Rebecca Juro

HRC Credibility Crisis: Nobody Trusts A Liar And A Cheater

Filed By Rebecca Juro | December 09, 2007 7:44 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, The Movement, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: ENDA, HRC, LGBT, politics, queer, transgender

It’s a sign of things to come.

This week, Gay City News is reporting on a forum was held by the Human Rights Campaign at New York’s LGBT Community Center. A stop on what the organization is calling a “listening tour”, the perception of attendees was that this forum was about anything but actually listening on HRC’s part. Attendees are reported to have perceived it in quite the opposite way, with the main speaker, HRC’s Political Director David Smith, seen by many to be arrogantly insisting that only HRC can effectively advocate federal legislation on the community’s behalf.

The closest thing to an apology to the community for the way HRC has advocated the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was reported to be Smith’s statement, “We probably would not have played it out the same way,” when asked what HRC would do if it got a “do-over” on ENDA. Smith acknowledged that neither version of ENDA had a real chance of passing in the Senate or of surviving Bush’s veto even if it somehow did, and said that HRC sees the passage of a non-inclusive ENDA in the House as a first step toward an inclusive bill.

“When it was likely the bill was coming to the floor we thought it was important to pass that bill and build on that success,” said Smith. “We’re not going to stop until an inclusive bill passes and gets to a president who will sign it.”. Smith also contended that HRC felt having Congress vote on Congresswoman Baldwin’s amendment to restore protections for gender-variant Americans to the bill would have “…done enormous harm to the cause of transgender equality for many years to come…”.

While Smith was apparently doing his level best to sell his organization’s view of the political situation that they found themselves in regards to advocating ENDA in Congress, few, if any, of those in attendance were buying it. The reported reaction of those attendees questioned was one of complete and utter disbelief in Smith’s arguments and of his portrayal of HRC as an honest advocate of the entire LGBT community. The popular view expressed by those in the room was that both HRC and the Democratic Party leadership were far more interested in passing an ENDA protecting gays and lesbians at any cost, and, once resistance was met, protections for gender-variant Americans were quickly and easily jettisoned from the bill to help ease the accomplishment of that goal.

Also questioned was the credibility of HRC’s recent poll which purported to show that 70% of LGBT people supported going forward with the non-inclusive, crippled version of ENDA. Pauline Park, one of the founders of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and a frequent outspoken critic of HRC’s advocacy during this latest ENDA battle, opined at the forum that HRC "manipulated the poll data in order to give Barney Frank a pretext to eliminate transgender protections…”.

Steven Goldstein, President of Garden State Equality, an organization that was instrumental in helping to secure the passage of a bill which added protections for gender identity and expression to New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and a staunch advocate of transgender rights, echoed the sentiments of many when he told Smith in front of the audience of LGBT community members and activists: “You screwed up on this every step of the way and I don’t say that as an HRC basher.... You’re about to enter another land mine.” Goldstein also commended HRC for taking what he called their “humility tour”, and suggested that HRC’s President Joe Solmonese present the award to United ENDA when GSE honors the coalition of over 300 different LGBT civil rights organizations advocating for an inclusive ENDA at an upcoming event.

While I was unable to attend this forum myself, you don’t have to have actually been in the room to see the impact of HRC’s advocacy of ENDA has had on the greater LGBT community and its collective opinion of this organization quite clearly. The level of anger and distrust toward HRC here is palpable. Virtually no one in this community, regardless of their feelings about the correct path to take in advocating ENDA, still really believes anything the Human Rights Campaign says or trusts them to back up their inclusive rhetoric with positive action anymore.

It’s painfully obvious that the sacrifices made by HRC in order to remain in the good graces of powerful Democrats didn’t simply include honest and effective advocacy of basic civil rights for gender-variant LGBT Americans, but also their own credibility as a trustworthy advocate for the vast majority of the entire LGBT community. In addition, the arrogance exhibited by HRC in the person of David Smith in continuing to try to portray themselves as the only organization which can advocate effectively at the federal level on behalf of our community, despite the significant impact the lobbying efforts of United ENDA clearly had on many members of Congress, continues to facilitate and validate the popular belief that, in the end, HRC's true constituency is really no one other than the ultra-wealthy who make up HRC’s Executive Board and the continued influence in Congress of their own exclusive and elitist agenda. Smith’s statements made at this forum indicate that HRC has still not learned its lesson, that it still believes itself to be in a position to dictate our community’s political agenda, despite now being perceived as completely untrustworthy by the vast majority of LGBT community members and activists on all sides of our community’s issues.

Of course, none of this should really surprise anyone. It’s a lesson most of us learned as children: Nobody trusts a liar, and especially not a liar proven to be a willful repeat offender. Personally, I think what we’re seeing here is just the beginning of the real impact of the damage HRC has done to itself, its credibility, and to whatever effectiveness it might have once had as a community advocate before it squandered them in order to pander to the political cowardice of many House Democrats and their leadership.

I believe that we’ll see the true depth of the damage HRC has done itself here during the upcoming election season. Almost no one in this community trusts HRC anymore, and since a significantly higher percentage of LGBT voters are politically aware and active than is true for most American minority groups, I think we’re going to see many smart Democrats running for office this election season distancing themselves from the Human Rights Campaign in order to gain and ensure popular support from LGBT voters. One need only look at the fading candidacy of John McCain and his close ties with George W. Bush to understand the political perils of a candidate hitching their wagon to a political player and an agenda popularly discredited, disbelieved, and outrightly rejected by a majority of voters.

If there’s anything positive for HRC that can be said to have come of all this, it’s that at least some in this organization’s leadership are apparently finally recognizing that not only is there a problem here, but that it is they themselves who are to blame for it. The leaked internal HRC memo “Project Win Back” published at Transadvocate.com this week indicates that HRC is seeking ways to regain the trust and participation of transgender and transgender-supportive community members. However, what the comments contained in this memo and those of David Smith at the NYC forum also tell us is that HRC’s leadership is still unwilling to publicly acknowledge that they actually did anything wrong other than draw the righteous anger of LGBT Americans toward themselves and the way they’ve advocated ENDA. Until that happens, until HRC is willing to fully, honestly, and publicly own up to its failures and dishonesty in this effort and in its advocacy of the rights of gender-variant Americans in general, I can’t see how even the beginnings of a healing process and the potential restoration of even a portion of HRC’s former level of perceived credibility as a true and honest advocate for the greater American LGBT community can possibly occur.

Most of all, the very existence of the “Project Win Back” discussion tells us that HRC’s leadership is finally beginning to understand that they don’t operate in a vacuum, that their arrogance, their lies and misrepresentations, and the base betrayals it has perpetrated against the American LGBT community can and will have serious negative consequences for the organization, its credibility, and its political effectiveness, not only here and now, but also in the future going forward.

The angry, disbelieving reception David Smith received in New York is one I think we’ll see repeated consistently at future HRC “humility tour” stops and in the community reaction to their advocacy efforts in general. At this point, there’s just about no one in our community left who’s willing to publicly speak in support of HRC and its advocacy choices except for those within or closely aligned with the organization itself.

It’s only when HRC finally acknowledges that in order to be ever again considered credible or effective by the vast majority of the politically-conscious American LGBT community and those who support true LGBT equality it must begin to work transparently and in concert with the rest of our activist community, not only working honestly and exclusively toward the political goals embraced by the majority of this community, but also in undertaking positive, provable, and credible change in its leadership and its advocacy style to prove it to the majority’s satisfaction, that most of us will be willing to believe such change is even actually possible at the Human Rights Campaign.

It’s my belief that unless HRC acts quickly, directly, honestly, effectively, and above all, accountably, to address these issues it is they who will soon find themselves where the transgender community was for decades politically, on the outside looking in as the rest of the community advocates our interests and agenda without them. HRC has to know by now that their recent public behavior has effectively signed their own community credibility death warrant, politically prostituting themselves and their agenda to a point that cannot help but impair their ability to advocate effectively in Congress, as well as engendering a level of community distrust and disdain that cannot help but inspire many politicians looking for our community’s support in the upcoming election to eagerly distance themselves from this organization and the angering, divisive, and controversial baggage they’ve now saddled themselves with.

