LGBT media tackle community outrage over Jo Becker’s controversial book
by Chuck Colbert
The pushback was fierce and swift within the LGBT community against a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, Jo Becker, and her new book, “Forcing the Spring: The Inside Fight for Marriage Equality.”
Not surprisingly, journalists, bloggers and LGBT media professionals were all over the story with reports and analysis.
Articles and book reviews ran in any number of LGBT media outlets, including Keen News Service clients: San Francisco-based Bay Area Reporter, Chicago-based Windy City Times; Michigan-based Between the Lines; Boston-based The Rainbow Times; Dallas Voice; South Florida Gay News; Arizona-based lgbtqnation.com; Nashville-based Out & About Newspaper; Atlanta-based Georgia Voice; and Gay San Diego.
Other LGBT outlets with notable coverage were Los Angles-based Frontiers Magazine; New York-based Gay City News; the Washington Blade; the Wisconsin Gazette; and San Diego LGBT Weekly.
Online-based media dealing with the kerfuffle included San Diego Gay and Lesbian News (sdgln.com) Queerty, Bilerico, LGBTQ Nation and Huffington Post Gay Voices.
For nearly all of Becker’s detractors’ outrage, the book’s opening sentences were a red-hot button pusher:
“This is how a revolution begins,” she wrote. “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 35-year-old political consultant named Chad Griffin, in a spacious suite at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco on election night 2008.”
Writing in the Dish, in an April 16 piece entitled “Jo Becker’s Troubling Travesty of Gay History,” Andrew Sullivan minced few words. “After that surreal opening, the book descends into more jaw-dropping distortion,” he wrote, noting any number of Becker’s other problematic claims, namely “that for years” the marriage equality movement was a cause that “had largely languished in obscurity.”
“The intellectual foundation of the movement is also non-existent in Becker’s book,” Sullivan charged. “More staggeringly, the critical, indispensable role of Evan Wolfson in pioneering this cause is actually treated with active contempt in the book.”
For Sullivan, “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.”
“The answer,” according to Sullivan, “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.”
In a similar vein, Gay City News (GCN) associated editor Duncan Osborne offered his corrective. “Let me first say what Jo Becker’s book … is not,” he wrote in “A Contested Account of the Marriage Spring” (April 30). “Its title, promotional materials, and a few bits of errant prose notwithstanding, this book is not a history of the movement to win marriage rights for same-sex couples in America. It is the story of the lawsuit brought by the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) that overturned Proposition 8, a 2008 California ballot initiative that amended the State Constitution to bar gay and lesbian couples from marrying there.”
The U.S. Supreme Court last June threw out Prop 8 on a technicality and same-sex marriage is now legal again in the Golden State.
Like Sullivan, Osborne pondered the craft of journalism. “Just as important, and as my Gay City News colleague Arthur S. Leonard has noted elsewhere, ‘Forcing the Spring’ is not even history; it is journalism and the only question that confronts us is whether this book is good journalism or bad journalism,” Osborne wrote. “I would say that the entire book is told from the plaintiffs’ perspective and that is a significant flaw in this story. The consequence is that ‘Forcing the Spring’ is a lot of cheerleading from start to finish. Cheerleading has been endemic in the mainstream and gay press coverage of the marriage movement for years, but the author takes it to a whole new level.”
As Osborne points out, “The marriage movement is run by lawyers, public relations experts,and political consultants.”
In Becker’s book, in fact some of the leading protagonists are — in addition to public relations and political strategist Griffin, now president of the Human Rights Campaign (since June 2012) — Hollywood actor and producer Rob Reiner, who along Griffin, co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which initiated the court challenge against California; AFER’s two star lawyers, the team of Ted Olsen and David Boies; and Republican political operative Ken Mehlman.
Therein lay the rub for Osborne. “To make her protagonists heroic, Becker renders Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, a pro-marriage group, as an obstacle to progress in the marriage fight. This is ridiculous,” he wrote. “Wolfson was among the leading voices, if not the leading voice, that got LGBT legal groups into the marriage business in the first place.”
