Reversing the Re-write of LGBT History

By C. Brian Smith

Originally published on Advocate.com July 07 2014 7:00 AM ET

By the time investigative reporter Jo Becker’s book Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality was published on April 22, the following articles—and a dozen more like them—had already debunked it: “Jo Becker’s Troubling Travesty of Gay History,” by Andrew Sullivan, The Dish, April 16 (and follow-ups on April 17 and 18); “Critics Slam Jo Becker’s Gay History Book,” by Dylan Byers, Politico, April 17; “Jo Becker’s New Book Disparages Gay-Marriage Activists’ Years of Hard Work,” by Adam Teicholz, New Republic, April 17; “The New Book About the Marriage Equality Movement Gets the Big Things Wrong,” by Chris Geidner, BuzzFeed, April 21; “The Worst Problem With Jo Becker’s Book on ‘The Fight for Marriage Equality,’” by Michelangelo Signorile, Huffington Post, April 21; “New Book on Marriage Equality Assailed as ‘Travesty,’” by Chris Johnson, Washington Blade, April 21; and “The Defense of the History of (Gay) Marriage,” by John Aravosis, AmericaBlog, April 21.

Becker was twice a guest of NPR’s “Fresh Air” program that week. First, on April 16, to discuss and promote the book with host Terry Gross, and then again six days later to speak to the clamor of unified dissent being voiced by the entirety of the marriage equality movement—minus the book’s heroes, the American Foundation for Equal Rights’s team of Chad Griffin, Ted Olson, David Boies, Rob Reiner, Bruce Cohen, Dustin Lance Black, and a smattering of rainbow mercenaries who joined forces in 2008 to make up Becker’s legal Prop 8 A-Team.

“It’s not a history of the entire gay rights movement,” a floundering, defensive Becker attempted to explain to Ronan Farrow on MSNBC on April 23. “It’s not even a history of the entire marriage equality movement.” That new claim is betrayed by the very first line of the book, which reads, “This is how a revolution begins.”

Becker introduces the protagonist of her story, Griffin, as a freedom fighter who, in 2008, grew tired of “standing idly by, waiting for history’s arc to bend toward justice.” She compares him to Rosa Parks at the bottom of the page. The Holocaust is referenced on the next.

“[Becker] chose to give us a shallow and incomplete history that fetishizes the role of celebrities and PR hacks and either trashes or ignores the real heroes who fought for years to help make the moment possible,” remarked LGBT movement funder Andrew Lane to Washington Blade. “That vapid gay men are attempting to rewrite history by centering themselves is not news. That they conscripted a New York Times reporter to do the heavy lifting for them certainly is.”

This isn’t the first time a proffered narrative of the gay rights movement has been challenged. As Tim Murphy noted in his 2009 New York article “Stonewall Revisionism: Does it Matter Who Claims the History?”:

“Every year at the Gay Pride parade, a troupe of grizzled geezers who make up the Stonewall Veterans’ Association ride in a 1969 blue Cadillac that was legendarily parked outside the bar that night [of the riots.] ‘We were there,’ it says on their rainbow-hued website. The question is whether, decades later, it matters if they actually were there that night—or not, as some have suggested over the years.”

The hagiography of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association has been, for the most part, uncontested, likely because it was written on the side of a Cadillac in 1969. If it had been written instead on the cover of a (meant-to-be) best-selling book in 2014, at a time when fact-checking is crowdsourced by millions (who were, in fact, there), the grizzled geezers’ feet would have likely felt a bit more heat emanating from the floor of that ’69 DeVille.

Almost immediately, Griffin, HRC’s president, began distancing himself from Forcing the Spring. “I have nothing in common with the trailblazing courage of Rosa Parks… The response to Jo Becker’s book from many of my friends and colleagues in the LGBT movement has had a profound effect on me,” Griffin wrote in a commentary on Advocate.com on April 23. “Most troubling of all is the impression that I personally am unaware or dismissive of the decades of hard work—often done in the face of personal risk and even harm—that made possible last year’s groundbreaking marriage equality decisions from the United States Supreme Court.” (In point of fact, the Supreme Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of Prop 8 and dismissed the case on procedural grounds, allowing a lower court’s ruling to stand.) Penguin, the book’s publisher, scrubbed an HRC-hosted book event in late April from its site, and Becker, when asked, said she was unaware of the event.

It seems Griffin isn’t the only one tiptoeing away from the book. As of this issue’s press time, there is no mention of Forcing the Spring on Jo Becker’s Wikipedia page, or for that matter, any Wikipedia page.

Too many eyes were watching the next phase of civil rights in America, litigated at the highest levels, for such a conspicuously narrow view of the big picture of marriage equality to stand. Consequently the book itself, and its Pulitzer-pedigreed author, became the news. When that title’s shine came off, it took some of its subjects’ shine with it.