Jo Becker’s Troubling Travesty Of Gay History

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 GAY MARRIAGElegal 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 Senate Panel Holds Hearing on DOMAmovement 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 california-gay-marriage-supreme-court-map_580Olson, 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 virtually-normalcredits 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]

The Best Of The Dish Today

On another topic, sometimes, you’ve just got to face the music:

As any biologist will tell you, beards are indeed sexy. The question is, does the sexiness of beards depend on the hairiness of the rest of the males in the population? Or is the allure of a beard the same no matter what? To find out, the researchers recruited 36 men who were willing to grow beards. … When facial hair was rare among faces, beards and heavy stubble were rated about 20% more attractive. And when beards were common, clean-shaven faces enjoyed a similar bump, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. The effect on judgment was the same for men and women.

Yes, it was cooler/hotter to have a beard a few years ago. But I think I’ll stick with mine until I hit the Santa look. And Aaron’s is non-negotiable.

Today, I tackled the growing support for the ACA, including my own personal experience. We’ve already received a bunch of emails detailing your experiences – and we’re going to start a new reader thread, “The View From Your Obamacare.” Stay tuned – and email us your stories. I also took on the appalling new book by Jo Becker which purports to describe the marriage equality movement, which began, according to Becker, in 2008 with one Chad Griffin as our Rosa Parks (yes, she actually wrote that and someone actually published it!). Many readers are also piling on. One writes:

I just put the book down. What a useless history and distortion.

I’ve been involved in that battle as a foot soldier for 20 years, but my first memory of marriage equality battle was as a teenager in 1977 when a clerk in Colorado issued a license to a gay couple. What about the intellectual history as you mentioned, and a huge part of? Hawaii was nothing? What, Massachusetts wasn’t a watershed moment? All the anti-gay marriage amendments I fought hard against in 2004 , and galvanized so many, meant nothing? I remember all these very clearly.

We got ‘married’ on February 15th, 2004 during Gavin Newsom’s San Francisco marriages. The same marriages that led to the California supreme court decision, which led to Prop 8, which led to the US Supreme Court decision. How can that be minimized?

It can only be minimized by an author who knows nothing of the history of the movement except the self-serving account of those who jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute and to whom she was given complete access. And an excerpt from this travesty will appear in next Sunday’s New York Times Magazine! I know it can seem self-serving to point out the book’s contempt for those who actually built this movement. But to read Evan Wolfson dismissed as less integral to the struggle than Tom Daley’s boyfriend is simply a disgrace. The book should be withdrawn. [See update]

The most popular post of the day was indeed “Jo Becker’s Troubling Travesty Of Gay History,” followed by “The Neocons Lose Their Shit Over Rand Paul.

See you in the morning.

Jo Becker’s Troubling Travesty Of Gay History, Ctd

When your premise is that the marriage equality revolution began in 2008, that the movement was only then re-branded around the themes of family values and toleration, that the subject had been languishing in obscurity before the gay “Rosa Parks” came on the scene, there are a few things that will necessarily not compute.

Look first of all at the polling on the question. No one can doubt that the actions of a handful of people in the highest regions of the Obama administration would never have happened without this long-sustained, widening and deepening support in the polls. Public persuasion and advocacy were absolutely indispensable to bringing the new majority about, and making cautious politicians capable of changing. So check out Gallup’s polling on the question over the last couple of decades:

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 11.11.17 AM

In 1996, support was at 27 percent. By 2007, it was at 46 percent. It has since peaked at 53 percent in 2011 and 54 percent now. What Becker is arguing is that increasing the support by 8 percent after that early momentum was the only period that matters. The increase of 15 percent before that – in a far less propitious environment – was irrelevant, and in fact, proof that until the key figure of Chad Griffin arrived, nothing was really happening. I’d love to know how Becker can make that argument with a straight face. Or whether on her book tour, she will be confronted with the sheer perversity of that judgment. I also think it’s incumbent on Griffin to say whether that is his view of the matter as well. It sure sounds like it from Becker’s book.

