The groups we call Gay Inc, namely the Task Force, HRC, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, Stonewall Democrats, LCR, GLSEN, GLAD, PFLAG, GetEQUAL, NYAC, GMHC, NCLR, NCTE, SLDN, SU, Freedom to Marry, Victory Fund and Equality Federation, have to promote themselves to maintain membership rolls to pay the bills. This is a good thing.
Increasingly, we've seen the leadership from these groups pop up in the media commenting on controversies and promoting their work. Ladies and gentlemen, this may very well be the most important work that these organizations do. We know that visibility is the key component to changing hearts and minds. People fear that which they don't understand. People don't understand things that are taboo, not talked about, never mention and aren't given exposure.
Though Gay Inc, may not always be talking from a script that you endorse, you can bet they're making inroads for you. The more visibility in the media that these organizations create, the more living rooms our issues enter, the more dinner table conversations happen and the more the public is moved on our issues.
This media exposure must come from prepped, media-trained members of the 'Gay Inc' elite, and not Joe Schmoe from the corner of Halstead and Belmont. Do you remember what happened when CNN went to "The Abbey" in West Hollywood to get reactions to Judge Walker's decision? We're better off having sober, suit-wearing folk speaking on our behalf with the right facts, than, say, drunk Phil Reese at a bar before he's had the chance to peruse Chris Geidner's analysis of the case, or Kate Kendall's column.
Akin to visibility is access, especially in DC. Now a lot of hubbub is made about the issue of organizations like HRC choosing access over swift success, and while the anger may be righteous, working to increase access to the halls of Congress and create inroads in the government are not bad goals. Gay Inc has the name recognition to set up meetings with big players to discuss moving forward. We don't necessarily see a lot of fruit from these meetings every time, but you can bet there's a benefit to having them.
If any Phil Reese off the street tried to get Chuck Schumer into a room with a bunch of other gay activists, that letter would go a long time at the bottom of a pile with no response (not even canned) before it was finally laughed at and thrown out. By building a reputation and a brand, Gay Inc also builds the attention of our legislators and our policy makers.
Gay Inc is a home for budding young activists
Face it. 90% of the folks reading this blog--as much as they curse the org most of the time--have some sort of equal sign decal somewhere on their stuff. Whether it's the bumper sticker on your car, or an old t-shirt from Pride long ago, the symbol is likely one of the first you identified with when coming out.
Most of us don't come out straight into activism and zealous participation. In fact, when the lion's share of us came out, the last thing we cared about was gay politics. It was sex, a social life and safety. For the vast majority of folks just stepping through the doors of openness and freedom, the nitty gritty politics that we discuss on this site have absolutely no appeal. Surely, most of the language we use on this site would be foreign to these folks. Enter your entry level activism at Gay Inc.
Gay Inc makes activism palatable for many budding young queers. Yes, it's true, most of what the previously mentioned Gay Inc-ers offer to new members in terms of "activism" activity amounts to little more than fundraising; just the act of joining HRC could be a big deal for someone who grew up in a conservative family in a conservative Midwestern town and just risked everything by coming out.
There is a model of identity formation that applies to 'coming out' called The Cass Model. The fifth stage of the Cass model is often nicknamed by us non-professionals as the "Pride Stage." This is when you have accepted your identity, you've embraced it, and now you want to start showing off your shiny new personal awareness to your friends, family and co-workers. Often picking up an "equal sign" mug and a Task Force mouse pad, and telling your peers that you're hosting a fundraising dinner for a Victory Fund endorsed candidate at your home can be the opening door to a much greater embrace of the community down the line.
Often the advocacy opportunities presented in joining these organizations is incomplete as one becomes more aware of the political complexity and nuance facing our community in our journey toward acceptance and equality, however, coming out and getting a little involved in Gay Inc is a healthy step in the right direction. After all, like many other activists my first taste of advocacy was with HRC. I eventually became a member of the Michigan Steering Committee, where I set up and led the first in-district lobbying visit ever with Dave Camp, a man notoriously avoiding our issues for decades, and who famously told two gay friends of mine who lived in his district "I don't have any gay people in my district."
By the end of that meeting, Dave Camp was well aware of the gay people in his district.
Building bridges/creating power
Folks often complain that gays and lesbians don't do enough to reach out to other movements to help them out, but this is simply not true. Look at any Progressive organization and you're going to find the top salary spots littered with queer folks. Your canvassers, the people with the leather to the street are often very very much dominated by queer people. These folks aren't there representing our issues, however. The fact that they're LGBT rarely comes up.
Gay Inc, however has always done a fairly impressive job of building those coalitions and partnerships with mutual goals and successes. The Task Force is famous for partnering with organizations outside of what we generally limit to our movement, and help bring awareness to many causes. Likewise, HRC often spends much of their resources at election time helping get elected good solid Progressives, gay or straight.