It all boils down to another lesson most of us learned as children: If you keep on lying and cheating your friends, eventually no one’s going to want to play with you.


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If I was in HRC... I'd recommend one of two things. There are two ways to go, one easy, one hard.
The easy way is to drop all references to "Transgender" from the Mission Statement and everything else, and be an unabashedly GLB-only lobby group. This would be a first tep at gaining credibility, and at least the HRC would be perceived as a neutral, rather than an enemy of T's. Yes, it *is* that bad at the moment.
The hard way would be to realise that there will be no co-operation from T's, but try to gain credibility by years of Good Works, despite having pariah status. Start with hiring Susan Stanton to replace the two T's who resigned recently. She herself will be labelled a "quisling", a "token tranny", and the latter may indeed be true. But it's the HRC's only chance of being GLBT not GLB only, no matter how hard it is on Susan personally.

And who knows, pigs might fly. But I'm not holding my breath.

HRC has to know by now that their recent public behavior has effectively signed their own community credibility death warrant, politically prostituting themselves and their agenda to a point that cannot help but impair their ability to advocate effectively in Congress, as well as engendering a level of community distrust and disdain that cannot help but inspire many politicians looking for our community’s support in the upcoming election to eagerly distance themselves from this organization and the angering, divisive, and controversial baggage they’ve now saddled themselves with.

I call bullshit. No one can seriously believe that the good Congress members are suddenly going to shut out HRC. They know which side their bread is buttered on. While I respect Garden State Equality completely, they don't give tons of dollars to politicians, wine and dine them and already have the inroads HRC does.

The NAACP has been in free fall for years, but that doesn't stop them from still being able to influence the halls of Congress. It's the history that they have the Congress members still bank on - it'll be the same way with HRC. For most politicians, it's better to work with the devil you know than the angel you don't.

Sad, but true.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that HRC is gone (although I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "bullshit" either). I do think that they're going to continue to have influence mainly because the very people who fund them don't really care about their actions. They didn't support the s/o only ENDA for kicks and giggles - they did it because they needed something to fundraise with.

Those activists who don't like HRC now aren't, unfortunately, the ones who make the decisions around there.

And I'm guessing that a lot of HRC supporters don't even know what the ENDA is, sadly.

Bil, I think you're underestimating both the damage HRC has done itself in terms of credibility and the inclination of politicians to run screaming the other way from anyone and anything that even smells controversial.

Consider all the bad press this has already generated for HRC in the GLBT papers, the blogs, and all over the net. You really think the pols don't know it? If they blog here, you can be sure they (and/or their staffs) also know what's being written about them and their political allies and enemies. My bet is that rather than risk an anti-HRC protest at their next rally or an HRC-bashing article or letter to the Editor popping up in their local newspaper with their name attached to it, they'll find another way to appeal to GLBT voters.

Alex, I think you're probably right that many HRC donors don't know what ENDA is, but they aren't the ones who are going to be publicly speaking out on HRC's behalf either.

In the end, I think that money is more important than credibility.

Mayb e I'm just cynical.

Money is no doubt king at all other times, Alex, but during an election season, credibility = votes = reelection. Most politicians aren't going to risk having their names dragged through the mud in the LGBT press during an election year for publicly allying with HRC when there are other alternatives available. All of HRC's money means nothing if their presence and connection with a campaign might cost the candidate a significant amount of support or even the election.

While I doubt it would have that kind of impact in the Presidential race (though honestly, who knows? The ripples of all this are still expanding outward), Congressional candidates need to be far more concerned with stuff like this as their electorates are much, much smaller, and the potential for damage to their campaigns that could be done by bad press in connection with HRC (or anything else for that matter)is correspondingly greater.

After a decade in Washington I came back to NY very willingly, because what Bil says is true - the establishment and polticians will work with the ones with the largest money, longest track record and most precieved clout. the folks who do this work on many issues are not built like most of us - compromise comes very easy, making deals is a sport or a challenge, not a gut wrenching decision, and power is the aphrodisiac of choice. ask me why so many people in general are down on the process? it is barely a democracy and stinks with hypocrisy

Cathy, I'm sure many candidates will happily take HRC's money, but that's not the same as allying themselves with the organization publicly on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton, for example, takes more big business money than any other candidate, but how often have we seen her publicly touting or even acknowledging those affiliations? The fact is that she and her staff know that to do so would cast her (correctly) as in the pocket of corporate interests, so all the while she's accepting those checks, she's also avoiding any mention of it.

