Political IQ: The problem with the Human Rights Campaign
by Diane Silver
The biggest and most successful LGBT rights organization in U.S. history is the Human Rights Campaign. This is both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing largely comes from HRC's presence in Washington, D.C. If HRC and others, for example, hadn't blocked the Federal Marriage Amendment, same-sex couples would never have been able to walk down the aisle in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Even the 18,000 pre-Proposition 8 marriages in California would not have been possible.
If there hadn't been a well-established queer lobby, the idea of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and enacting pro-gay proposals might not have made it onto the agenda of our next president. For all of those achievements and more, HRC should be warmly thanked.
But these days, the organization is beginning to feel like a lead weight tied around our collective necks. If we're not careful, we may all be pulled under and drowned. Launched the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, HRC is a 20th-century organization foundering in a changed world. To switch metaphors, it's the lumbering campaign of John McCain (minus the reactionary politics) stumbling punch-drunk as it's pummeled by Barack Obama's nimble, grassroots organization.
HRC's problems are numerous, but the central issue may be the group's commitment to an obsolete political model. Pioneered by the civil rights movement, this model takes Washington, D.C., as the central arena of action. Local protests raise issues and influence public opinion, but it's the work of Congress, the president, and the courts that count the most.
This is a seductive model because it worked well for black America. During my 20 years of activism, I subscribed to it. But the world has changed since the 1960s, and the tactics of bigots have changed, too. When African Americans won a victory, the bigots of the time didn't hold a petition drive and force a vote to overturn civil rights.
In the last decade, just about every right that LGBT Americans win is subjected to a vote of our neighbors. Particularly in the quest to marry, nearly every forward step has been countered by petitions and a vote. We have lost with mind-numbing regularity.
I want to be clear. I'm not claiming that African Americans had (or have) an easier path than LGBT Americans. People died in the civil rights movement. Blacks have been routinely beaten, crippled, and killed for doing nothing more than looking at the wrong person, saying the wrong thing, or having the gall to be successful. Do I even have to mention the horror of slavery and the socioeconomic obstacles that still hamper the black community?
For LGBT Americans, though, the sad truth is that the path blazed by black America may only lead to defeat. We may win a few battles in Washington, D.C., but equality will only come, ironically, by doing what social conservatives fear the most – changing the hearts and minds of straight, middle America. We have to work neighbor to neighbor and block by block to educate and organize. That's because we will be forced every year or so to return to our neighbors' doorsteps to ask for their votes.
HRC doesn't focus on this kind of work. The group does periodically send staff into the field, as it did to battle Prop 8. More often, though, its many local steering committees drain their communities, instead of supporting them.
Take the example of Kansas City. The local HRC committee is a marvel. It draws the most talented people from the region, and then sets them to work planning endless fundraisers. Golf tournaments, comedy nights, and wine and beer tastings monopolize their time. Most of the money they raise is funneled to the national office. Campaigns aren't planned; grassroots aren't organized. When anti-gay initiatives appear on the local ballot, the most local queers get is the loan of a field organizer from the national office and maybe a bit of cash. Imagine what would happen if instead of planning parties, the Kansas City committee was educating straight voters about LGBT issues and setting up a get out the vote operation. Now imagine what would happen if that was being done in every city in the nation.
HRC isn't evil. It isn't staffed by villains. The presence of a strong queer lobby on Capitol Hill is just a tad less important than our own heartbeats. If HRC can strengthen its lobbying power, then it deserves our support. But LGBT America also has to build grassroots strength to win at the ballot box, and we have to do that in every state in the nation.
The hulking presence of a national organization that siphons resources away from local communities is a prescription for defeat. And that isn't just a problem for the HRC, that's a problem for us all.
Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, whose freelance writing has appeared in Ms. magazine, Salon.com, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication or at mailto:PoliticalIQ@qsyndicate.com.