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Ann Rostow: Spring Forward, Fall Back

By Ann Rostow

Spring Forward, Fall Back

For two columns now, I’ve steered clear of discussing the insider book about the Prop 8 case, Forcing the Spring, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jo Becker. Initially, I was so incensed from reading other people’s reviews that I did not trust myself to broach the subject. Then, I felt it would be wrong to unleash a torrent of anger at a book that I hadn’t read, so I thought I’d at least skim the damned thing in a nod to professional ethics.

However, I can’t bring myself to do it. Here’s the bottom line. Every single analyst, commentator, gay activist or lawyer who has watched the fight for marriage equality over the last twenty years has gagged on this book. With no exception. Becker, who was embedded with Ted Olson and David Boies as they pursued their naïve legal fight for full marriage equality, ignored our sustained strategic drive for marriage rights and depicted the blundering (although well meaning) Olson Boies team as the authors of all the progress we’ve seen to date. This despite the fact that they came close to undermining equality for a generation!

Happily, the history books are not written by hero-worshiping journalists with limited exposure to the subject. It won’t be difficult for future analysts of the gay rights movement to notice that it was Windsor, not Prop 8, that carried the day at the High Court last summer. I suspect those future historians will also have a word or two to spare for the leaders of the fight for marriage, like Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto and Shannon Minter, and for the gay legal institutions that fought in lockstep, like Lambda, NCLR, GLAD and the ACLU.

We are where we are today, not because of Olson and Boies, but despite them. And that is the irritating thing about a book that will nonetheless resonate with all the people who don’t really follow our movement.

It’s like being embedded with Charles de Gaulle and writing about how he saved Europe. Oh, and about how stupid old Winston Churchill and arrogant Dwight Eisenhower kept getting in his way.

One of the worst things about the book is that, because of its obvious flaws, it misses a chance to put the Prop 8 narrative in the context of our movement. Risky as it was, the case returned marriage rights to California and served as valuable public relations tool. Olson and Boies are good men and meant well. A book like this does them no favors.

And Another Thing

And here’s another point I can make from my perspective of covering the fight for marriage since the mid-1990s. The hardest working legal activists have not been embedding journalists in their midst or writing books or posing for documentaries. They have been working. And they’ve been working together, despite the fact that these groups compete for gay dollars and therefore fundraise at cross purposes. For our legal organizations, the eye is always on the prize, and the prize is not a personal triumph; it’s equality for gay couples.

I don’t blame Olson and Boies for seeking the historical limelight. It’s very human. But this fight is for our lives. Ask any of our top lawyers whether they would like to see the High Court legalize marriage in two years with someone else’s case, or whether they’d like the Supremes to legalize marriage in ten years with their case. They will take the two years.

I originally put five years, but changed it because if I were a gay rights lawyer, I’d be tempted to let America wait three years in order for me personally to go down in history. But that’s just me.

I, Victim

This brings me to an interesting recent development. You remember Maggie Gallagher, right? She is one of the founders of the National Organization for Marriage and a strong anti-marriage activist. A month or two ago, she suggested that the battle was basically lost. But recently, she’s come out with another defeatist blog post.

Gallagher now accepts that marriage equality is inevitable, and she urges her colleagues on the right not to rant and rail ineffectively, making themselves ridiculous in the process. She recognizes that the gay rights movement is now joined by powerful forces in society that stigmatize antigay prejudice. She also sees that our lives, all our lives, are inextricably connected. The fight for traditional marriage, she implies, must come from a place of love and must incorporate this complexity.

Her suggestion is that the minority that remains committed to the non sequitur that “every child deserves a mother and father” should hold to their beliefs and fight in much the same way the GLBT minority fought to reach their fellow citizens. A civil rights movement of ideology if you will. Or maybe the same kind of strategy that has deepened the American discussion of abortion over the years since Roe.

Obviously, the gay rights movement has deep meaning for us. It has real repercussions. We have been shunned, we have confronted society with our humanity, and we have been embraced. As for the pro-life contingent, there’s a profound case to be made for the idea that life begins at conception, and there’s a legitimate corollary that leads many to oppose legal abortion.

But Gallagher’s oppressed minority, in contrast, doesn’t really have that much to fight for, does it? Are they’re fighting for the right to marginalize gay people? That’s seems to be their only rallying cry, and that does not a movement make.