Also coming to mind are Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders’ Mary Bonauto, who won the right for gays to marry in Massachusetts’ historic Goodridge decision; Roberta Kaplan, who argued the Windsor case in front of the Supreme Court; and Andrew Sullivan, who as early as the late 1980s writing in The New Republic argued a conservative case for gay marriage
“Ultimately,” Osborne concludes, “I wondered if Becker is telling an authentic story or if this book was just one more piece of the Gay Marriage: The Brand marketing campaign that was the Prop 8 trial. And so the answer to my colleague’s question is that this is bad journalism.”
What to make of all the uproar?
For all the LGBT communal outcry over Becker’s book, what are some takeaway messages for gay journalists in dealing with straight writers who pen accounts and histories of “our” movement? What role can community-based journalists and bloggers play in — for lack of a better word — setting the historical record straight?
Veteran journalist Keen offered some thoughts. “LGBT journalists are vastly outnumbered and out-gunned by straight journalists who are writing our history,” she said. “News reporting really is a kind of ‘first draft of history,’ and straight people, especially those working for the Associated Press, are writing the lion’s share of ours. There are many advantages to this: AP is everywhere and we and the general public are getting a vast deal more news about LGBT-related events now than ever before.”
Still, she added, “There are problems with it, too. Straight media seem to have either no understanding or no moral compunction about taking such shortcuts as calling things ‘gay marriage’ and ‘gay rights,’ things that don’t exist. It’s ‘marriage for gay people’ and ‘equal rights for gay people.’ The difference between those shortcuts and what our community is really fighting for is enormous; and straight media do us a great disservice when they leave the public with the impression that we’re seeking something special.
“It’s also out of line for a straight person to designate who the LGBT movement’s heroes are. It’s fine when a New York Times reporter quotes Barney Frank as calling Mary Bonauto ‘our Thurgood Marshall.’ But it feels inappropriate for a New York Times reporter to simply anoint Bonauto the LGBT community’s ‘Thurgood Marshall’ — and I think that’s what some of the backlash against Jo Becker’s book was about — that and the fact that she just really overstated Chad Griffin’s contribution to the marriage equality movement.
“I don’t think she needed to lay out the whole history of the marriage equality movement; that’s a different book than what she was writing. I just think that, in her desire to write an opening that would draw readers into her story — which truly was filled with drama and historic significance — she tried the Rosa Parks analogy and it just doesn’t fit.”
In addition to Keen News Service’s stories, other LGBT journalists contributed to the pool of reporting, analysis and book reviews.
Veteran journalist and Frontiers Magazine news editor Karen Ocamb said that she “appreciate[ed] the book Becker actually wrote, rather than the title the publishers want[ed] to sell her.”
However, Ocamb continued in her April 28 Frontiers piece, “Jo Becker’s Prop. 8 Trial Book, ‘Forcing the Spring,’ is Hardly Dangerous Revisionism,” “I suspect the embedded journalist thought she was witnessing a birth-of-a-king moment. What she didn’t realize was that the LGBT community likes to do its own myth-making, and there hasn’t been a gay MLK yet.”
For his part in coverage of the Becker book flap, the Washington Blade’s Chris Johnson, chief political and White House reporter, got Becker on the record, asking her at a D.C. book signing if she thought criticism of her work was unfair.
To that question, Becker replied that the book is “one chapter in a much longer narrative.”
“I chose to write about this chapter because it was a defining moment in the sense that there was a decision that was made to go to the federal courts — and that was not the consensus of the established gay rights legal groups who had been fighting this for years, who had given a great deal of thought to this,” Becker said, quoted by Johnson in “Becker Defends her book during D.C. appearance” (April 28).
“The movie ending of this would have been the Supreme Court [issues a] 50-state ruling, everybody that brought this case gets what he or she wants,” Becker continued. “It wasn’t the ending that the people that I write about in the book wanted, but it was an ending that was very important to the people at [San Francisco] City Hall and as a result of this case, a fifth of the country has been able to resume … having marriage equality.”
