With Forcing the Spring, Jo Becker writes a tour-de-force that is enhanced by its level of insider information to the story behind the 2013 Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry. Becker traces the case from its very inception, following the passage of Proposition 8 in California, eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry by ballot initiative, to the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court that the plaintiffs (supporters of Prop 8) did not have standing to intervene. This decision paved the way for same-sex marriages to continue in California. Given her access to many of the actors in the case as it was playing out, Becker is able to recount aspects of the story that would otherwise be lost to history – key decision points, development of strategy, and personal details that enrich the tale.
This book captures an important historical moment in the struggle for marriage equality and, on a grander stage, the LGBT+ movement, in general. In the context of civil rights, both to posterity and to perpetuity, Becker, in telling this story, makes a valuable contribution. This story recollects a pivotal moment in the marriage equality endgame. Certainly, despite the thrust of the narrative at times, marriage equality did not begin with the fight against Prop 8, but it does represent strategic key decisions made by dedicated individuals to take the fight to the end at this time, over the objection of more experienced voices, angling for a more pragmatic approach.
For people like me – ravenous readers of courtroom drama and/or advocates of marriage equality – this narrative nonfiction is one of the contemporary best in its genre. The author has a firm grasp of drama and successfully uses every literary trick to hook the reader. Even when I knew the outcome of certain situations, I was still traveling through the story with a heightened sense of suspense. This is no small homage to Becker. It is a monumental task for authors, in recounting historical events, to hook and maintain the reader’s attention as they are pulled toward a known outcome. In this book, Becker masters the art.
It cannot be overstated that the actors, especially the lawyers (Ted Olson, the man who successfully argued for George W. Bush in the infamous Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, and David Boies, the man who unsuccessfully argued for Al Gore in the same case) were taking a huge risk in seeking full marriage equality from the United States Supreme Court at the time that they did. Were it to fail, there is a very strong argument to be made that it would have set the marriage equality movement back years, if not decades. To some degree, the reason this is such a compelling story is because of the outcome – which is spun as a win for marriage equality when, at best, it was a draw, with the Court ruling that Prop 8 supporters had improperly brought the case). But, for all intents and purposes, this story could just as easily have been a loss (at one point, according to Becker, Boies puts their chances at success at 50/50), in which case, we would all be reading the heroic stories of those who cautioned against such rapid movement for marriage equality, and bemoaning the foolhardy arrogance of Olson and Boies. So, in a sense, while the book portrays this team as brilliant and calculated – that the stars aligned to bring these individuals together for this moment – there is a certain aura of luck cast over the events that tarnishes the carefully polished gleam, to some small degree.
Becker has received some criticism for advocating the story, to the detriment of narration. This is not unwarranted. The book is billed as a journalist’s inside story of the fight for marriage equality; however, there is a marked opinion to the telling. Becker, by her own account, supports marriage equality and clearly admires the team seeking to destroy barriers to marriage for same-sex couples (in the first paragraph she cleverly equates Chad Griffin, one of her protagonists, to Rosa Parks). Further than this, though, it is evident in the writing. When Becker does not have much access to an individual or does not find them appealing (either to the story or to her own liking), she writes things like, “Boies grinned. Some people become bashful when paid a compliment. He was not among them.” It is worth noting, however, that Becker was granted near full access to the Olson/Boies team, and almost none to the opposing team. As a result, much of the story is, necessarily, told from the perspective of those fighting against Prop 8 – which could explain why it appears to be such advocacy.
Becker also reaches to structure and support a narrative that marriage equality required the marriage (no pun intended) of conservatives and liberals alike. The author almost fawns over Ted Olson (the conservative) and his relationship with the story’s liberals. The reader is regularly reminded, via anecdote (and sometimes quite bluntly), that Olson and, by extension, his conservatism, is an indispensable tool in the success of marriage equality. She treats Ken Mehlman – a gay political operative who maneuvered George W. Bush’s successful 2004 presidential campaign – likewise. The liberal characters, on the other hand, while quite strong and influential activists in and of themselves, are often relegated to repeating how surprised they are that they actually like Olson and Mehlman. This narrative construct is, almost certainly, offensive to marriage equality advocates, such as Evan Wolfson, Tim Gill, and Andrew Sullivan (to name just a few) that dedicated their lives to the cause, and were given overt short shrift in this book. In fact, the author seems, at times, to take great pains to extricate herself from journalistic discipline, specifically to take petty potshots at these LGBT+ community giants.
In the end, the struggle for any author is appeal. In structuring the story the way that she has, Becker weaves a riveting tale, but the appeal may be limited. Despite her best efforts to cast a wide marketing net, best evidenced by her lionizing of a conservative’s dedication to the fight, her lack of journalistic narration might limit this book’s appeal to a relatively fixed audience – liberal supporters of marriage equality.