By Michelle Lin
On the evening of April 28, National Public Radio station KPCC hosted a panel discussion at the Crawford Family Forum titled “Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality.” This program discussed and promoted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jo Becker’s newly released book, Forcing the Spring.
The panel included San Francisco attorney Terry Stewart and Liberty Hill’s former executive director and longtime social activist, Torie Osborn, who has also served as Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.
KPCC reporter Frank Stoltze moderated the discussion, leading audience members through Becker’s account of the fight to restore the marriage equality to gay and lesbian individuals in California. Forcing the Spring documents the fight to overturn Proposition 8—the California ballot initiative that removed the right of gay men and women to marry—following the lawyers, plaintiffs, and political stakeholders in the case. While some commentators have heralded the book as thorough and a definitive account of the battle for same-sex marriage, a number of gay rights activists believe her story grossly misrepresents the importance of many who contributed to the movement, and say the book is a “distortion of history.” This panel convened to discuss both the content and the controversy.
In Forcing the Spring, author Becker tells an insider story on the fight for marriage equality, starting with the initial efforts to stop Prop 8. Becker, an investigative reporter, became interested in the story after she learned that Ted Olson and David Boies, the two lawyers who were once opposing counsels in the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case, were now joining forces to challenge the constitutionality of the California proposition. Becker went on to gain “unfettered access to all that was going on,” in the Hollingsworth v. Perry case (filed on behalf of two same-sex couples to block Prop 8) for her behind-the-scenes account of the battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the resumption of same-sex marriages in California in June 2013. She spent more than four years with the plaintiffs’ legal team, following the lawyers and litigants in the Perry case.
Forcing the Spring tells the story of how gay activists and Hollywood liberals enlisted attorneys Olson and Boies to challenge Prop 8 before the Supreme Court. The case used a risky strategy that shifted from focusing on winning state by state, to winning at the national level.
In the end, although the Supreme Court did not rule that Prop 8 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it did allow same-sex marriage to continue in California based on the trial court’s original decision. Nevertheless, many observers recognize the 2013 United States v. Windsor decision by the Supreme Court as the crucial win that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and has since been used to bring down same-sex marriage prohibitions across other states. Given the weight of the Windsor case, many have criticized Becker for spending so little time in her book on it, although the author gives detailed descriptions of the development of the case’s strategy, the process of finding the perfect plaintiffs, and even U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s personal connection to one plaintiff’s story.
As for her book’s title, Becker chose it from a line from Bill Clinton’s first inaugural speech representing a change that was coming with a new generation of millennials that didn’t understand why people were even debating marriage equality. This is ironic given that as President, Clinton signed DOMA into law.
During the discussion, Torie Osborn described Forcing the Spring as “phenomenal” and “quite the page-turner,” but she expressed concerns with the book portraying the idea that single cases change history. She reminded listeners that evening that “people make history” and she expanded the context of Becker’s story by talking about the hunger for fresh thinking and civic engagement on the part of the LGBT community and its allies after the passage of Prop 8.
She described what a “cataclysmic” moment it was when more than 18,000 gay marriages were overturned, a moment that regenerated the grassroots base to organize for change and sparked a new generation of activists. She revealed that the actions on November 15, 2008, when thousands of people flooded the streets to protest the proposition, were fueled by rage and anger and organized by the grassroots group Join the Impact.
In regard to the flack Becker has received about pinning the start of “a revolution” to the moments after Prop 8 passed, Torie Osborn commented that the struggle had a rebirth in that moment but it was in no way the beginning of the LGBTQ movement.
When the Jo Becker was asked about her opening statement, “This is how a revolution begins,” she clarified that she had not set out to write the history of the gay rights movement but to write about one case. She concluded that revolutions happen because of “each and every person that tells their story” and stated that at the end of the day, change doesn’t happen without people who organize.
Now that’s something everyone can agree on.