Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Jo Becker’s new book Forcing the Spring: Inside The Fight For Marriage Equality has been out for a mere week, but has already become the most controversial book of 2014. The reasons behind the controversy are myriad, but all seem to boil down to the opinion of a few very powerful gay bloggers that the book is at best a hagiography of HRC President Chad Griffin that omits crucial players in the decades long fight for marriage equality and at worst a work of fiction parading as truth, “access” journalism at its very worst. One nagging question, however, is this: is that all there is to the criticism, or is there more at work here?
In mid-April, renowned conservative writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan was among the first to pounce on Forcing the Spring, in a reaction to the book’s admittedly hyperbolic initial paragraph, which compares Chad Griffin to Rosa Parks and traces the start of the modern marriage equality movement to Griffin’s dismay at the passing of Prop 8 on election night 2008.
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.
Sullivan’s reach and power is paralleled by only a few, and it is no wonder that after his initial post, the story started to pick up steam in the media. A quick google search will reveal pages upon pages of articles saying basically the same thing in different ways, so there is no need to rehash them all. Instead, it is important to gauge the reactions of those whose reach are equal to that of Sullivan, namely Huffpo Gay Voices editor-at-large Michelangelo Signorile and John Aravosis, the editor of Americablog.
In his piece The Worst Problem With Jo Becker’s Book On The Fight For Marriage Equality, Signorile hones in on another major issue that activists and bloggers have with the book, namely that it is heavily influenced by the insider access to Chad Griffin that she was granted during its creation.
Writing an introduction, and giving historical context here and there throughout the book, likely would have spared Becker the attacks. That she didn’t do so betrays the fact that Becker got all her information from the insiders to whom she had access, blinded by that access and their star power. And that brings us to the more egregious problem with Forcing the Spring, which no introduction would have solved. Becker offensively and consistently undercuts other people’s work, distorting the truth in an attempt to give her insiders credit for…everything.
Americablog’s John Aravosis cosigns this opinion, but given the insider access he and previous writer Joe Sudbay had to the White House and the influence they had on generating media attention regarding the White House’s reaction to DOMA (and the subsequent dismantling of it), the criticism seems to have some ulterior motives.
But Becker doesn’t mention the fact that the “activists” who caused the firestorm were Joe Sudbay and me, writing on AMERICAblog. Joe had managed to get a copy of the administration’s brief before anyone else in the media, or activist world, had it. Both of us being lawyers, we went through the brief and ripped it to shreds, piece by piece, over the ensuing hours — publishing minute-by-minute updates on AMERICAblog.
The opinion of Aravosis is the most fascinating, as it brings up a fundamental question about the criticism and the voices that it’s coming from that nobody seems to be asking: are these prominent activists unhappy because the work of countless others was glossed over, or because their work was glossed over?
Indeed, save for the Signorile piece, most of the written criticism of Forcing the Spring is littered with references to past dalliances with the fight for marriage equality that their authors have personally been involved in. That is not to say that their contributions aren’t worthy of inclusion in some way, but the first rule in authoring a book is to tell a story that has a very specific start and finish. There are many stories to be told about the decades-long fight for marriage equality that has still not come to a definitive end, and Forcing the Spring doesn’t seem to be anything more than just one of them.
In the age of hashtag activism and Facebook “protests,” it has become easier than ever before for the thoughts of a very powerful few to rile up the emotions of many. A Facebook page for a protest of Jo Becker’s book signing on Friday afternoon in San Francisco has popped up, though with 11 confirmed and 7 “maybes” three days prior to the event, the “revolution” organizers are hoping for will likely be little more than a nuisance.
A look at the review page for Forcing the Spring on Amazon reveals many one-star reviews from people who more likely than not haven’t read the work, and were very obviously driven there by one or more of the pieces criticizing it. A very telling review is written by a visitor who states that “I haven’t read the entire book nor will I purchase it. I have read excerpts provided by Andrew Sullivan, Chris Geidner and others and they are enough to inform my opinion of this shameless PR piece written on behalf of those who lead the HRC.”
In stark contrast to the drubbing that it has gotten from the gay blogosphere, he book has gotten outright raves from mainstream media outlets. Entertainment Weekly gave the book an “A” and called it “a stunning account of the legal battles stemming from Prop 8″ that is “as taught and suspenseful as a novel.” According to Washington Post, Forcing the Spring is “a riveting legal drama” and “a spellbinder of a tale.” Not to be outdone, the holy grail of journalism The New York Times calls it “a stunningly intimate story” and “a great one nonetheless.”
So where does the truth lie in all of this? Likely somewhere in the middle. Jo Becker wrote a book that has divided activists and undoubtedly left out a great deal of people who’ve fought in the battle for marriage equality and is likely heavily influenced by those she had access to.
The book, which is bound to be outrageously successful and a likely New York Times bestseller because of the controversy, likely gets under the skin of those who have yet to have a professional “moment” akin to the one Ms. Becker is experiencing right now. This is regardless of how much their efforts have helped to move marriage equality to the “inevitable” place that it currently sits at in American society.
As Aravosis writes: “It only goes to prove something I learned long ago. History isn’t written by the victors. History is written by those who step up to write it.”
It will be fascinating to watch the reaction to whoever steps up next.