Then there are the following bizarre consequences of her insane history. Among the heroes of her book are Joe Biden and Ken Mehlman.  Now just think about that for a moment. Biden voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 – by far the most damaging moment in the movement’s history. As Isaac Chotiner notes, the book’s fellatial account of Biden’s own pro-gay goodness rests on stories of his past that reveal that he had no issues with gay couples – even as he voted to rid them of any rights by voting for DOMA! This grotesque hypocrisy is glossed over in favor of letting Becker’s source spin his own past uncritically. Ditto with Obama. He was obviously bullshitting on this subject for years. Chotiner:

As was the case with Biden, Obama wants credit for holding a position he knows is wrong. That position also shows a certain contempt for voters, as if they couldn’t figure out that Obama is being dishonest and, of course, supports gay marriage.

As for Mehlman, WTF? He ran the Bush 2004 campaign that used the marriage equality movement to turn out the Republican Christianist base and ensure Bush’s re-election. Without that issue, Bush may well not have won Ohio, and John Kerry would have been president. Now, I was delighted at Mehlman’s metamorphosis and have long believed that we should welcome all converts and hunt no heretics in this cause. I gave him a platform on the Dish I was so happy with his reversal.

But when he is credited as a critical hero of the movement and Evan Wolfson is damned as an obstructionist, you are seriously in an alternative universe. When he is the star, and the large universe of Republicans, conservatives and libertarians who backed marriage equality long, long before Mehlman’s Damascene moment are airbrushed out of history, you can see why this toxic distortion of history is so troubling. The idea that recommending a female interviewer for Obama’s revelation is more important than the decades of legal, educational and political organizing that took place in the teeth of Mehlman’s own brutal attack on gay couples … well, it beggars belief.

Geidner notes another way in which Olson and Boies and Griffin conducted themselves differently than other parts of the movement. They got paid to the tune of $6 million, while previous legal support for marriage equality was almost always done pro bono:

The $6.4 million price tag runs in contrast to many other legal fights mounted by the LGBT community. Much of such “impact litigation” is brought by nonprofit legal groups like Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which brought the case that one of its lawyers, Mary Bonauto, argued and led to marriage equality in Massachusetts. Other such litigation is brought by nonprofit groups working with outside private lawyers working without payment for their services — called pro bono — like Lambda Legal and Jenner & Block’s Paul Smith, who argued the 2003 case, Lawrence v. Texas, that ruled sodomy laws across the country unconstitutional.

As for the extraordinary fundraising required, it took one lunch with David Geffen and one phone call to Steven Bing to raise half of it in a few days – support that Griffin has long downplayed in his presentation of the case.

To be honest, writing these posts makes me a little sick. For decades, this kind of nasty internal spat was avoided, because all of us in this fight believed that the cause was far more important than our own divisions and egos. Evan and I – who labored together pretty much alone for years – had serious political and ideological differences. He is a full-bore liberal; and I am a small-c conservative. On the road, we’d hash stuff out on trains and green rooms – and we had a deep disagreement over strategy, with my preferring a gradualist, federalist and political approach, while he backed a strategic, national, legal campaign. But we never aired this in public; we both thought the issue was much bigger than either of us. It turned out we were both half-right, and I’m proud of our discipline. To have made so much progress with so little acrimony only to have such unity side-swiped by such an egregious, ugly and unprecedented attempt to claim total credit is terribly demoralizing. We owe Olson and Boies and Griffin gratitude for continuing the fight. If only they would at some point return the compliment – instead of using a credulous, ignorant reporter to describe this movement as theirs and theirs alone.

Jo Becker Responds – By Lying About Her Own Book

Politico’s Dylan Byers managed to get an email from Jo Becker on her book. Here’s what she sent back (and it’s the same response she gave to HuffPo):

Many people have contributed to the success the movement has experienced. I have the upmost [sic] respect for all the people who contributed to that success. My book was not meant to be a beginning-to-end-history of the movement. It’s about a particular group of people at an extraordinary moment in time, and I hope that people will be moved by their stories.

