By Melinda Guerra
I’m not old enough to remember the uprising at Stonewall Inn, the assassination of Harvey Milk, or the unveiling of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Except for the last, I wasn’t even alive for these events. While I was alive for the passage of DOMA, the adoption of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the murder of Matthew Shepard, I wasn’t aware that they were happening in my country, because they were happening in a world that seemed removed from my own. It is with embarrassment that I admit it’s only been the last decade of my life that I’ve begun to be aware of the incredible history of intense discrimination against those who identify as LGBTQ+.
This summer’s series of legal decisions have been steps toward the recognition of LGBTQ+ people as people — people with the same desire to marry, begin families, work, and rent or own homes as the rest of us. It’s been deeply satisfying to celebrate legal decision after legal decision striking down long-held discriminatory laws, and setting up precedents and expectations of equality in their place. While I have celebrated these decisions with my friends and family, I have not always been as aware as I should be of the long legal battles fought to get us from, say, 1969’s Stonewall Uprising (in a nation where being gay was considered a mental illness, and 49 of the 50 states had laws on the books criminalizing sodomy) to 2015’s legalization of equal marriage, allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The comprehensive, decades-long struggle to get to where we find ourselves today (continuing to fight, by the way, against the plethora of discriminatory practices still on the books) has been the work of many individuals and organizations, spanning different movements and generations, working together to inch the conversation forward piece by piece. Jo Becker’s Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality gives a snapshot of one piece of the story: an inside look at the five years from the passage of California’s 2008 Proposition 8 (denying gay and lesbian couples the right to wed in California after they’d been previously permitted to marry during a short window) to the Supreme Court’s 2013 ultimate decision that gay and lesbian couples could resume marriage in California, five years that set the stage for this summer’s landmark decisions.
Jo Becker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist on staff at the New York Times, takes us on an absorbing trip into the case, starting with its earliest inception on election night 2008 when California passed Proposition 8 (Prop 8), amending the state’s constitution to rescind the rights of gay and lesbian couples to wed. Chad Griffin, a political consultant, and his business partner Kristina Schake with whom he co-owned their Los Angeles-based communications firm, made a promise to each other to do what they could to help move forward the fight for gay marriage.
“ Most Americans did not realize that in more than half the states a person could legally be fired, denied a room at an inn or even an apartment just for being gay; no federal law prohibits such discrimination. Gays and lesbians could not openly serve in the military, and there were places in America where they were effectively banned from adopting children and could not as a matter of course make medical decisions on behalf of lifelong partners.
All of those battles were important, but Chad still felt that marriage was the right fight to choose. It steered the conversation toward principles of love and commitment, rather than rights and demands, and it showed that gay and lesbian couples wanted the same things in life as their straight counterparts.” — Pages 6, 7
We watch as Chad and Kristina, working with well-connected and invested friends, begin to pull together not only their legal team, but also the perfect plaintiffs to challenge the legality of Prop 8. Chad, on the introduction of a friend of a friend, meets with Ted Olson, a lawyer dedicated to pursuing (and winning) conservative causes (defending George W. Bush in the controversial 2000 presidential election, promoting school prayer, ending affirmative action programs, defending President Bush’s war on terror, and more).
Olson agrees to try a case challenging the legality of Prop 8 with the hopes of bringing it to the Supreme Court, and is eventually joined by David Boies, against whom he had tried the Bush v. Gore election dispute. Chad and Kristina find four plaintiffs (two California couples – one gay and one lesbian), and the tight-knit group begins what would be a process spanning five years that ended up at the Supreme Court after an appeal in California’s ninth circuit court, but that began with a trial in San Francisco.
“At their best, trials are like morality plays, transcending the awkward question-and-answer format to tell a coherent, compelling story. Each of the seventeen witnesses the team planned to call were there to illustrate one of three main points: that Proposition 8 was but the latest chapter in a long and odious history of discrimination against gays and lesbians; that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry caused them and the children they were raising great harm; and that permitting them to marry would not harm heterosexual marriages whatsoever.” –Page 75
I knew how the story ends — both the story of Prop 8’s journey and the story of equal marriage in the United States. I’d watched the case unfold in headlines, but reading Becker’s Forcing the Spring allowed me into the courtrooms and the conversations that took place between one day of trial and the next. Seeing the case unfold from a new and close angle was fascinating as both an ally and a reader. Becker’s book is detailed and personal, giving us the feeling of friendship with the characters, and letting us experience the emotional roller coasters along with the cast, no matter how much we thought we’d followed the case when it was happening.
There has been some conversation about whether Becker did a disservice to the rest of the people who have been fighting for marriage equality throughout decades, and I do understand their concern: in parts of the book, she seems to convey that the handful of people involved in this case were doing something completely new, elevating them to a position of pioneer that can ring a bit flowery at moments. But at the same time, telling a story requires focusing on your characters so crisply that, as in photography, the background can blur a bit. When held as a piece in the story – only one piece, but a piece none the less – Becker’s Forcing the Spring is both informative and riveting, and for the person interested in what it took to get to the exciting legal decisions we’ve celebrated this summer, it’s a great place to start.
Forcing the Spring is available now at Greenville Public Library.