At the Congressional, state, or local levels, the stakes are far higher. A flurry of bad press, for whatever reason and regardless of its actual validity, can easily end the viability of a campaign...just ask Michelle Bruce. I believe that especially in those races, candidates will be far more cautious about who they publicly ally themselves with.

There's also another factor involved here, one that's fairly new to the electoral scene: the blogs. Bloggers tend to dig deeper for dirt than most of the mainstream media, and when that dirt is published on a popular, well-read blog (like this one, for example) the potential for negative impact to a campaign among blog readers (many of whom are bloggers themselves) can be far more devastating and wide-reaching than simply that the readership of particular blog itself.

Take the ENDA debacle, for example. At first, it was just the LGBT blogs covering the story, then, a few weeks later, the LGBT-relevant papers and other more mainstream media picked up on it. A couple of weeks after that, HuffPo and other progressive blogs, followed by stories in the NY Times and the Washington Post.

This sort of thing has happened over and over and over...where did the Larry Craig story come from? Bob Allen? Mark Foley?

I'm betting that many state, local, and Congressional Democrats running for election or reelection just aren't going to want to risk that kind of controversy being associated with their campaigns and so they'll do what pols usually do and stay as far away from it as possible, especially if the anti-HRC protests continue to happen everywhere HRC stages any sort of public event these days.

I can tell you for a fact that this is far from over. HRC is now seen as the enemy by many transactivists and progressive allies, and you're going to see more protests in the future. More protests = more negative media coverage = pols wanting their names anywhere but associated with it. You really think a progressive candidate running for Congress is going to want his or her campaign publicly associated with an organization that draws LGBT community outcry, protests, and public condemnation from fellow progressives? Personally, I don't think so.

I believe those pols will err on the side of caution, privately take HRC's money, but publicly avoid any association with the org whatsoever. In an election season, especially if it's a fairly tight race, it's just too much of a risk for many of them.

Carlos Montano | December 10, 2007 1:52 PM

I stopped supporting HRC a few years ago because I got exceedingly tired of the amount of funds they spent on glitzy marketing materials (which they sent to me, a donor, rather than someone who might actually benefit from the information), while not making much of an impact on policy in Washington. While I do think that the attention they draw to GLB (and when it suits them, T) causes is a good thing, I would really like to know when, if ever, they have changed a vote in congress. I'm increasingly convinced that those who would support us do it because it's the right thing to do, and those who do not are not going to be influenced by the HRC. It boils down to principle; some politicians have it, most don't, and the HRC is lacking in it. I just don't see how they make a great difference.

I think that HRC re-established their broader credibility at the last moment with their real constituency: the apparently vast number of gay and lesbian citizens for whom trans issues, while lamentable, are not worth redirecting their own goals.

For that reason, Zoe is exactly right. They would do best to simply remove "transgender" from their mission statement and tag line. Of course they won't, so they will have to continue to endure an undercurrent of suspicion from their rank and file.

Val, I don't think that constituency is quite so vast as some believe. Taking HRC's highly questionable October poll out of the picture, support among average Americans polled in polls actually considered credible indicates between 60-70% of Americans support protecting transpeople from discrimination, a number far higher than those supporting same-sex marriage.

Now translate that figure into the LGBT community, and you being to understand why HRC no doubt felt the need to massage their own poll results to get a figure that would back up Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi's craven sellout of the poorest and most disenfranchised LGBT Americans.

I don't think the number translates, Rebecca. HRC doesn't (claim to) represent Americans in general, they represent the minority defined by a sexual activity. And the greater part of that minority is focused on issues that they believe are directly relevant to exactly and only that: policies that address how their sexual activities affect their status as citizens.

HRC is not a "progressive" organization, nor really are its main constituents.

At least, that's the way I see it. One thing we might do - if such a thing is possible through public records - is keep track of their paid membership and actual funding, as they struggle to strike a balance between lipservice and realpolitik.