mehlman will reject Becker’s ludicrous thesis, if challenged on this point. But for Becker, all of this work contributed nothing but further obscurity. The astonishing achievement of turning what was once deemed a joke into a serious national cause and issue happened in the 1990s and then more emphatically after George W. Bush’s endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004. But for Becker, an obscure late-comer, Griffin, had a “unique ability” to leverage legal cases into a political rallying cry. This is so wrong and so contemptuous of the people who really did do that work I am at a loss for words.
More staggeringly, the critical, indispensable role of Evan Wolfson in pioneering this cause is actually treated with active contempt in the book. He is ludicrously portrayed by Becker as an obstacle to change, a remnant of a previous generation, a man who had led the marriage movement nowhere. This is where the book becomes truly toxic and morally repellent. I’ve been a part of this movement for twenty-five years, either as an activist speaker/writer or as a close observer on this blog for the last decade and a half. What Becker writes about Evan and the movement is unconscionable, ignorant and profoundly wrong. Evan had the courage to create this movement, and empower it with legal rigor and strategy, when it was far, far less popular than it is now. Without him, quite simply, the movement would not exist for Griffin to now outrageously attempt to claim credit for. Yet this book sweeps Wolfson aside as an actual obstacle to progress because he was concerned that the Prop 8 case was a high-risk high-reward legal strategy that would not be the slam-dunk for national marriage equality that Boies and Olson believed it would be.
And here’s the thing: Evan was right about that. The Prop 8 case succeeded only in striking down California’s ban, and not changing the entire world, and it rested entirely on the legal and intellectual infrastructure Evan and I and others had been building for two decades. If Boies and Olson had been right, we would have federal marriage equality right now. But they weren’t and we don’t. Now I supported the case because I believed that it could add to the educational effort to expose the weakness of the arguments of those opposing equality – and – wh0 knows? – might even end marriage discrimination. But when I say “add”, I mean exactly that. Legal arguments take time to percolate up and about. And the Prop 8 case was deeply dependent on the cases that preceded it. It wasn’t a panacea, and was less potent than the Windsor case in changing America as a whole. So while I’m certainly no opponent of Boies and Olson, and was thrilled to have them on board, it is simply bizarre to argue, as Becker does, that the marriage equality movement didn’t really exist until they and Griffin allegedly “re-branded” it.
Perhaps the most critical legal events in this long struggle took place in New England. Getting actual marriage equality in one state, Massachusetts – and then exporting it to an entire region – had always been our Holy Grail and was indispensable to our long-term success. There were many architects of that vision – but one stands out to anyone with any knowledge of the matter. That’s Mary Bonauto, the woman who won the right to marry in Vermont in 1997 (only to be foiled by the legislature), and who made marriage in Massachusetts happen. To quote Roberta Kaplan, who argued the Windsor case in front of the Supreme Court, “No gay person in this country would be married without Mary Bonauto.” Yet in Becker’s book, she too is shunted aside, and airbrushed out of history. In fact, any figure of any note apart from Boies and Olson and Griffin are excised in this book in Stalinist fashion as if they didn’t exist.
For me, then, the key question about this book is how on earth such a distorted and ahistorical and polemical attack on the architects of the marriage equality movement can have been written. Becker could have presented the material in this book merely as the experience of a few people who came very late to the movement – a small snapshot of the last few years through the eyes of a small group. But she doesn’t. She credits them with the entire movement, and treats all those before as obstacles to it. That’s such a distortion you have to wonder how it came about.