My italics. It’s interesting that rather than defend her insane core thesis, she just lies about it. She claims that her book never pretends to be a beginning-to-end history of the marriage equality movement. And yet the book starts thus:

This is how a revolution begins … It begins with a handsome bespectacled thirty-five year old political consultant named Chad Griffin … on election night 2008.

Does she think we cannot read? The title of the book is “Forcing The Spring.” Not plucking the fruits of autumn. And if you think I’m just grabbing a few sentences, here’s how Becker introduces Evan Wolfson, the architect of the entire movement, just pages after she begins her cringe-inducing hagiography of Griffin. She frames him as an old, out-of-touch obstructionist who just never got it, unlike Hollywood’s Dustin Lance Black (!):

Hours earlier, Black had been confronted in the hotel’s courtyard by Evan Wolfson, the fifty-two-year-old founder of a group called Freedom to Marry and the primary author of the cautious state-by-state strategy that the gay rights movement had been pursuing. Wolfson had berated the younger man over his Oscar speech, explaining as though to a willful but ignorant child his on-going twenty-five year plan to build support for marriage equality nationwide. Twenty-five years? Black had practically gasped.

Get the picture? Black had to shove the cautious, delaying, hide-bound oldie, Wolfson, out of the way for the “revolution” to “begin”.  And look at the contempt in the notion that he had spent a quarter century building support and winning equality in several states by 2008. The movement before then – which had achieved extraordinary results against enormous odds – was marked, Becker has a colleague of Griffin say, by “political ineptitude and dysfunction. It was filled with impassioned activists, but what it needed, she believed, was skilled political operators like Chad.” If that’s respecting those who contributed to the success of the movement, what would be disrespect? And if she truly respects those who contributed to the movement’s success, why did she not call us and ask for our perspectives? Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto – critical figures in this struggle – got one brief call each. I got none.

And as the book continues, this framework of dissing the people who did the real work only deepens:

Wolfson was quietly seething. The idea that this newcomer thought his strategy timid and incremental infuriated him … “Chad was saying ‘Oh my God, we are going to be loathed and hated.” … If Griffin and Black proceeded, they would do so in the face of the full-throated opposition of the gay rights community. It was not the best of outcomes, but neither was it a real deterrent. They did not need the gay establishment. They had already put in place an organization with the wherewithal to go it alone.

If you don’t recall the “full-throated opposition of the gay rights community” to the Perry case, you aren’t alone. I don’t either.

They got $3 million via David Geffen in an afternoon, after all. Is David not part of the gay rights establishment? Yes, there were divisions about the timing of such a move. But there always were with every legal case. Picking the right one in the right state with the right plaintiffs is a very difficult thing to get right in a moving landscape. Personally, I was thrilled by the case and said so at the time. But again, those who believed that Perry was not a panacea turned out to be correct, which guts the entire premise of Becker’s argument. The Perry case only affected California, and did not give us the federal breakthrough Griffin had promised. But for Becker, there was no marriage movement until Perry and Griffin.

She then ascribes to Griffin the idea that the marriage movement had to be bipartisan. Seriously. Griffin is quoted in the book as saying that Olson would go a long way “in terms of recasting same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue, rather than a partisan one.” Griffin and Becker seem utterly unaware that one of the remarkable features of the movement from the late 1980s onward was its bipartisan cast and its insistence on the civil rights rubric. Among the most aggressive advocates from the get-go were conservatives like me, Bawer, Rauch, or Log Cabin. And throughout the 1990s and 2000s, gay and straight Republicans and conservatives had risked careers and obloquy to make the conservative case. We were ridiculed as “Homocons” for our efforts. Yet again, in Becker’s telling, we didn’t exist. In fact, it was only after Griffin hired Olson, in Becker’s account, that the movement, including Evan, started “to borrow from Chad’s bipartisan playbook:”

Chad’s unique ability to leverage the legal proceedings into front-page attention and rebrand a cause that for years had largely languished in obscurity … had gone a long way to bringing the establishment gay rights community around.”

