Can A Straight Author Write A Good Gay History?

Jo BeckerForcing 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.

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  • Cam

    A few things. One, Queerty said…

    “”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.””

    Well not really, the NYTimes actually wrote a scathing article denouncing the book even though she works for them.

    She was allowed access to the Prop 8 case and possibly because she was straight, she wrote that book as if marriage had not already occurred in MA. IA, most of New England etc… She wrote the book as if the new head of HRC was the first guy who fought for rights. He is a publicist by trade and apparently did good work in convincing her.

    Do I think that straight people can write a book on gay history? Sure, but they need to be intellectually curious enough to actually do research. This author did not, and just put on paper what was shown to her, doing a gigantic, insulting disservice to everybody who has fought for rights.

    What she did was the same as if somebody claimed that Racial equality started with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and conveniently forgot to add in anything about Martin Luther King, rosa Parks etc…

  • sportyguy1983

    What a completely ridiculous and idiotic question.

  • Gonzalo

    I’m glad John Gallagher concludes that a queer sexual orientation is not a requisite for writing about a queer sexual orientation issue such as marriage equality. What I find preposterous is the title of this article. As if this question still merits discussion. If this were the case, then nobody would be legitimized to write the history of any social group or people in the past whom they do not stem from genetically. Evidently, all voices must be heard, but lets not fall into the dead-end of mesmerizing navel-gazing about just how exclusive the gay point of view is. Anybody with a few neurons and a little sensitivity and initiative is qualified to write about any one group or issue, whether it touches them directly or not. What matters is quality not your DNA.

  • jayj150

    Well, if “straight ‘women'” like Mock and Carrera apparently have the right to speak for gay folks and even police what words they can and can’t use, I don’t see why this young woman can’t.

  • carey579

    Ofcourse she can.

    Not totally related but I think it’s very significant that most Yaoi writers and readers are straight women.

  • jar

    Evan Wolfson makes his living off the marriage battle. He has been at it for over 25 years and has no success to show for it. Our strides in this area have occurred not because of Wolfson, but despite him. He is not an activist; he is a quisling. So long as Evan has a cushy job and public approbation that’s all that matters. Ask Edie Windsor about Evan’s leadership.

  • toberlin

    What is “a Good Gay History” ?
    I think there are a lot of different answers to that question.
    Like I read more than one comment to one topic here I do not try to understand the world based on 1 Book ( Hello Bible!).
    What I can say for sure is that a gay man can write straight woman’s history. I have read “Another Country” by James Baldwin as a Teenager.A well-worn volume without a cover.I very much liked it so I tried to find out more about the author (I had no background information beside the book title/name of the writer) .It was a kind of a shock to me that somebody was able to write a book like that in 1962.It felt as 2062.So I am not James Baldwin (although my german is better than my english).I told myself if he is able to push his brain and his heart 100 years into the future I am capable to push myself like 10 years ahead.I try to do if I reflect about something.

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