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: