UPDATE: The United for Marriage coalition released a joint statement and I've added it to the end of this post.
On Wednesday, I attended the United for Marriage rally at the US Supreme Court building. It was a great rally that went off, mostly, without a hitch. But after reports of an incident between HRC and a person waiving a transgender equality flag came to light yesterday - and HRC denied the reports in a statement - I feel the need to set the record straight.
Wednesday morning, fellow Bilerico blogger, John Becker, and I arrived on the scene together around 9:30am and made our way through the crowd toward the podium. As we crossed through the ring of volunteers into the speakers' area we stopped to talk with a few folks and then made our way to the area just to the right behind the podium. As we got close, we noticed two people having a less-than-friendly discussion. I recognized one of the people as an HRC staffer, but I was not acquainted with the other person.
Through the bustle and the crowd, I could discern that the HRC staffer was discussing the transgender equality flag the young man was waving. It was clear the staffer wanted him to move or to stop displaying the flag. It was also clear that the young trans man holding the flag was at the edge of his training (and his wits) in dealing with the situation as was the staffer. The HRC staffer moved on just as we got within speaking distance, so we asked the man with the flag what had happened.
He told us that the staffer had been harassing him about his flag and that he wasn't going to move. He told us the staffer had stopped on three occasions to ask him to move or stop displaying the flag. He also mentioned that the staffer had denigrated trans issues in some manner, but I know this staffer and I cannot imagine they have any sort of anti-trans animus, so I chalked that up to a misunderstanding.
I have no doubt this young man was offended and that something had been said that he took to mean differently than it may have been intended. This happens all the time and can spiral out of control quickly in an environment like the one at the rally on the steps of the Supreme Court.
In any case, we assured him that, if the staffer returned and tried to run him off again, we would be there and back him up. No further incidents occurred while I was there.
The next day, after the story was posted on Facebook and started getting traction, HRC put out a press release that, in my opinion and experience, is very misleading. Here's the release in full:
"Tuesday and Wednesday were historic days for our community, as thousands of LGBT people gathered in front of the Supreme Court and in every state across the country to demonstrate their support for marriage equality. HRC was proud to play a role in these events as a member of the United for Marriage coalition, the group which organized the gathering at the Supreme Court. Marriage equality is an issue that fundamentally impacts hundreds of thousands of LGBT people and families across our nation and is greater than any one organization.
"It was agreed that featuring American flags at our program was the best way to illustrate this unifying issue which is why when managing the area behind the podium, several people were asked to move who were carrying organizational banners, pride flags or any other flag that was not an American flag. Several people refused and they were allowed to stay. The coalition welcomed the variety of signs and flags that were throughout the plaza that demonstrated the wonderful diversity of our community.
"It is a not true to suggest that any person or organization was told their flag was less important than another - this did not occur and no HRC staff member would ever tolerate such behavior. To be clear, it is the position of the Human Rights Campaign that marriage is an issue that affects everyone in the LGBT community.
"The events at the Court featured lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender speakers as well as LGBT families, religious leaders, Republicans, military spouses and civil rights activists. This has been a historic week and truly demonstrated how all of us - lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight, transgender and cisgender - can unite as one voice to advocate for our constitutional rights."
HRC's explanation here is dubious, at best. I cannot say for certain if an American flag theme was agreed upon by all of the event organizers, but even their statement suggests there was selective enforcement of this guideline. No one in the immediate vicinity of the man with the trans flag - including myself - was waving an American flag. None of us were ever asked to not wave our flags or display our signs. (In fairness, I did witness one staffer ask someone not to display one side of their homemade sign because the message wasn't great, but it was a very cordial exchange and the person explained clearly their intent. An American flag alternative wasn't offered in this case or any other than I'm aware of.)
It is true that there were real attempts to hijack the media attention of the rally and that organizers tried to intervene, but they did not do so by marshaling a chorus of American flags - instead they asked folks with a variety of signs, including a rainbow pride flag, to block the shot.
More to the point, I was standing beside two of the rally organizers for the entire rally with whom I am well-acquainted. They never mentioned anything to me or anyone else about this American flag theme. At one point, rally organizers did pass around some small American flags for folks to wave, but the notion that there was any coordinated effort to ensure only American flags were on display doesn't comport with reality.
