Forcing the Spring: Inside The Fight For Marriage Equality by New York Times correspondent Jo Becker has been proclaimed the definitive book about marriage by the mainstream press and condemned by many LGBT journalists as partial at best and insulting at worst. Besides Andrew Sullivan, Michelangelo Signorile and John Aravosis, the book has been trashed by Chris Geidner of Buzzfeed and, perhaps most devastatingly, Tobias Barrington Wolfe of The New Republic, who compares Becker to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.
The main complaint from the critics is that Becker not just underplayed all the hard work of rank-and-file activists. She ignored it. Becker’s defense is that she wasn’t writing a history of marriage equality, just the insider view of what it took to push it across the finish line.
But Becker’s failure to acknowledge the groundwork that enabled Ted Olsen, David Boies and Chad Griffin to emerge as the Holy Trinity of her book raises a larger question: can a straight author really understand the LGBT movement enough to write a good history about it?
Becker has impeccable journalistic credentials. She has a Pulitzer Prize (with Barton Gellman) for her reporting on the shadowy role that Dick Cheney played as vice president. She’s covered everything from the financial meltdown to the Obama administration’s use of drones.
And those two facts combined might be the problem.
Becker and Gellman turned their Cheney reporting into a well-regarded book called Angler, after Cheney’s Secret Service code name. It’s the quintessential inside-the-Beltway view of the Bush White House, replete with previously untold details of the type that Bob Woodward has made into a cottage industry.
As the breadth of her range shows, Becker can take on a topic, quickly learn about it and report with clarity and insight.
Unfortunately, Forcing the Spring brings together the two elements that are otherwise Becker’s strengths. As Becker has learned the hard way, marriage equality isn’t a topic — it’s a movement. And it’s not your typical political story.
Becker approaches the subject of marriage equality as if it were a campaign story, with all the insider details that political reporters have become addicted to. The details make for great reading — who wouldn’t want to know just how Obama dragged his heels on marriage? Needless to say, Becker’s main sources — Olsen, Boies and Griffin — are treated with reverence, as is pro forma in such narratives. In Griffin’s case in particular, she’s done him no favors. He deserves credit for what he’s done, but he’s not the Messiah the book makes him out to be. (Ironically, Becker picked the less important legal team. It wasn’t Olsen and Boies who carried the day before the Supreme Court; it was the ACLU.)
But if the LGBT community was your reporting beat, you would know right away that this wasn’t a campaign story. Campaigns don’t last 20 years, for one. For another, you would recognize that Washington is just one location, not the location in a movement.
You would also recognize some of the long-standing issues in the community. For example, who doesn’t know that the Human Rights Campaign is the organization that many activists love to hate, and not entirely without reason? Who wouldn’t be sensitive to the story of straight outsiders getting credit for saving the community?
Becker, of course. Through a combination of client-itis and Beltway-myopia, she totally underplays the work that everyone outside the Beltway did. It’s great that Griffin engineered Joe Biden’s epiphany, but Biden would never have blurted out his support of marriage equality if hundreds of activists hadn’t convinced thousands of other Americans that marriage equality was the right thing to support. Biden is a politician, after all. He got out in front of the issue, but he wouldn’t have if there wasn’t growing support among voters.
And someone who was following the movement wouldn’t choose to make Evan Wolfson, who has dedicated his life to making marriage equality a reality, the Snidely Whiplash of the book. Wolfson is cautious (I’ve been on the receiving end of his lectures about the potential setbacks of overreaching, starting with the Hawaii marriage case). But he has done far more for marriage than any of the people Becker anoints as heroes. Moreover, a negative Supreme Court decision would indeed have set marriage equality back for years.
Given the chorus of complaints from gay journalists, it’s fair to conclude that only a gay author could write a good gay history. (And many gay journalists have written good gay histories, starting with Randy Shilts.) But in this case, it’s the author’s journalistic orientation, not her sexual orientation, that’s the barrier. Approaching the story from an inside-Washington, political campaign point of view paved the way for Becker’s tone-deaf errors.
Contrast Becker with Frank Rich, who has been closely following the LGBT community for years, first at The New York Times and now at New York Magazine. Rich has offered a sharp, but nuanced, critique of Becker’s book.
“With all due respect to those both gay and straight who have been fighting for gay rights in recent, more enlightened times — whether advocates, lawyers, politicians, or journalists — wiping out or whitewashing the history that came before is simply wrong,” Rich says. “Some of the bravest heroes of the gay-civil-rights struggle in the 1980s and 1990s are no longer around to testify to what they accomplished against punishing odds.”
Now there’s some crucial context. Too bad Becker didn’t know enough to include it in her book.
Photo credit: JoBecker.net