Matt Foreman

How HRC Can Partner with the Larger Community

Filed By Matt Foreman | November 09, 2011 12:01 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: HRC, Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Campaign Fund, Joe Solmonese, new leadership

imagine.jpgImagine.

To many of our opponents and even to many allies, the LGBT movement is a cohesive force for change. But despite our undeniable successes, particularly at the state and local level, we are not as cohesive as we might appear. And we are certainly not as cohesive as we could be. The reality is that we are two separate movements: the Human Rights Campaign and everyone else.

Imagine if we could get past these divisions and present a truly united front in the fight for complete equality for LGBT people. There is a chance to do this right now, as the HRC Board of Directors works to name a successor to its president, Joe Solmonese, who will be stepping down in March.

Because HRC's budget accounts for half of all the policy advocacy dollars now flowing into the movement, the extent that the HRC board makes partnering with the larger community a priority for its new leader will have a huge impact on how quickly we achieve the changes that all of us want to see.

I need to start by saying that over the years I have had the privilege of working with some exceptional HRC staff, and I can point to numerous examples where HRC collaborated in a positive way with state partners on legislation, ballot measures and other activities. In addition, there's no denying HRC's remarkable prowess in branding and fundraising and its singular access to power brokers in our nation's capital.

That said, the cause of LGBT equality has suffered because of a deficit of trust and a surplus of ill will between HRC and the rest of the movement. Sure, a certain amount of conflict is to be expected whenever national organizations work with state and local ones or whenever organizations of widely varying sizes and with widely varying resources try and work side-by-side. Turf fights are part of institutional life, gay or straight.

But the divisions between HRC and others in the movement cannot be explained away as an unavoidable by-product of movement dynamics. Over 18 years, as executive director of a local, a statewide and a national organization, I saw firsthand how HRC had a tendency to undermine movement unity. They would undertake new initiatives or announce unhelpful positions in policy areas where they had little or no expertise; they were unnecessarily vague and secretive about meetings they were holding and about people and organizations they were working with; they would take credit for things in which they'd never even been involved.

In talking with dozens of leaders in the movement, I have heard these same types of complaints again and again. People say they are reluctant to share core work, contacts or strategies if HRC is in the room (and it's clear that HRC feels the same way about others).

Some donors try to brush off these complaints as "petty infighting" they think is pervasive in the movement. But the truth is there is a surprisingly high level of personal and professional collegiality and collaboration among the other leaders in the LGBT movement. Of course, there is the occasional scrape and we can't sing "Kumbaya" all the time, but people usually work out their differences. A case in point: the largest four national legal organizations in the movement have to resolve potential turf, strategy, donor and media conflicts all the time. And then there is the New Beginnings Initiative, a collaboration of two dozen national organizations that has successfully pushed more than 30 significant federal policy advances, and resolved thorny, power, tactical and "access" issues every step of the way.

The impact of the movement divide between HRC and others goes far beyond time wasted on organizational piques. Resources are squandered in overlapping and sometimes conflicting lobbying and educational campaigns. Over the years, this has contributed to an array of missed opportunities - including early passage of hate crimes legislation, ENDA falling off the table (again), and the lack of LGBT people appointed to cabinet-level posts. No matter whose version of the facts you believe, it's clear that the lack of an agreed-to strategy nearly killed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" multiple times. The fact that HRC and the rest of the movement put forward two separate agendas for federal agency policy reform to the Obama administration in early 2008 is one of the reasons why this work got off to such a painfully slow start.

Faced with mixed messages and a lack of clarity from the movement, legislators and policymakers feel free to throw up their hands and avoid taking action on issues that very clearly could bring real and lasting benefits to LGBT people. They freely break promises claiming so-and-so said it was OK in some closed-door meeting.

As the members of the HRC board weighs the next steps for the organization they lead, let's imagine an alternative to the recent state of affairs...

  • Imagine if HRC's political donations were actually in sync with those of Gill Action's Political OutGiving program and the Victory Fund's work to elect LGBT people to office.
  • Imagine if organizations with deep understanding of specific issues - the needs of gay families, bullying or anti-LGBT violence, work in communities of color or faith, marriage equality, etc. - could partner with, rather than compete with or work around HRC on their specific priorities.
  • Imagine if the grassroots, grasstops and financial clout of the LGBT community was brought to bear in a focused way on our top priorities.
  • Imagine if HRC partnered with Equality Federation organizations and local groups to build their collective power, lists, fundraising bases and expertise.
  • Imagine if information and leverage points were shared honestly so that our community could start playing legislators and policymakers the way they play us now.

