On June 26, 2013, I took a very early lunch. I was working in D.C. for the summer, and my fellow interns and I decided to take a train to the Supreme Court on that blistering June day. We arrived outside the Court at about 11:00 a.m., and we stayed for as long as we could withstand the heat — about an hour, as it turned out. All around us was jubilation. People were laughing, chanting, kissing, crying and holding up signs. So many signs. It was awesome.
June 26, as we knew, was no ordinary day to congregate outside the Supreme Court. That was the day that the Court announced two major gay rights cases — United States v. Windsor, which struck down the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, a case I’ll discuss in more detail in just a moment.
I’d been following both cases sort of closely. Recently, however, journalist Jo Becker raised the bar for following a case closely, with her engaging and profoundly flawed “Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality.”
Becker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter now affiliated with the New York Times, made a decision sometime in 2008 or early 2009. She bet on a horse. She decided to follow around the lawyers, plaintiffs, witnesses and advisors related to the Perry case. Becker clearly believed that Perry could become a Brown v. Board of Education-level civil rights landmark — the case that would guarantee the freedom to marry to every American.
In fluid and almost novelistic prose, Becker ushers her readers behind the scenes. She begins by detailing California Proposition 8, the ballot initiative for which 7 million Californians voted and that amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Becker’s hero, Chad Griffin, a gay 30-something political consultant, was so distressed by Prop 8 that it made even the election of Barack Obama a bittersweet moment. Griffin was so distressed, in fact, that he decided, along with a colleague and the director Rob Reiner, to challenge the constitutionality of Prop 8. In so doing, Griffin hoped, they could force the Supreme Court to rule that there was a constitutional right to gay marriage.
In order to challenge Prop 8, Griffin and his partners, under the guise of a newly formed organization called Americans for Equal Rights, needed to find plaintiffs — people actually harmed by Prop 8. After some distasteful screening, they settled on two same-sex couples (among them, the eponymous Perry). Even before finding Perry, though, Griffin needed to find lawyers. After similarly convoluted machinations, he and his organization settled on David Boies and Ted Olson — two of the most famous lawyers in the country. Boies, a liberal, and Olson, a conservative, were on opposite sides in the infamous Bush v. Gore case that allowed George Bush to avoid a recount and slink into the White House. They were chosen, in large part, for the excellent PR that could be generated by their odd-couple effort.
Becker traces the Perry case’s progression with exceptional attention to detail. She follows its players through planes and trains and fancy dinners, through exhilaration and despair, through self-doubt and self-congratulation, through a state trial and the Supreme Court. We meet the opposition — a former Reagan Justice Department lawyer and a unhinged California reverend — and the witnesses — from survivors of reparative therapy to Yale’s own George Chauncey. We witness the resistance the Perry team encountered from many prominent activists and the embraces they received from others.
Finally, we watch the case unfold in the Supreme Court. The two sides present, questions are asked, sweat rolls. And on June 26, 2013, the Court issues its ruling. Or lack of a ruling. Perry would not become the landmark ruling its supporters had hoped; rather, on procedural grounds, it would be reverted back to the lower court ruling. Since the lower court ruling had been a favorable one, this meant that Prop 8 was unconstitutional and the plaintiffs could get married, but that no national right to same-sex marriage had been established. The Windsor case — announced on the same day — overturned DOMA and represented significant progress for gay rights activists.
So Becker penned her book — not a thrilling tale of absolute victory, but still an interesting, well-documented story about one small part of the broader movement for equal rights. Except she went too far.
“This is how a revolution begins,” Becker opens her book. “It begins when someone grows tired of standing idly by, waiting for history’s arc to bend toward justice … in this story, it begins with a handsome, bespectacled 35-year-old political consultant named Chad Griffin, in a spacious suite in the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco on election night 2008.”
Of course, the revolution didn’t begin in 2008. It didn’t begin with Chad Griffin or with Prop 8. But Becker seems not to get this.
By subtitling her story “the” fight for marriage equality and by acting as if it begun the revolution, Becker does an extreme disservice to so many of the activists she omits from her narrative: Evan Wolfson, Dan Foley, Mary Bonauto and so many others. Even worse, “Forcing the Spring” overlooks the centuries of resistance by gay rights activists and the violence they bore. It forgets the years of legal challenges and political organizing that led to the marriage movement. It neglects the countless other players that made the recent sea change in public opinion regarding the marriage question — and only the marriage question — possible to tentatively answer. It even fails to adequately tell the story of Windsor, arguably the more important case. Instead, Becker either ignores these moments and leaders or she outright attacks their importance and intelligence (as she did with Wolfson).
“Forcing the Spring” is a well-written and helpfully detailed account of one important case, but just one. If you can read every page with that in mind, it will serve you well. But it is not “the” whole story. And, in many ways, it misses the point.