Dissent Of The Day

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 18 2014 @ 2:00pm

A reader writes:

Your criticism of Jo Becker is hopelessly histrionic. I watched election returns at my then-boyfriend’s apartment in West Hollywood on November 4, 2008. I still recall the bewildering disorientation associated with feeling such enormous pride that our country had elected our first black president – while, at the same time, feeling such hopeless despair that my state didn’t care about making me a second-class citizen by approving Prop 8.

It was clear to me on that night that something in the marriage equality movement needed to change. The “No on Prop 8” advertisements that I had been watching and writing a series of small checks to fund were offensive in their banality. Rather than frame the issue in the manner that a majority have subsequently come to understand it – as a matter of fundamental human dignity, love, family, and fairness – the “No on 8” campaign relied on soundbites from Dianne Feinstein, overly defensive rebuttals of ads claiming that Proposition 8 would lead to the kids being converted to homosexuality, and a steadfast resistance to showing gay couples who were actually affected by the issue. The folks who Jo Becker write about are the folks who saw what a hopeless loser the No on Prop 8 was – and how laughably awful other similar campaigns opposing gay-marriage bans were.

Was Chad Griffin the first mover of the gay marriage revolution? No. Did Chad Griffin benefit from the intellectual foundations laid by you, Evan Wolfson, and others crying out in the wilderness in the 1990s? You bet your life they did. Does that mean that he and the others who Jo Becker discusses are not responsible for an important re-boot, re-messaging, and re-investment in the cause in the face of historic defeats in multiple states for the gay-marriage cause just as recently as 6 years ago? Certainly not.

Civil rights movements take stages, iterations, and generations. Griffin, or Dustin Lance Black, could not have done it on their own – but neither could Wolfson, Socarides, and Co. who signed on to a messaging and media strategy in the mid- to late 2000s that ran away from talking about and showing that gay couples wanted marriage because they simply wanted to declare commitment and enduring love in the same way that everyone does.

Jo Becker overstates her thesis. Of course, that’s what some authors, trying to sell books, ultimately do from time to time. (Malcom Gladwell seems to have made a comfortable living doing that for years.) This makes her book less accurate and certainly a heck of a lot less nuanced than it should be. However, it does not make her book, or her, “truly toxic and morally repellent.” Telling the story of how a new generation of gay leaders changed the message and changed the emphasis to change history is neither toxic nor repellent.

The fact that my reader puts Richard Socarides and Evan Wolfson in the same camp reveals the limits of his understanding. Socarides spent the 1990s defending the Clinton administration’s doubling the rate of gay dishonorable discharges from the military and signing of the Defense of Marriage Act. Wolfson spent the 1990s fighting the Clintons and Socarides on marriage day after day. Evan and I were just as critical of the milque-toast crap the Prop 8 campaign put out as Griffin or anyone else. Both of us had spent years arguing against any defensiveness, making exactly the case that my reader does.

It is also emphatically not true that the message or the emphasis changed after 2008. The messages that we gay conservatives honed in the 1990s and 2000s were repeated almost verbatim in the Prop 8 trial; the liberal legal arguments had been aired and analyzed exhaustively by liberals in the movement. There is nothing in the message since 2008 that wasn’t there from the early 1990s onward. The Prop 8 campaign was indeed a fiasco – but that tells us close to nothing about the marriage strategy charted in the 1990s and sustained with real, consistent message discipline even today.

As for more defeats occurring in the past than now: well duh! Our popular support was far lower in the past than now. Of course we would lose cases, just as all civil rights movements have, at the start and even in the middle. But the cases, as in all civil rights movements, could be leveraged into a broader and broader public discussion, which could move the polls, which would increase the chances of winning future cases. And that’s the pattern we saw. We had won legal cases for marriage equality in Hawaii and Vermont in the 1990s – neutralized by state legislatures – but helping us get the issue on the radar screen. Holland enacted marriage equality as early as 2001, Belgium in 2003. We won the breakthrough legal and then political struggle in Massachusetts in 2004. Canada and Spain joined the throng in 2005. We won in the courts in California in 2008 – after Gavin Newsom’s act of civil disobedience electrified the movement. We went on to win the nation’s capital and Iowa in 2009. How could any of that happened if it all depended on Griffin’s non-existent re-branding of the movement?

And by the way, I have had no beef with Griffin at any point in these past few years. Below is the entirely of our posts on him, including:

I have to say that the appointment of Chad Griffin to run the biggest gay lobby this coming June is a great sign of how far we’ve come. There was a time when HRC wanted nothing to do with marriage rights. Now it has selected a grass-roots, if highly networked, champion of them for its new head. Promising … and encouraging.

The other post:

fascinating story that bodes very well for Griffin’s assumption of leadership of the Human Rights Campaign. Griffin fought the usual caution to get the Boies-Olson lawsuit on the road.

And the only two mentions of Dustin Lance Black from the Dish archives praised his Oscar speech and featured his play based on the Prop 8 trial. I have no problem acknowledging their contributions. I only object to their campaign to make it seem as if they did this in spite of all we had done before, rather than because of it.

Update from a reader:

I just want to echo everything you’ve said in response to dissenters and about the Jo Becker book. I was a paid staffer of MassEquality (the coalition group founded to win the political fight for marriage in 2004) during the marriage fight and the tactics that Jo Becker lauds as inventions were ALL in play during that fight. As an anecdote you haven’t mentioned in detail: Pat Guerriero was called in to lobby Republican state legislators, other prominent R’s and donors were identified as possible switches. Massachusetts was where the tactical playbook was written, or at least fine-tuned – and that playbook was and still is being followed around the country to wide and now visible success.

And the leaders from that movement? Well, they’re the intellectual underpinning of today’s HRC and Freedom to Marry. Marty Rouse (who works for Chad Griffin, and has been at HRC as the Field Director for years) and Marc Solomon (who managed the failed Prop 8 campaign and is now doing amazing trail blazing work at Freedom to Marry) are examples of the many people who have guided the tactics of the movement … and they still guide it! But like most political campaigns, they’ve had wins and losses.

Even though I’m occasionally off-put by how strident you are on some issues, I’m glad to see that you’re sticking to your guns on this one. The facts are so solidly in your corner and Jo’s claims are so outrageous … I would just hate to have this movement’s history rewritten when I’ve spent so much of my life involved in it. I’m still just so shocked that she didn’t do real homework on this one. No digging. No depth. The movement she writes about just didn’t happen!