Gay Inc groups have partnered with environmental groups, women's rights groups, and most notably with health care reform groups during the contentious health care reform debates.
These partnerships not only assist us in building alliances with partners who can help us push our own agenda forward, but when we help improve the lives of others, and right wrongs, all of us benefit.
Create great gay jobs
I was having lunch in DC on Sunday with a friend who happens to work for that organization that shall remain nameless. He couldn't stop gushing about all of the cool projects they are working on there, and the good work they're doing this election cycle to help get Progressives into office. He's very proud of what he does and proud of what his employer does. Sure, we don't see eye-to-eye on everything that comes out of that big building on Rhode Island, but I had to concur, he is definitely working hard at a job that he loves doing the work he believes in. I can't say I wasn't a little jealous.
As a blogger, I don't get paid for this. At all. You know, you can say it's noble, I'm an advocate and an activist giving of my time... yeah yeah yeah. It's freaking difficult! I can barely find five minutes to write or take an action in a day. Especially when so many folks are pulling me in so many different directions anymore. There's so much to do, and just no time to do it.
If I could quit my job and make this work my full time job every single day, I would do it in a heart-beat. Imagine what more I could get done if LGBT advocacy was all I had to do?
The fact that Gay Inc finds work for budding, idealistic young activists is amazing. Throughout my life, I've known dozens of folks working at all levels at HRC, the Task Force and statewide organizations in Illinois and Michigan. As much crap as we bloggers give to Gay Inc-ers about what we perceive and assume is haughtiness, snobbery and nasty attitudes at the big DC orgs, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Save for a very strong exception, everyone I've ever met that works for 'Gay Inc' at all levels are really awesome folks who clock into work excited every single day ready to get to work fighting for what they believe in. I think it would be difficult to work at the Task Force or NCLR and get blasted all the time like an enemy of the community, when the opposite is actually true.
I am a big supporter of giving jobs to as many members of our community as possible, especially if those jobs are in the movement.
The power of positive vs. plunging pessimism
Finally, I appreciate what Gay Inc brings to the table because they are able to maintain a language of positivity while the gay media pedals pessimism. I mean, not always. Much of the time some of the best and most important conversations happening in our community are taking place on pages at Pam's House Blend or Box Turtle Bulletin, and of course Bilerico. However, let's face it. Our job as bloggers is to give Gay Inc a hard time.
As gay media struggles with a new paradigm, its up to bloggers to keep the heat on Gay Inc. However, sometimes we beat that dead horse beyond recognition. See, gory. We bloggers are dark, aren't we!
Gay Inc reminds us to have hope. "You gotta give 'em hope," as Harvey said. Bloggers are the canaries in the mine. We blow the whistle when we smell smoke. This can be exhausting for readers. If every time you open your MacBook, all you read is bad news, eventually you're not going to want to read the news. Gay Inc is eternally optimistic. Sure, its to a fault at times--but thank God we still got a cheerleader in the game when all hope seems lost. It keeps me going. It keeps us going.
Room for growth
OK, Phil, you love Big Brother, we get it.
Well, not all is well in Pleasantville. Areas of improvement I have already identified for 'Gay Inc' are the need to be more realistic, and along those lines, what's needed even more is openness and honesty. Though a lot of the strategy of Gay Inc must go on behind closed doors--I do understand this--its foolish of Gay Inc to constantly expect gay media to just trust 'em when they say "Don't worry, we got this. All will be revealed soon enough." We all know that when the big-wigs predict that big win, that big victory, we almost always fall short.
Lately, I've been quite impressed with HRC's powerful language and aggression toward Target. We need our big orgs to be a bit more pushy, a bit more edgy, a bit more frank. This will go a long way to building trust in the community, which is wary of the work of these big kahunas--all fundraising and little or no result.
Speaking of fundraising, I think one of the number one ways that these organizations can build better relationships with the community is by giving their membership more to do than just fundraise. Does HRC and Victory Fund do a hell of a lot more important work than just raise money? You bet. How do we know that though? Most of the good work HRC does, it pays its staff to do. When HRC is putting feet on the ground during election time, helping get more Progressives elected, its doing so with paid employees. HRC and all of Gay Inc ought to reevaluate its relationship with its membership, and leverage their members more for their people power than for their wallets.
Especially now, in these economic times, its hard for any of us to give like we did in 2004. We really need to see more opportunities to contribute that cost us far more in time and talent than in dollars and cents.
At the end of the day, Gay Inc is a necessity--whether you think that it's a necessary good or necessary evil. The shortcomings in our orgs are vast, but in the end, they are set up to accomplish much. Let's make sure they feel compelled to create those successes now.