Guest Blogger

LGBTQ Leadership: Going The Way Of America's Automakers

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 07, 2009 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics, The Movement
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Editor's Note: Guest blogger David Badash is a writer and the founder of The New Civil Rights Movement, a blog focused on gay rights and gay marriage.


Remember the Big Four Automakers? Who are now the Big Three Automakers. Maybe soon the Big Two Automakers, now that GM has declared bankruptcy? They had their glory days, but failed to see the coming change, spent too much time and money on misguided efforts, and ultimately lost relevance, credibility and the support of their customers. They grew too big, became loath to change, and are dying a slow death. The automobile will live on, but those companies that drove it into the twenty-first century, and themselves into bankruptcy, may not.

Just as the automobile itself was truly a vehicle for social change during much of the twentieth century, so were the Big Four. Not the automakers, but the main LGBTQ activist organizations: Human Rights Campaign (HRC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). The LGBTQ community now has grown up strong, thanks to our leaders, the Big Four. And I say thank you to the The Task Force, the oldest LGBTQ activist organization. Thank you to HRC. Thank you to the ACLU. And thank you to GLAAD.

I say thank you, and I say, goodbye.

Now, for the first time, the LGBTQ community is in a position of power. We are winning marriage equality, slowly but surely. Our goals are well-defined. They include passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill, repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), passage of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), as well as full marriage equality in all 50 states, all territories, and in Washington, D.C. We've won marriage equality in six states, hopefully seven (New York) before month's end. And yet, despite a clearer path and major successes, despite increasing public attention on our issues and rising public support, despite a Democratic Congress and Democratic President, the ire and anger within our community is at a level not seen, many would say, since Stonewall. And the big difference now, the sign that we've achieved critical mass: the anger is directed at our allies. Why? Because, when you're so close to achieving your goals, when you succeed despite the efforts of your leaders, and sometimes fail because of them, it's clear you need new ones.

The Big Four did their job. They drove us to the twenty-first century. But they didn't push themselves into it. Collectively, like the American automakers, they are old, outdated, ineffective, over-lapping behemoths whose lack of achievement demand they either declare bankruptcy, then refocus on their core competencies and truly re-create themselves, or turn over the wheel to the new leaders of our community: national grassroots organizations like Join the Impact, and local ones, like Mass Equality, Equality Maine, and One Iowa.

These are the groups that are able to mobilize hundreds of thousands, to get the attention of the media and voters, focus our energy and our message more efficiently, more effectively, without concern for the ways of the past, and without concern for their boards of directors. These groups are inter-dependent, act quickly, and can attack an issue from many different angles, because they're down in the trenches and accessible. They aren't thinking of themselves as leaders, but as partners, forging new ground. And they're successful because they care more about our cause than about their corporate boards and sponsors, if they even have any.

Contrast them with the old guard, the Big Four. The Task Force's main focus is developing and educating at the grassroots level. But they have fourteen different focuses and address too many tangential issues that have little to do with the success of our mission. For example, the murder of Dr. George Tiller. An atrocity, to be sure. But it has little to do with DADT, ENDA, DOMA, or, even, the Hate Crimes bill. And yet, the Task Force was quick to release a statement condemning it. Why? How much energy and time was spent on that issue, especially when three days earlier they had just begun their Twitter social media effort. Why has it taken them so long to begin to harness social media?

Or the Human Rights Campaign, which focuses on thirteen different issues. Which actually has had to start sending out emails that read "What has HRC done for me lately?". Which, recently, has been forced into the position of denying a close relationship with the White House and Congress, when it should be touting its ability to access and to partner with government on planning and executing strategy.

GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has done little to attack the Right Wing or to change the tone and perception of anti-gay Conservatives. How can I say this? Their websites do not even mention extreme Right-Wing blogger Michelle Malkin, barely mention Maggie Gallagher, President of the National Organization For Marriage, and only once mention Michael Savage, whose views are so outrageous he was actually banned from entering Great Britain. Can you name any three people in the media who have had more to do with defamation of the LGBTQ community?

The ACLU, which is not solely an LGBTQ-focused organization, has had its share of successes and failures, but overlaps many efforts and suffers an overextended focus.

And now, we have countless LGBTQ activists and organizations. Hundreds of dedicated bloggers. All acting independently. All acting on their own agenda. Most, if not all, looking for attention and funding. Most, if not all, overlapping efforts. Our diversity, which has always been our greatest strength, is now threatening to become our greatest weakness.

Here's what needs to happen:

Organizations like HRC, GLAAD, the ACLU, and the Task Force need to look at themselves and strip down to their most basic assets. Be the support services for legal, educational, media, and lobbying national issues. Embrace all the twenty-first century has to offer, starting with social media opportunities like Twitter and Facebook, YouTube and MeetUp. And act as background, technical support and capacity-building for the grassroots groups that are in the trenches, truly making a difference.

The ACLU should attack all our legal issues and court cases that deal with discrimination, hate crimes, the military, and marriage equality.

GLAAD should be our media arm, but partner with the Task Force, the ACLU, and the HRC. Let's get our messaging clear and into the right media outlets.

The Task Force should focus only on educating grassroots organizations.

Finally, the HRC, with new, better leadership, should be our representatives to government. They should be lobbying and creating legislative strategy to ensure successful outcomes on DADT, ENDA, DOMA, and the Hate Crimes Bill.

The Boards of Directors and CEOs of the Big Four should be in regular contact. The CEO of The Task Force should sit on the Board of HRC. The ACLU's CEO should sit on the Board of GLAAD, and so on.

It's time the Big Four start working together. End whatever old animosities they harbor, for the good of the community. Step back, give their power to the grassroots. The LGBTQ movement has once again become a grassroots movement. We no longer need the old guard, the Big Four. But it would be nice to have them, if they can learn to adapt. If not, we'll be happy to remember them fondly. Like General Motors.


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I'm kinda stumped, because this is a completely different way of looking at LGBT activism than most people would take.

For instance, you describe the goals of the gay rights movement as something that apparently we all agreed to (we did not, mind you), and then complain about certain groups focusing on too much. Like the Task Force... maybe right-wing terrorism and choice are important issues to the LGBT community? Maybe to parts of it that you don't care about, I'll admit. Gays often have a hard time seeing connections between "our" issues and those that of similar groups since I think a lot of our activism is defined by a sort of "me first" gay rights politics, but I would think that a man gunned down by the Religious Right because he was protecting women's reproductive choice would be an easy connection to make. Of course, I say that, and then I'm always later stunned by how deep gay tunnel vision runs.

And then you go on to hold up JTI as a good example. Weren't they recently criticized because they supported an action against the BART cops for shooting that man in Oakland a few months back? Of course I think it's great that they did, but, um, I can't really see the problem with the Task Force if JTI is one of the better orgs.

Ditto with Mass Equality. It's impossible to talk about why HRC is moving to irrelevance without discussing they various betrayals of the trans community (although you somehow manage to... should I take it you interpret "LGBTQ" to be a synonym for "gay men"?). And yet Mass Equality has fallen into the same traps... have they done any significant lobbying for trans anti-discrimination legislation in that state.

As for other state orgs, some a great and doing great work, others... not so much. But they've been around for a while and quite a few depend on HRC and the Task Force for fund-raising.

Why is the ACLU in this list? They're not an LGBT org, and they don't have an "overextended focus." Their primary focus has always been free speech issues, and they help out on other civil liberties issues when they can. Like our rights. If they're going to narrow their focus, we'll be the first ones cut out.

And what about GLAD, NCLR, and Lambda Legal, if we're going to get into legal groups? They're as old as any of the other ones, and they've had a few successes (marriage in Mass., CA, IA, CT, and overturning Lawrence v. Texas, to name a few of the larger ones). Why aren't they even discussed?

Actually, the more I think about it, the more bizarre I find it that the ACLU was included in this post. They're not an LGBT org, they're a civil liberties org that cares about our issues. It's ironic because the same logic applied here to the Task Force (stick with gay issues, not all those other ones that have nothing to do with gay people, like reproductive freedom and fighting right-wing violence!), if applied to the ACLU, would mean that many of the cases they worked on for us would have been forgotten or dropped.

The Boards of Directors and CEOs of the Big Four should be in regular contact. The CEO of The Task Force should sit on the Board of HRC. The ACLU's CEO should sit on the Board of GLAAD, and so on.

Um, why? That sounds like an awful idea. Sure, they bicker and in-fight as much as the rest of us, but there should be some independence between them. They don't all share the same politics or goals. Also, I don't know if the CEO's of the ACLU, GLAAD, and the Task Force have $50K a year in this economy to be dishing out....

Oh, well. Some things never die.

I love this. Very healthy. A garden with lots of flowers. Some people can stay with the old-line organizations. Others can join new ones or start their own. Money will find the organizations with energy and results.

Hi, Alex,

Thanks. I can see you put a great deal of thought into your comments, and I appreciate that.

My point was to make clear that in the minds of a great many people, these are the "Top 4" that come to mind when people think about which organizations have been leading the fight for LGBTQ equality. (These four were the first I thought of, and my thoughts were confirmed via a conversation with several people I have been having about this issue, via Twitter.) In short, my point was, these groups have been leading the fight, we're grateful for all they've done, but they've fallen down, made poor decisions, overlapped attention and effort, not recognized opportunities, like social media, and have often ignored the very groups who are taking the lead and made great strides recently in the fight for equality. Their lagging, siloed leadership has put our success in jeopardy, and that is unacceptable to me and to a great many others.

