Power players and the fight for equal marriage

When California’s Proposition 8 passed in 2008 banning marriage between gay men and women it came as a shock. For most it was dismaying. Countries across the world were increasingly saying yes to gay marriage. Why would California that seemingly liberal enclave of vast Hollywood money vote for such a regressive policy?

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jo Becker says in her new history of the U.S.’s battle for equal marriage Forcing the Spring it was largely due to poor campaigning opposing the proposition and a population not so much vehemently opposed to the issue but largely indifferent.

Becker details the history of the marriage equality fight in exhausting page-turning detail from the introduction of Proposition 8 to its eventual defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It’s a thrilling read a thorough literate investigation that falls somewhere between historical tome and Hollywood drama. Appropriate considering the heroes and villains involved. (Who knew Rob Reiner was such a key player?) Hollywood’s power players appear here and there in the tale offering money legal fees and plenty of photo ops.

The fight begins with two Hollywood publicists Chad Griffin and Kristina Schake saddened by the success of Proposition 8. For Griffin a gay man the defeat stings particularly hard. The two resolve to fight in any way they can to overturn the ruling and restore marriage equality to California.

Enter Reiner one of Griffin and Schake’s many celebrity clients and connections. The two get connected with Ted Olson seemingly the least likely candidate for defending gay marriage. Olson’s last big legal assignment was spent advising George W. Bush during the contested results from the election in 2000. Past opponent David Boies who provided legal council for Al Gore over the 2000 election results joins him as co-attorney. It doesn’t get more Hollywood than that. For Olson the issue is a tantalizing challenge. (He agrees to take on the case for the “discounted rate” of $2.9 million plus expenses.) For everyone else it’s a simple matter of human rights.

Throughout Becker weaves the history of marriage equality in the U.S. showing how fraught the concept of allowing any but a white heterosexual couple to marry has been throughout the country’s history. Though the issue for many is simple — people should be free to marry whom they choose — it’s still bizarre to read of the myriad legal wrangling in defence of gay marriage. What emerges isn’t an issue of whether gay people should be allowed to voluntarily enter into a legal civil union but a defense of their identity. Becker describes the fight as lengthy and often bitter with each testimony providing a small victory. The court spins its wheels presenting copious (read: painfully obvious) studies and evidence showing how children raised by gay parents are just as healthy as those raised by straight ones.

It comes as little surprise then to read President Obama’s ineffectual comments on the issue (basically “let the individual states work it out; it’s not a national issue”) effectively ducking out of responsibility. The tune changed after Proposition 8 was overturned however with many Republicans coming out in favour of marriage equality. After all marriage is a solid institution and good for the kids something even the most staunch traditional conservative can get behind.

She describes the legal proceedings in great detail and relatively jargon free. Forcing the Spring really does feel like a Hollywood book ripe for adaptation. The only failing is that the drama concerns the players not the reader — unless you have religious or moral qualms about gay marriage it becomes exhausting to follow the legal team as they slowly chip away at the case. As Becker reminds us however cases like Proposition 8 and Roe vs. Wade only remain slam-dunks if we’re vigilant about upholding them. There’s always some ideologue out there looking to turn back the clock.

Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality by Jo Becker The Penguin Press 480 pp.