Forcing the Spring
An Excerpt From
Forcing the Spring

Standing before the audience of donors in Nevada, Dustin Lance Black--winner of the Academy Award for best original screenplay for Milk--knew before uttering a word that he was in for trouble. Hours earlier, he had been confronted in the hotel’s courtyard by Evan Wolfson, the fifty-two-year-old founder of a group called Freedom to Marry and the primary author of the cautious state-by-state marriage strategy that the gay rights movement had been pursuing.

Wolfson had berated the younger man, explaining as though to a willful but ignorant child his ongoing, twenty-five-year plan to build support for marriage equality nationwide. Twenty-five years? Black had practically gasped. But he had said little; it was intimidating, to say the least, to be dressed down by a pioneer of the marriage equality movement.

Wolfson had devoted his life to the cause, writing his third-year thesis at Harvard Law School in 1983 on the right of gays and lesbians to marry, an idea considered so radical at the time that he had trouble finding an academic adviser. He had served as co-counsel in the first state court case challenging a same-sex marriage ban, filing a lawsuit in the early 1990s in Hawaii. He had won the case but lost the battle when voters there enacted a Prop 8-like constitutional amendment. His book on the subject had been called “perhaps the most important gay-marriage primer ever written.”

Following the encounter, a shaken Black had called Chad Griffin in his room for reassurance.

There was, both felt, a generation gap at work. Younger activists like Chad and Black had grown up in a relatively safer world, where gays and lesbians were not forced to congregate in bars with no windows for fear of being raided and attacked, where courts did not routinely strip custody from gay parents in divorce proceedings, and where they saw themselves reflected positively in television shows like Will & Grace. It was easier for them to envision success now.

“This just means we are doing the right thing,” Chad had said.

Still, it was with some trepidation that Black launched into his speech. Following the passage of Proposition 8, he told the crowd, he was shocked when a leader of one of the largest gay rights organizations in the country offered this advice: “He said, ‘If we just quiet down, they’—whoever they are—‘will let us do whatever we want.’

“Those are the words of one of the leaders of our current organizations, and as a student of Harvey Milk, I will tell you they are not just the same ‘kind’ of people who told Milk it was too soon for a gay elected official back in 1977— some of them are the very same people.”

The movement was at a critical juncture, he continued, and “as Martin Luther King said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, ‘This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.’”

Full equality, he said, could only happen at the federal level.

“The strategy of the past decade has failed,” he declared, a direct rebuke to many in the audience. “We have lost state and local fights time and again.

“It has been thirty years since Harvey Milk gave his life in our struggle for equality, and we will not wait thirty years more. It is time for us to stop asking for crumbs and demand the real thing.”

If there was applause, Black didn’t remember any. Instead, he recalled an ocean of pursed lips and crossed arms, and that he was literally trembling as he walked off the stage. Wolfson was silently seething. The idea that this newcomer thought his strategy timid and incremental infuriated him; no one wanted full federal equality more than him, but national change required more than wishful thinking.

“Harvey Milk didn’t start by running for president,” he later grumbled. “He ran for city supervisor, and he ran and lost twice before he won.”

Tim Gill, whose foundation was the largest funder of gay rights causes in the country, denounced Black outright, telling the crowd he was naïve and misguided. Chad, who was standing in the wings with Bruce Cohen, was shocked at the level of open hostility. After all, Black hadn’t even specifically mentioned marriage or a federal lawsuit.

“Chad was saying, ‘Oh my God, we are going to be loathed and hated. How are we going to sell this?’ ” Black recalled.

And things were about to get worse.

Forcing the Spring

Forcing the Spring

Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality