Rewriting Gay History: The Honeymoon Is Over


Gay_Marriage_cuteBy Hank Plante
Special to Calbuzz

Now that the history of the gay rights movement is being written, and with the battle over same sex marriage looking like a fait  accompli, there is another war brewing — over who gets credit for the win.

A new book and a new film on gay marriage clearly give the victory to two straight lawyers and one gay political operative who won last year’s Supreme Court case, which threw out California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and which gutted the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The author of that book and the producers of the film are all touting “exclusive access” to the legal team and plaintiffs, which should be your first clue into whose story is being told:  the people who provided the “exclusive access.”  But where does that leave  all the other activists who have been fighting for gay marriage for years, and even decades?

mcconaughey_dallas_buyers_clubThis scrubbing of history is similar to what happened in Matthew McConaughey’s AIDS film, “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Watching that movie you’d think that the battle for access to AIDS drugs was singlehandedly won by a straight redneck from Texas.  Forget the role of “Act Up,” the AIDS activists in every city and the scientists worldwide who demanded — and got — action.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise on Oscar night when McConaughey thanked himself during his acceptance speech, adding, “Because my hero is me.”

In this newest draft of gay history, the case of same-sex marriage, a new book by New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jo Becker is being rolled out this weekend with a Times Magazine cover story headlined, “How the President Got To ‘I Do’” On Same-Sex Marriage.”

The book, called “Forcing the Spring:  Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality,” tells the now-familiar tale of gay political consultant Chad Griffin, backed by Hollywood’s Rob Reiner, forming a new group called the American Foundation for Equal Rights. They then brought together the legal dream team of liberal David Boies and conservative Ted Olson to challenge the constitutionality of Prop. 8.  The drama is helped by the fact that Boies and Olson were on opposite sides of the Bush v. Gore recount case in 2000.

There is good detail in the book, including the fact that while President Obama was “evolving” on the issue, he sought advice from former GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman over lunch at the White House.  (More drama:  Mehlman came-out as gay after leaving his GOP chairmanship.)

And, as if that isn’t enough irony to sell the story, the book reveals that the chief lawyer defending Prop. 8’s marriage ban, Charles Cooper, has a gay stepdaughter, and that Cooper and his wife are now helping plan the young woman’s marriage to her partner.

Andrew_Sullivan_croppedWhat history is missing: But it’s what’s not in the book that has riled influential gay journalists like Andrew Sullivan.

In his blog The Dish this week, Sullivan slams author Jo Becker’s “troubling travesty of gay history.”

He criticizes Becker for, among other things, writing that until Chad Griffin and Rob Reiner came along, gay marriage “had largely languished in obscurity.”

That comes as news to those of us who reported on the lines of gay and lesbian couples around San Francisco City Hall in 2004, when newly-elected Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Becker also ignores the three couples who sued the state of Hawaii to get married way back in 1990.

But what probably really got under Sullivan’s skin most was the book ignoring his own magazine cover story in 1989 laying out the conservative case for gay marriage.

Mary Bonauto at Same-Sex Marriage ForumThere is also no mention in the book of the lawyer who actually won the right to marry in Massachusetts in 2003, Mary Bonauto. Former Congressman Barney Frank has called Bonauto, “our Thurgood Marshall.”

Nor is credit given to the successes of other activists like gay rights attorney Evan Wolfson, who founded the group “Freedom to Marry” in 2001.

The politics behind the fight: But there was never any love lost between Chad Griffin’s American Foundation for Equal Rights and the more established LGBT rights groups like Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California and the ACLU, all of whom worked on the gay marriage issue for years.

In fact, Griffin’s group sued to keep them from intervening in the Prop. 8 case, with Griffin writing to them, “You have unrelentingly and unequivocally acted to undermine this case even before it was filed.  In light of this it is inconceivable that you would zealously and effectively litigate this case if you were successful in intervening.”

Griffin’s reward was to be named head of the most powerful gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, with its 1.5 million members.

As for the upcoming film, it’s called “The Case Against 8.”  It is showing at film festivals now and will premiere on HBO on June 23rd.

The movie promises what the Hollywood Reporter calls “exclusive, behind-the-scenes access” to the lawyers and plaintiffs in the case.

“Exclusive access?”  That comes as a surprise to those of us who covered the case from day one, since we couldn’t get the lawyers and plaintiffs to stop talking even if we wanted to.

So why is it that relative newcomers on the gay marriage scene are being hailed as heroes who won the battle with little help from others in the past?  Sullivan attributes it to “access-journalism.”  Let the writer or filmmaker inside the tent and you can shape the tale.

HankPlante2Or better yet, consider the lesson of John Ford’s 1962 classic, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Jimmy Stewart gets the fame and credit for shooting Valance, even though John Wayne actually did it.  When Stewart tries to set the record straight, a reporter tells him, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Sometimes the legend makes a better book or movie.

Hank Plante is an Emmy and Peabody-winning journalist who covered the Prop. 8 trial and the gay rights movement for KPIX TV/CBS 5 in San Francisco.  He is the Palm Springs Bureau Chief for Calbuzz.

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There are 3 comments for this post

  1. avatar eidolonnyc says:

    And here’s one way history gets rewritten, Hank — even in an article as thoughtfully written as this one. The Prop 8 case had NOTHING to do with DOMA. The Windsor case overturned DOMA and is the basis for all of this year’s court decisions in the states. Don’t let Griffin & company and their six million dollar case take credit for what GLAD and others did pro bono!

    • avatar cawaterguy says:

      It seems like there was a lot more honor in all the lawyers who fought and won some of the key civil rights cases in the 1950s-1970s. Less cocktail receptions and awards dinners. Less fodder for political resumes. Less $350/hr billing.

      Or maybe Atticus Finch was just doing all that stuff so he could talk about it when he one day runs for Lt. Governor 😉

  2. avatar Tony says:

    Good work, Hank! Credit should also be given to retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren, the first judge whose ruling permitted same-sex marriages to continue.

    Warren, who is openly gay and the grandson of the late US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, refused to issue an injunction against San Francisco’s first round of same-sex marriages in Feb., 2004 literally because of a semicolon. He ruled that a conservative group’s petition to stop the marriages could not be accepted because it contained a semicolon where there should have been the word “or.”

    In one of the greatest understatements of our time, Judge Warren said, “That semicolon is a big deal.”

    As a result, about 4,000 same-sex couples received marriage licenses in San Francisco until the weddings were stopped by the state Supreme Court a month later.

    –Tony Russomanno, Santa Cruz

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