Divided We Stand  

Gallagher’s blog post seems to have divided the right wing. The Jo Becker book pits the activist gay community against the head of HRC and a legal team that continues to fight for us (in the Fourth Circuit). Our society’s recent rejection of homophobia is dividing the “nice” gays against the “mean” gays. It seems as if tremendous progress is creating fractures.

It’s not surprising, and not that worrisome. Back in the day, not so long ago, we were universally despised. And it was (and still is) exactly that shared experience that held the GLBT community together. Lesbians in their sixties, young men with AIDS, MTF bankers, bisexual artists, drag queens, soccer moms, we had this in common: the rest of society thought we were perverts.

We are losing that glue, happily. Now we are held together by the remnants of that deep hostility, and by the legal inequities that still exist. Our history will hold us together a little longer, but the “GLBT community” will be the victim of its own success, disintegrating over the long term. The only people who think that’s sad are under 30 or live in San Francisco. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, of course.

We are fracturing. We have the luxury to disagree with our gay brothers or our lesbian sisters about priorities, attitudes, strategies. As for our opponents on the far right, they are in a rout. Some are changing their minds. Some are “evolving.” Some are looking to change the subject. Some are looking for a last ditch campaign.

One thing is true for both sides as these divisions materialize. No one is in charge. No one speaks for the GLBT community. No one speaks for the right. This movement is organic and ungovernable. And the opposition, in turn, has no choice now but to react to an unpredictable future. Well, not totally unpredictable. We will win marriage equality. And we will outlaw sexual orientation discrimination. But where we all go from there is the mystery.

NCLR $%^ing Rocks

I gather this issue comes out on the eve of the National Center for Lesbian Rights gala, and I was trying to add a few supportive comments on the subject of this, the best GLBT organization in America, but I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound sycophantic. My admiration for the NCLR makes Jo Becker look like Gordon Ramsey at a bad steak house. Not only is it boring to read, but it’s a violation of the gay writer’s obligation to remain objective when it comes to our community institutions. That said, I believe I am objective. I dislike a number of our big gay organizations (which will remain nameless) so my love for NCLR is fair and balanced in the larger context.

I guess it was 1992 or 1993 when I went to my first NCLR fundraiser, a classic office get together with plates of brie and cheddar cubes sitting on a desk in the entryway, and some women pouring white wine somewhere in the back. The affair was interrupted for the usual remarks from whoever was running the place back then, and well, the whole thing was fine.

Less than ten years later, every gay woman in San Francisco would be shelling out the big bucks to NCLR every year to dance the night away in some gigantic civic event center. And here’s the thing: That evolution is just a reflection of the evolution that has taken place in the organization itself. Almost all the money it makes rolls back into the community, not just funding marriage litigation, but making deep dents in hard problems through individual lawsuits, education and legislative work. This is the group that did more for family rights in the last 20 years than anyone else. They attacked discrimination in sports, bias against immigrants, the problems of seniors. They fought for transgendered men and women, for couples’ rights well before marriage equality was in reach, and the list goes on.

NCLR is powerful, effective, transparent and, as you can tell from the excitement I imagine is now building towards the annual bash, it knows how to have fun. Don’t forget we have the NCLR to thank for winning marriage rights in California back in 2008, and we wish them luck winning marriage equality in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Florida (to name a few).

Rereading this, I really should give them some money.

Virginia Is for Loving

Meanwhile, in actual news from this last week, it looks as if the three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is split 2-1 in our favor, and by “our” I mean Olson and Boies and company who are in this complicated litigation along with Lambda and the ACLU. Of course, we can’t tell what will happen based on the May 13 oral arguments, but we can speculate. One of the judges is an Obama appointee. Another is courtesy of Bush One. And the third was originally nominated by Clinton, installed as a recess appointment, and later confirmed under Bush Two.

And in Arkansas, a May 9 state court ruling in favor of marriage equality has opened a window for a couple hundred weddings as state officials scramble to shut down the parade.

You would think that oral arguments before one of the nation’s highest courts, and/or legal marriages in Arkansas would lead the “gay” news on Google, but no. Michael Sam’s brief televised kiss during the NFL draft was all the rage instead. Hey, I get it. But still.

I gather another pro football player sent a disgusted tweet into cyberspace, writing “horrible” at the sight of the man-on-man lip lock. The league fined him and he apologized in yet another example of the new zero tolerance for antigay rhetoric that now characterizes American social discourse. Politically correct? Maybe. But we’ve spent so many decades being on the other side of American groupthink that I believe we have earned our turn in the sunlight of majority opinion.

arostow@aol.com