I think you can at least agree that right now there is a large and growing number of us who are becoming increasingly frustrated with this inefficient mode and lack of leadership. I hope you can agree that there are other groups who are doing a better job and need the support and fund-raising experience that should be offered by "The Big Four". Whether they like it or not, their role is changing. It's up to them if they become wise leaders whose job is to support a new and dynamic group of activists, or aging, out-of-touch and out-of-favor relics whose real goal, like so many right-wing organizations, really is simply to stay in business. I seriously doubt they want that role. I seriously doubt that's who they really are. But they need to, as I said, "strip down to their most basic assets" and start anew.

I would hope that no one would find it easy to dismiss the infighting you mention as par for the course. Backroom infighting and old grudges among leaders may be typical in business but have no place in our arena if they inhibit our progress or cause issues to go unresolved. I love a good debate, but at the end of the day, if the debate becomes more important than the issue, we're not really making progress, are we?

This was yet another of my "wake up" calls to our leaders. I am certainly not the only one saying it's time. Too much is at stake. If the groups I mentioned, and, to your point, many others, don't start working together, we may not find the equality we so desperately deserve.

Yes, I definitely left out a lot of issues. The greatest facet of our community is that it has no bounds. Our diversity is our strength. I think supporting each other is, in part, a way we can all help realize our goal of equality for all. No, we didn't vote on specifics, but don't you think that one is a good place to start?

As someone who's spent years volunteering and/or working for GLBT and HIV/AIDS organizations on the local, regional and national level, I'm pretty confident in saying that your "Big Four" have no monopoly on backroom infighting and old grudges. Believe me, give some of the younger up-and-coming leaders a few years and they'll have plenty of grudges of their own.

I don't say this to be dismissive of concerns about the direction and purpose of LGBT organizations, etc., because those concerns always have been and always will be valid. But just declaring that everyone needs to see the light that you're shining to make everything purr smoothly like a new sports car is a little hubristic.

Take the Task Force. I, personally, agree that as an organization their progressive approach to LGBTQI issues is far too broad. But, aside from my generic stature as a "G" in LGBTQI, the Task Force isn't developing its agenda directly for me -- they're developing their agenda because the people who make up the organization, from the board of directors to volunteers to donors, share that broadly progressive agenda. And the people who developed that agenda worked hard to make it that way, filling in what they perceived as gaps in the community's political advocacy.

The point is that political organizations serve a number of masters, and there are always conflicting and competing points of view. You set forth what you believe is the "agenda" for the LGBT community, but I know I would have more than a quibble with what you laid out -- there are things I would de-emphasize and things I would add in. It feels like a lot of people indulge in "grass is greener" thinking when considering the relative success of right-wing religious and social conservative groups that oppose us, when in fact those groups go through a lot of infighting, have nursed decades long grudges, and often have to manage different factions who have different beliefs about where their political movement should go.

Do you think the national organizations need to change their focus? Do you have people who agree with you and are willing to make the commitment to change? Then start working within the org as donors or volunteers or what have you and move that change along. Or, prove the value of next-generation social networking by harnessing it for the agenda you propose.If the current big gay organizations -- I really wouldn't include ACLU in that, myself, and their success overall on a broad range of issues kind of undercuts your argument -- have outlived their usefulness, they will change or wither or die, as long as the community at large is involved in the process.

Human nature is a messy thing when it comes to politics. We don't all like each other, we don't all share the same exact values, we all have varying priorities. Wishing for a monolithic agreement among all parts of the community is a bit like wishing for perfection -- it's a lofty goal that provides overall guidance, but unachievable (and even counter-productive) in day-to-day actions.

bigolpoofter | June 15, 2009 1:35 PM

While I'm no fan of HRC's focus on money and fabulousness and denial of Queer sexuality--homeophobes hate us for not conforming to gender roles, includuing whom we fuck, not whom we LUUUV--the approach to smearing Queer organizations with a networked view of oppressions, like The Task Force [which had been on Twitter pre-Tiller], sets up the scenario of Queers fighting for our stuff without the necessary linkages to allied groups. Tiller's murder to me was about abridging sexual freedom for me as a poly, kinky Queerman, ever bit as much as it was about limiting the access to legal reproductive choice for women in Kansas. Same for the murder of Stephen Johns in DC last week: the people who aim for Jews and people of color will come looking for a butch White asspirate in due time, and any queen who doesn't get that is fooling himself terribly.

But, then again, maybe class- and ethnicity-privileged Gay men and Lesbians need to fight for their stuff without the sympathies of Bisexuals and Transfolk whom we glom into a "community" with us, despite our relative ignorance about THEIR issues. Make that the same for the male-attracted women who have stood beside us through decades of death from AIDS, let them worry about their wombs on the own.

It may not take monolithic organizations to propel a movement or a national march [please, no!], but it's going to take faithful allies--not politicians who take our cash and betray us--to succeed. Bashing those orgs who execute well on this vision doesn't help the movement at all.