The answer, I think, is access-journalism. It’s clear from the notes in the book that an overwhelming amount of the material comes from the sources she embedded herself with. Other figures with real knowledge of the movement barely get a phone call. (Wolfson got one peremptory one late in the day; I got none.) In other words, this is access-journalism at its most uncritical and naive worst. There is no indication that Becker has any clue about anything that happened before 2008, and every indication that thereafter, she simply parroted the spin of those she had access to. And so the book is best seen not as as act of journalism, but as a public relations campaign by Boies, Olson and Griffin to claim credit for and even co-opt a movement they had nothing to do with until very recently. It’s telling that the Human Rights Campaign – an organization that opposed aggressive efforts to pioneer marriage equality until the early 2000s – is now sending out emails touting Becker’s book for its preposterous hagiography of its executive director. Money quote about the NYT magazine excerpt:
[It] details HRC President Chad Griffin’s pivotal role in guiding the Obama administration to publicly endorse marriage equality during the 2012 election cycle, including a conversation he had with Vice President Biden just days before his famed interview with David Gregory on “Meet the Press.” …
Griffin helped found the American Foundation for Equal Rights, recruited the bipartisan legal dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies, and challenged the discriminatory Proposition 8 in federal court—racking up momentous legal victories for the marriage equality movement.
Sure, Griffin (because of his ability to raise money) had access to Biden and asked the right question. Good for him. But Biden could easily have ducked it and Obama had long since decided to come out for equality before the election anyway, so the only proximate effect of this insider access was to accelerate the process. Other influences on the president – a beloved high school teacher, his kids, his reading, for example – are disregarded in order to cast Griffin as the key figure. The creaking of the narrative machinery to present this turn of events is so grating and breathless it all but discredits itself. And a remarkable coda to this hagiography is the fact that Griffin and Boies and Olson are actually sponsoring the author’s book party! And why would they not? A book that is essentially a stenography of their self-regard is something they should celebrate. Whether the NYT feels the same way about one of their reporters having her sources throw her a party is another matter.
The trouble with this kind of embedded journalism is not that what it details is an inaccurate portrayal of the situation from the viewpoint of the characters it is championing. It is the rank failure to inquire into any other views of the matter and to be informed about the history of the movement. It is the lazy, uninformed decision to buy the self-serving narrative of a few, interested sources as the objective narrative of history. Then you have the sales job: a decision to hype the book by claiming that these characters’ late-coming contributions to the effort somehow rescued a movement that was stalled. And, yes, that is emphatically the argument of the book – not just that Griffin helped things along but that all those before him, including the heroes who pioneered this struggle, were irrelevant losers and laggards. Whatever else this is, it is not reporting in any balanced or fair meaning of the word.
And of course it also raises a core question about Griffin. This book obviously reflects his own view of himself as the Rosa Parks of this movement. And that marks him as an extreme outlier in it. One thing that has characterized the marriage equality movement from the get-go has been a collective decision to give credit widely and broadly for a movement that began in the grass roots and succeeded because of some key figures but also thanks to tens of thousands of people, gay and straight, who stood up for equality in places far less welcoming than executive suites in San Francisco. No single individual has decided to claim personal credit for all this until now – let alone smear, insult and write out of history the vast coalition that made this possible. I’ve long supported Griffin’s welcome attempt to shift HRC from apathy to action on marriage. But the idea that he can now be hailed as the uniquely indispensable figure and all his predecessors and critical allies mocked as irrelevant is grotesque. He is in that sense a harbinger of something genuinely new. He has decided to coopt all the work done before him and alongside him as something he uniquely achieved by himself.
That’s not leading this movement. That’s an attack on its integrity, its countless authors, and its generosity of spirit. It will only divide this movement, rather than unite it. In fact, it already has.
(Photos: Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles of South Burlington celebrate during a press conference in South Burlington, Vt. Monday, Dec.20, 1997, after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that gay couples must be granted the same benefits and protections given married couples of the opposite sex. By Alden Pellett/Liaison Agency/via Getty.
Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, talk before they testified during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on proposals to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (PL 104-199). By Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images.)
(Illustrations: The Atlantic Wire’s history of marriage equality. The cover of the first book to make an extended case for marriage equality, in 1995.)
[Subsequent posts on this topic here]