So, it's very disappointing to me that HRC has handled this situation so poorly. I've taken a lot of heat lately for defending HRC and trying to convince people they were changing. The selection of Chad Griffin as their new president and a number of positive interactions I and others have had with HRC recently convinced me that the organization has really learned some lessons.
The handling of this situation, on the other hand, was classic old-school HRC - circle the wagons and deny, deny, deny. While I have no way of verifying the young man's story of everything the HRC staffer said to him, it was beyond clear they had not had a pleasant interaction.
As rally staff, it was incumbent upon the staffer to be the adult and to act professionally. If the first interaction doesn't produce the desired result, you don't return and repeat the same mistake again (or again). The first rule of crowd control at any such function is to never deal with a problem alone if you can help it. The staffer should have brought someone else along - or sent someone else - to speak with this young man about his flag, if they believed it was a problem.
That didn't happen. Instead, the young man felt singled-out, picked on, and denigrated. Even if that wasn't the intent of the staffer, that was the outcome and it was preventable. To then compound the situation by issuing the above statement downplaying the whole thing and insinuating that witnesses are lying is just adding insult to injury.
I must note here that an HRC staff person privately sent me a very heartfelt apology in an email today. It was kind, thoughtful, and exactly the right tone. In response, I explained that I felt the need to still set the record straight because HRC has publicly impugned my integrity and that I want to be sure the whole story was on the record.
So here it is. I can see how a lot of this is a big misunderstanding. I don't doubt the integrity of the staffer at the rally, the good folks who worked on the statement, or the person who sent me the private note. I know them to be good-hearted, kind, upstanding individuals - and trans allies. It's unfortunate that instead of continuing HRC's recent path of honest communication and taking responsibility for mistakes, a knee-jerk defensive reaction has spawned a minor controversy over a simple mistake made without animus in a high stress situation.
Mistakes were made, but it's most important to me that we clear the air so there's space to move on and get back to the important work of winning our equality.
United for Marriage statement:
Statement from the United For Marriage Coalition on events March 27th, 2013
On March 26-27, the United for Marriage coalition -- which consists of 180 partner organizations led by the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Family Equality Council, GetEQUAL, Marriage Equality USA and the New Organizing Institute -- held historic rallies outside the Supreme Court of the United States for marriage equality.
Thousands attended to celebrate love and commitment, and to demonstrate that the nation is ready for marriage equality.
Over the course of two days, we were joined by over 50 speakers from the LGBT community and from allies in the labor, women's, civil rights, faith, and immigration movements. As a coalition we have achieved historic accomplishments and have become stronger together.
We came together as a coalition to speak to America about the values of love and commitment, to mobilize people across the country to build a groundswell of support for the freedom to marry, and to prepare people for the work ahead. We have achieved so much this week as a movement and as a nation.
Since the conclusion of the rallies on Wednesday, the coalition has learned about the mistreatment of a few individuals who were attending and speaking at the rallies. In one case, a queer undocumented activist was asked to edit his speech to hide part of who he is. In another case, several activists were asked to lower the trans* pride flag in order to keep out of the scope of TV cameras.
We apologize for having caused harm to the individuals involved. Apologies are being made individually and collectively and we are working to make direct amends.
We know that apologies alone are not enough. We are committing to the following steps:
- Individuals involved with the process of talking with rally speakers about the content of their speeches are reaching out to apologize for harm caused.
- We will build on our conversations to also seek ways that we can come together for joint action on issues of shared concerns such as immigration reform and other issues that advance equality and justice.
- Individuals involved with the request to lower the trans* pride flag are reaching out to apologize for harm caused.
- Opportunities for broader education on both trans* and queer undocumented issues within the greater LGBT community will be taken.
Moving forward as a coalition we will work to achieve a society where everyone can be their full selves in an accepting and diverse community. We know that the incredible power of our community stems from our experiences and stories, and that only when all are respected and included will we achieve our goals.
From the rallies in DC to the events that happened in all 50 states across the country, this past week has been extraordinary and we look forward to continued work together to ensure that all LGBT people are equal under the law. We are committed to working as a coalition in the future to make an even larger impact. We are stronger together.
* We are using "trans*" as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth and/or who identify outside of the boundaries of gender binaries.
(Photo of the trans flag flying in front of the Supreme Court by Jerame Davis.)