Other Voices, Other Points, On Becker

I’m done venting. Promise. For a sane and reality-based short history of the marriage equality movement, check out this Buzzfeed piece from a year ago by Chris Geidner, the best reporter on gay politics online. For a more objective take on Becker, here’s a very solid, informed critique by Adam Teicholz. He helps you see better why Becker’s disparagement of the key men and women who made marriage equality is so offensive. Money quote:

It will be tempting for those on the outside to dismiss Sullivan’s critique (and those, to come, of the slighted activists who will surely line up to take potshots) as the infighting and backbiting of sore losers. They are not. I have no skin in the fight between factions; to the extent I have personal connections, they are on both sides. I know Evan and others at Freedom to Marry, and Ken Mehlman, whom Becker features prominently, is a friend. I believe that marriage would not have come to New York State in 2011 if it weren’t for Melhman’s savvy, and obstinacy. But there is simply no plausible case to be made that he, Griffin, Black, Olson, and Boies—as hardworking and smart as they are—are the protagonists of the gay-rights revolution.

He’s particularly sharp on how Becker/Griffin disses one of the most gifted political strategists of the movement, Tim Gill. Hank Plante notes how Becker’s attack on everyone in the movement apart from Griffin is just an extension of Griffin’s own contempt for the two decades of staggering progress that made his unseemly credit-grabbing possible:

Griffin’s group sued to keep [all the other gay groups] from intervening in the Prop. 8 case, with Griffin writing to them, “You have unrelentingly and unequivocally acted to undermine this case even before it was filed.  In light of this it is inconceivable that you would zealously and effectively litigate this case if you were successful in intervening.”

Now you can better see where Becker’s contempt for and ignorance of the marriage equality movement comes from. The staggering thing is that the man who sowed this division, who engineered this book, and who will continue to grab exclusive credit for marriage equality in the forthcoming HBO movie on the subject … is now the head of the biggest gay rights group in the country. How can he lead a movement he has now publicly announced his contempt for?

Meanwhile, I guess I should respond to this ad hominem by HRC’s former head, Elizabeth Birch. So some corrections: I’ve long noted that marriage equality predates Evan and me by decades in the US and by centuries across the world. An anthology I edited on the subject makes that quite clear. The graphic in the post she lambastes starts in 1970, for goodness’ sake. I only cited one book of mine in that post, the first best-seller in the world on marriage equality, translated into seven languages, and prompting a global debate on the question. I cited one article, which the Nation – and not as a compliment – touted as “the most influential essay of the decade in the gay rights movement.”

Birch substantively agrees with me that it was the Hawaii lawsuit that truly began the revolution in 1993 – not, as Becker’s book has it, Chad Griffin in 2008 –  but then repeats what she said at the time: there was no point in fighting for such an impossible goal, we should hope it goes away, the whole thing is a terrible distraction, we’ll get “slaughtered” if we go ahead, etc. So she effectively conveys what the internal fight was about at the time. Evan and I were eager to seize on any lawsuit to leverage it into headlines, to build the case. We knew there would be failures at first, and backlash soon after.

But Evan and I, unlike Elizabeth, believed that we would eventually win because our arguments were so strong, and that the issue had the potential to galvanize and recast the entire movement. I understand why this put her in a tough spot at the time, wanting us to be right, believing we were wrong, and therefore unwilling to put HRC behind a huge effort when the groundwork hadn’t been done. But for us, that was a Catch-22. If we didn’t grasp the issue, the groundwork would never be done. So why don’t we just get on with it, instead of remaining in a Clintonian defensive crouch? HRC’s subsequent deep unease with the issue was, of course, deeply frustrating to those of us who believed it was the key issue for our political and moral advance.

My most vivid memory of Elizabeth was when she, Evan and I testified in 1996 in Congress against the Defense of Marriage Act. We all knew we were going down in flames, but Evan and I were just amazed we had gotten the first Congressional hearing ever on marriage equality. You have to remember the very idea was regarded as completely absurd at the time. Our goal was to make this a national conversation – because it was a conversation in which we had unassailable arguments on our side – even if it meant an early bloodbath. Elizabeth was bristling with frustration that we were having a hearing at all. It was, she remarked, “Hell Week” for gay rights. She understandably did not want to preside over bloodbaths while head of the biggest gay rights organizations. It took many years before HRC even used the word “marriage” in its own literature.

My other vivid memory of Elizabeth was when, in a rare moment of outreach, she invited me to give a speech at HRC a couple years later, and I used the occasion to give my stump speech on marriage equality. Afterward, she came up to me and said she had changed her mind. “If we aim for the stars,” she said to me, “we could maybe reach the moon.” And that’s what indeed we did, and Griffin and Boies and Olson deserve kudos for sustaining the momentum of that journey. But it serves no one to pretend they started this thing or were in any way indispensable to it. And the embarrassment of HRC’s own awful record on the issue is not, I’d argue, irrelevant to this book. It would not exactly be the first time when local or independent actors make change possible, only to have HRC swoop in at the last minute and claim all the credit. That’s always been their mojo. And it’s why so many are so pissed off at them once again.