Can you imagine?

I can. Let's hope that the HRC board of directors can, too. Because if they do, then we all win.

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Great article, Matt. We can only hold out hope that the HRC selection committee will hear all of your words and those of others who have written about the possible next HRC president.

TAVA didn't need HRC to get the new VA directive for trans veterans. NCTE was our only ally in this fight. They also didn't take credit for it. However, our next fight, getting trans people to serve openly in the military, they can be a help to us. Some of TAVA's board members are not happy about it and don't want them at the table. I'm thinking that since Joe is a lame duck president, we may get better cooperation from them. Time will tell. If we get this issue taken care of, they may want to be a bit cautious about taking credit for it.

Angela Brightfeather | November 9, 2011 9:14 AM

As one of those Board members of TAVA who feels the way about HRC that Monica mentioned, I think it is necessary to understand that the issue of sitting down with HRC should not be an issue when talking about major policy decisions and getting people to the table to organize around a specific objective....but it is, and it is devisive to all of our groups. That is how deep the feelings go about HRC.

Another example of how destructive HRC has been is the fact that they have recruited and sought to recruit state GLBT people who have done signifigant work at the state level to be noticed and they have held their organization in DC as the "guiding light" and the magnetic objective for any GLBT leader who has had the steel to fight for the community. They are the ultimate and best paying and connected job inside the beltline, thus robbing states of their best and most affective forces. HRC has constructed a "filtering machine" that links with state equality groups, tests the loyalty of their leaders and then recruits the best of the bunch to work in DC.

You mentioned taking credit for minimal input and backing on issues. That is one of the most maddening things about what they do. Humility and crediting their base, is not an HRC component.

Using the money of contributors to produce instant polls like the one on ENDA that took the air out of it just when it was needed the most and putting their place at political tables over the best and most needed legislation of their supporters, contributors and members, or just the GLBT Community in general is another example of things needing an immediate fix.

But in the end you are correct. If, becomes a big word with HRC because no one is ever sure on how their bottom line will decide in the end, thus eroding any trust, but they do carry a big stick and they could be so mush more binding and cohesive in our community. It isn't always the poll numbers that should guide an orgnizations priorities. Common sense needs to be the rule. It's hard to justify anyone getting married, when they can be fired in a heartbeat for being GLBT and aren't able to support a relationship. Just ask anyone who is married.

HRC should be the GLBT Communities biggest asset. But instead they ahve become it's biggest divider.

Once trust is lost it is very hard to reestablish.

HRC has sold out the trans community too many times for it to be talking about unity. The organization is big on words, but its actions speak far louder.

I cannot fail to notice the similarities in the tarnish on the lusters for both HRC and the GOP. Both have, at least at times, championed their own brands so extremely that the good of all seemed not to matter. Like the GOP wanting the Obama Administration to fail even if it hurts America as a whole, HRC has sometimes favored its organizational brand and positions of power in ways that ultimately worked against the good of all LGBT people and/or the goodstanding of our political efforts.

In a word, to re-build trust between HRC and the rest of the LGBT political world, HRC needs to be less a promoter of HRC and more a champion for all of us. If they cannot re-gain and maintain this balance, then they don't deserve to be the largest and best-financed organization in our neck of the political woods.

Finally, if HRC wants to re-establish trust, they also might begin explaining why they find it necessary to sit on a $20-million-plus reserve fund, while no other LGBT organization from horizon to horizon comes near to doing anything similar. Donated resources need to be channeled toward the activities at hand, not socked away and hoarded as if we are establishing a new equivalent of the British royal family.

At about the same time Solmonese was announcing his eventual departure from HRC, they were also preparing to roll out their completely updated website. That rollout is now complete, and there's one thing missing that used to be a prominent part: Any reference to or mention of state-level advocacy and equality organizations. They're all gone. When you click through the "local" links, all that is now listed are HRC's local "steering committees," which are primarily fund raising operations for their national office.