If you really believe that the marriage equality movement had languished in obscurity for years by 2008, then you might appreciate this book. If you woke up after a long sleep in 2009, and suffer from total memory loss, it makes some sort of sense. But if you know anything about the subject or any history before 2008 or know anyone in the movement before then or even now, this book is as absurd as it is stupid. And no lies and spin from Becker about what she actually wrote will change that.

The Best Of The Dish Today

I figured I’d post the above video to dispel some of the misconceptions about the pill that can prevent you from getting infected with HIV. Some readers wanted expert medical advice rather than my links to studies – and the video should help. You’ll note that the volunteers in the study do not come across as reckless “whores”, as some have so depressingly called them. They are rather sane, smart, responsible gay men trying to minimize their risks of infection. If you’d not think twice about getting vaccines if you were taking a trip to the tropics, why would you think twice about taking a pill that can protect you if you are in a demographic at high risk of HIV infection?

And after the ugliness of a few trying to claim exclusive credit for a movement they only joined in the last few years, it’s great to read this wonderful story:

The lawyer who defended California’s ban on gay marriage in front of the Supreme Court is now helping his daughter plan her wedding to another woman.

If you want to know why marriage equality is on a roll, it’s not because of one credit-grabbing Chad Griffin’s unique genius, but because so many human beings from all walks of life opened their hearts and minds to their fellow citizens, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, over the last two and a half decades, and saw the morality of affirming the love of one person for another. That’s what began this revolution and what will, I hope, one day end it.

The most trafficked post of the day – and week – is my initial takedown of Jo Becker’s travesty of a book. Read all of our related coverage here, including Becker’s dissembling response to the widespread criticism today. Meanwhile, the view from my Obamacare sparked the first wave of your stories. Feel free to leave any unfiltered comments at our Facebook page or @sullydish.

Some reader updates you might have missed: supplemental info for “The View From Your Obamacare” and a classic YouTube that one reader calls “perhaps my favorite Dish video of all time.” I watched it again today, and yeah it’s hilarious.

It was a great day for subscriptions: 37 more Dishheads signed up. You can join them here.

And see you in the morning.

Dissent Of The Day

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!

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.

Other Voices, Other Points, On Becker, Ctd

On “Meet The Press Yesterday,” David Gregory didn’t ask Jo Becker to defend her claim that the marriage equality revolution “began” in 2008  and was the triumph of Ted Olson and Chad Griffin over the countless Meet the Press - Season 67activists who had allowed the issue to “languish in obscurity” for years. No surprise there – but a clue as to why Gregory has led MTP to epic lows in viewership.

Becker – amazingly – has stuck to a p.r. strategy that doesn’t even mention the controversy over her book – check out her Twitter feed here, where she simply won’t address it at all. You’d think that an author who wrote such a controversial book would engage the criticism – or link to it and respond forthrightly. But Becker just pretends that the controversy doesn’t exist! Or says she wrote a book that is utterly different than the one I’ve read. What does that tell you? In my view, it tells you that she has no defense, has no grasp on gay history, and cannot defend her own thesis. The book is as much a hagiography of a handful of late-comers to the cause as it is a brutal denigration of all those who came before. Why won’t she defend this argument in public?

Meanwhile, the man who relentlessly spun Bill Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act, Richard Socarides, was interviewed for the book and covers for its distortions of history here. And Noah Feldman has a critical must-read on the ludicrous legal claims of the book. Money quote:

In order to take credit for results they didn’t achieve, based on the accomplishments of a movement to which they did not and do not belong, Boies and Olson and their media proxies need to marginalize and circumvent the real activists. But even that is not all. Their aim for credit has real-world consequences. Boies and Olson are seeking out new clients and actively trying to beat the gay-marriage movement’s own legal eagles to the courthouse in a mad rush to get credit for what they have already failed to achieve. In the course of doing so, they are engaging in high-risk legal behavior that could backfire on the whole movement.

Jonathan Capehart says that I have raised “a valid concern about how the history of the quest for marriage equality is being portrayed,” but like Socarides, he doesn’t really care. The juicy tidbits from a fawningly uncritical hagiography are worth it.