Johnson also asked Becker if she had any conversations with Andrew Sullivan, a major critic of her book. Becker told Johnson that she had not spoken with him but had “put herself out there on forums and on TV.”
“I think that … criticism is of a book I didn’t write,” Becker said. “The criticism is how could I leave out characters, really important people, in the marriage equality movement. And the answer is I chose to write about this case and in this case and this litigation effort, they weren’t a part of that.”
Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff also took fingers to keyboard to weigh in on the controversy. “Much gnashing of teeth followed publication of the book. Part of the reason for the backlash is that the book played into a narrative of HRC swooping in at the 11th hour and taking credit for the work of grassroots activists. Many of them have complained (often privately and off the record, fearing retribution) of HRC’s tactics, from Maryland to Maine and California to New York,” he wrote in a May 8 opinion piece, “Gays behaving badly.”
“We all know the marriage equality movement didn’t start in 2008 with the Prop 8 case and that Griffin is no Rosa Parks. In fact, that case fell far short of its goals; it’s an odd choice for Becker’s grandiose claims,” Naff wrote. “As gays find increasing acceptance and move openly into the halls of power, we mustn’t forget our own history, as HRC bet wrongly we would in the case of Becker’s book. That history has always been about a shared responsibility for helping each other overcome discrimination and hate. We all stand on the shoulders of a generation of gay men who died and the LGBT survivors who took care of them.”
In a followup email correspondence, Naff added, “My take was that the reason [all of this] blew up in Chad Griffin’s face is that the book plays into the narrative of HRC parachuting into situations at the 11th hour and claiming credit for the work of local grassroots activists. Remember, HRC opposed that Prop 8 lawsuit. Now they are raising money off of it. Typical HRC.”
During a West Coast book-signing event, Matthew Bajko, Bay Area Reporter (BAR) assistant news editor, also pressed Becker about criticism of her book in “Online Extra: Political Notes: Prop 8 lawsuit book author plugs tome in SF” (May 22).
Becker told him that if she had “planned to write a book about the decades-long fight to win marriage equality for LGBT Americans then, ‘the criticism out there would be fair. But that is not the book I set out to do.’”
She acknowledged to Bajko, “Many other people worked on this movement long before this story where I picked it up who should be celebrated. I hope those books will be written and I think they will be.”
In addition, BAR ran a May 8 book review, “To the Barricades,” which concluded with taking Sullivan and Becker’s other big detractors to task.
“While Becker errs in not giving the many actors in this decades-long saga credit for their role in securing marriage benefits for LGBTs, the insider scenarios and intimate narratives of the principal players compensate for this lack,” wrote Brian Jackle. “Andrew, Michelangelo, Dan, and the rest of the LGBT PC/Gay Inc. bully brigade, please give Jo Becker a break!”
Yet another Becker defender offered her take.
“‘Forcing the Spring’ is a thrilling book. We know the ending and we still want to read every word,” wrote Torie Osborn for Huffington Post, “In Defense of Forcing the Spring: A Longtime Activist’s Appraisal” (April 30). “So here’s my message to the guys who piled on: It’s A book, not THE book, on the Prop 8 fight. It’s one bold chapter of our vibrant social movement history, told in vivid color and compelling detail.”
A former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, Osborn continued, “We feel what the plaintiffs feel as their lives are splayed open by Supreme Court justices. We see the parade of witnesses (experts in sociology, history, psychology, economics and more) bearing and baring our collective truth, making the case for our humanity from every conceivable point of view. The proceedings in Judge Walker’s courtroom were, indeed, an historic ‘Truth Commission,’ as Mary Bonauto called it. The weight of that truth, as presented in the book, was so powerful that the reader can actually experience how the pro-Prop 8 arguments withered away from the force of it. I’ve never read anything close to Becker’s beautifully written account of such a sweeping indictment of any ‘ism.’”