by Matt Foreman
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 to 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.
Matt Foreman, executive director, NYC Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (1990-1996); Empire State Pride Agenda (1997-2003); National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (2003-2008)