It seems to me that, instead of listening to the criticism from equality activists around the nation, HRC leadership has decided to further isolate itself from the grassroots movement from which it originally came. Will new leadership in a few months give HRC a new direction in collaboration with state and local orgs? I don't have much hope for that. Organizations have their cultures, and the culture at HRC has for too long been one of exclusion and competition, rather than one of inclusion and collaboration.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | November 9, 2011 3:22 PM

Like most affiliates and front groups for the Democrat and Republican parties, HRC is not a democratic organization. On the contrary it's work revolves around fundraising to pay bloated salaries for movement hustlers.

There's not much likelihood that they're going to give up their very comfortable lifestyles just to accommodate to the needs of the movement.

I'm one of those people who really wanted to be able to support the HRC. I kept thinking they were going to "get it" and change. But after what I saw in Albany (not with the volunteers, but with senior staff) I just walked away disgusted. I hear that they pulled out of NY completely after claiming that they won equal marriage there. Now Queer Rising is going to trial for civil disobedience, and HRC is nowhere to be found. If you want to establish trust with the broader community, reach out and help groups like this. Don't just disavow them and walk away.

Hi Matt,
Very clear and practical thinking. I hope the HRC board reads this post.

Many years ago, my husband gave some money to HRC. He now regerets this, having since received thousands of email and snail mail requests for more money—but little else.

Angela Brightfeather | November 10, 2011 11:07 AM

After a few days of this excellent post, and with only 9 entires, not counting this one, it stands as testament that:

Most GLBT leaders and grassroots people just don't care about them that much.

Most GLBT people just don't have any problem with HRC any longer.

Most people have given up on HRC turning around their image.

You can choose which one applies to you the most, but keep in mind that apost like this one on Bilerico, three years ago, would have garnered about 30+ comments. That is a chilling fact that needs to be addressed by their BOD in choosing their next leader and puts into perspective the type of job done by their last leader.

Matt I think HRC should drop the T and do what it does best just represent LGB people. As a non LGBT aligned Transsexual your organization would be doing me a favor by coming clean and admitting you don't represent me and never have. As a veteran I can assure you Monica Helms and Tava don't represent me either and their Transgender VA policy won't stand the test of time as I have already started the process of challenging the use of the word Transgender and its negative history and over stated political value within the next year or so use of the word Transgender will know longer be acceptable as an umbrella term or as a way to artificially inflat LGBT numbers.

I actually had the "pleasure" of sitting next to Joe Solmonese a few years ago at the Chicago Gala. Instead of partnering with the grassroots and/or smaller organizations he'd rather demonize "bloggers in the basement". When I was open and tried to discuss any opportunity for HRC to improve, he literally turned his back to me.

When I have the opportunity to talk to leaders of other LGBT organizations about their work, I often ask who they work with and how those relationships are going. When the conversation turns to HRC, they most commonly describe their relationship as being "not that bad". Pretty faint praise, right? Those leaders will detail times when HRC was great to work with and really effective, but counter it with some pretty sad stories of working behind the scenes to undo what the coalition was doing, or taking sole credit for victories that the whole coalition accomplished together. Other times, when a policy objective is on the table, HRC will singlehandedly, and without agreement among coalition partners, water down the policy objective long before it was warranted. Legislators and administrators look to HRC as the movement's leaders, so if they say they'll settle for a weak bill, then the whole movement gets a weak bill. This is what happened over trans inclusion in ENDA, and though HRC has promised not to leave out trans again, it has continued to weaken its position at the earliest possible moment on lots of other issues.

HRC is constantly saying that it behaves the way it does to ensure a seat at the table. The problem is that if you don't sometimes pound the table when you have to, then it's not worth having the seat.

How true Matt, so how about you, Urvashi Vaid, Ann Northrup, Andy Humm, Tom Ammiano or Rebecca Kaplan or Leslie Cagan for Dir. of HRC. They did NADA on healthcare reform. shame! And cuts to social security, medicare and medicaid don't affect their donor base. John Iversen, AIDS activist and Wounded Knee 1973 occupier

It should be worth observing just how far removed trans people feel from the mainstream LGBT movement - when a post about HRC by Matt Foremen can garner so little attention. I think if trans folks thought there was an iota of a relationship worth salvaging with either Matt or the HRC this post would have blown up on the first day.