A couple of readers have also pointed out that, in the first page, Rosa Parks is described merely as a “black seamstress” who took a stand for justice one day in 1955 in a moment of clarity. Becker doesn’t seem to understand that Parks had been a civil rights activist for twelve years before the protest that made history, just as she seems oblivious to the notion that others had been doing what she describes as Chad Griffin’s unique civil rights work for twenty-five years before he came along.

If you want to read a film script for a Hollywood movie about the lone courage and insight of a couple of people who showed up at a civil rights movement a quarter century late and then claimed ownership of all of it, this is your book. A work of actual and informed journalism, let alone history, is yet to come.

(Photo: Jo Becker appears on “Meet the Press” on April 20, 2014. By William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

The Best Of The Dish Today

2014 B.A.A. Boston Marathon

Now there’s a Boston physique for you!

Meanwhile, the slams on the dreadful Becker book continue to pile up. When Michelangelo Signorile is compelled to agree with me, you have some idea of how bad it is. He notes how the book grotesquely distorts the legal work of Robbie Kaplan, who argued the much-more-significant Windsor case, only to have Becker relegate it to a footnote of her exclusive-access p.r. clients, Olson and Boies:

In Becker’s zeal to make her book and its insiders seem more important, she shockingly steals the win on DOMA by Kaplan and gives it to Prop 8 attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies. She wrongly portrays Kaplan as having argued a very narrow case, one not based on the dignity and civil rights of gay people, when in fact that is how Kaplan has always portrayed the case against DOMA, in the media and before the courts, right up to the high court. …

But Becker’s breathtakingly shameless conclusion, for which she quotes no legal scholar and clearly got directly from Olson and Boies, is that Olson’s arguments on Prop 8 won the DOMA case for Kaplan. She even quotes Kaplan seeming to back this up, a quotation that I find very strange, having read everything Kaplan has said about the case since DOMA was struck down. (Kaplan has not publicly commented on this book.) The omissions in the book are certainly egregious. But throwing Roberta Kaplan and Edie Windsor under the bus while comparing Chad Griffin to a woman who refused to sit at the back of the bus is truly horrendous.

My sources tell me that Kaplan rebutted this argument to Becker directly, only to have Becker ignore her points – which tells you something about the ethics and fairness of this shoddy p.r. exercise. Signorile, however, has to insist that my notion of the gay left’s resistance to marriage equality in the 1990s is unfounded. Well, since Evan Wolfson is an upstanding member of the gay left, and always has been, he is partly right. But the idea that the gay left was supportive of marriage equality as a priority or even at all in the early days is not true. Don’t ask me (although I can recite you chapter and verse), see this new piece by Richard Kim of The Nation on the epic struggle within the movement that preceded and accompanied the struggle for marriage rights. Money quote:

In the early 1990s, the writers Andrew Sullivan and Tony Kushner, in the pages of The New Republic and The Nation respectively, laid out two catalytic visions of gay politics. In his essay “The Politics of Homosexuality,” Sullivan made the conservative case for a gay agenda that focused solely on eliminating state discrimination against lesbians and gay men, chiefly the bans on same-sex marriage and military service … Kushner’s rejoinder, “A Socialism of the Skin,” published in these pages in 1994, was a galvanizing interpretation of gay liberation’s utopian and solidaristic spirit … I am, of course, Team Tony. But twenty years later, it is undeniable that Sullivan’s brand of politics defines the gay movement and that the achievement of its limited goals is on the near horizon.

Does Signorile think Richard Kim just made all that up?

On Becker, two questions: why, after all this fuss, does she refuse to engage her critics? And where is the NYT’s Public Editor on this mess?

The most popular post today was “Was Jesus God?” followed by my response to Ann Wroe’s thoughts on sin. I also went another round responding to critics of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. From the in-tray, small business owners shared their Obamacare stories (follow the whole thread here).

See you in the morning.

(Photo: A man with ‘We’re Back!’ written on his chest limps by after finishing the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. By Andrew Burton/Getty Images.)