HRC pick largely praised
by Matthew S. Bajko
The change in leadership this summer at the Human Rights Campaign is largely being welcomed by San Francisco LGBT leaders who hope it brings a course correction at the national organization.
Last week HRC's board announced it had chosen Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles-based political consultant and fundraiser, as the successor to president Joe Solmonese. Griffin, 38, founded American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group that brought the federal lawsuit against California's ban against same-sex marriage.
When he starts this June, Griffin will have his work cut out for him in reaching out to LGBT people and groups in San Francisco. Despite his role in the successful legal challenge against Proposition 8, Griffin is not well known among Bay Area LGBT people.
Besides increasing his name recognition Griffin, who was unavailable to comment for this story, will also be met with the fact that the DC-based HRC has had a fraught relationship with the LGBT community in the Bay Area for years. The list of complaints against HRC runs the gamut.
Among progressives, anger still lingers over how the lobbyist organization has handled transgender issues. Locals boycotted HRC's 2008 San Francisco gala dinner to protest its backing a federal workers rights bill that did not include gender identity protections.
Griffin will be closely watched to see how HRC advocates for a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act once he takes the helm.
Writing on Facebook last week, local gay activist Jason Villalobos wrote of Griffin's hiring that "wounds with the trans community still need to be healed or better addressed before the progressive faction of the gay rights movement even considers supporting HRC."
In a phone interview Gabriel Haaland, a labor leader and transgender activist who helped organize the HRC gala picket, said he is "hopeful" that Griffin can "bring a more representative perspective of our community" to HRC and that the decisions it makes under his leadership "resonate more strongly than they do now."
Haaland, who said he didn't know much about Griffin, hopes he makes it a point to reach out to the transgender, working class, and poorer LGBT communities that have "often felt marginalized and, honestly, tokenized" by HRC.
"My experience has been that a lot of decisions HRC makes are quite controversial and divisive," said Haaland, who in an op-ed in the Bay Area Reporter class=messagebody>expressed disappointment that transgender and people of color leaders were apparently not among the top candidates for the HRC job. "I am open to seeing a new day at HRC."
Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis also told the B.A.R. that he doesn't know Griffin well but looks forward to getting to know him and "seeing where he takes" HRC.
"We as an LGBT community have a lot of issues we need to grapple with," Davis said. "We need to make sure we have access to a full spectrum of civil rights for all members of our community."
Davis is looking forward to talking to Griffin about how HRC "can address more issues than they have historically."
"I do not know how much exposure he's had to transgender issues, and I hope he connects with transgender elders and organizations" early on, he said.
Anna Conda, president of the progressive Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, said he doesn't pay close attention to the national group since "I don't really agree with HRC on a lot of things."
Conda, whose real name is Glendon Hyde, said he didn't know much about Griffin. He suggested Griffin make addressing transgender rights and access to health care top priorities once he starts work.
Shane Snowdon, director of the UCSF Center for LGBT Health and Equity, also wants to see HRC make health issues more of a prominent concern.
"Given that I head the only LGBT office in a health setting in the country, I'm fervently hoping Chad will make LGBTQ health and aging a top priority," Snowdon, a member of HRC's Healthcare Equality Index Advisory Council, told the B.A.R. "HRC, with its impressive resources, could make a huge difference in health care for LGBTQ people in this country – I'm keeping my fingers crossed!"
Gay Republicans have their own gripes with HRC's partisan bent toward Democrats.
"I used to be a big HRC supporter and give money to them regularly," said Dan Brown, president of the San Francisco Log Cabin Republicans chapter.
But over the years Brown said he disagreed with how HRC treated Republican politicians. He was also disappointed with the agency's endorsement last year for President Barack Obama's re-election and its launch this week of a website attacking Mitt Romney, who is expected to be the likely GOP presidential nominee this year.
"It upset a lot of gay Republicans when they went ahead and endorsed Obama's re-election last year well before the primaries even started. All they are doing is alienating a huge portion of the community," said Brown.
He called Griffin's hiring a "brilliant move" and hopes he continues to see the value in reaching out more to Republicans. One of the lead attorneys Griffin asked to oversee the federal Prop 8 lawsuit was Republican attorney Theodore Olson, which marked the start of a significant number of prominent GOP members coming out in support of same-sex marriage.
"At least have a dialogue with these people and at least not be constantly attacking them. I hope Chad will be able to do that," said Brown. "He has success working both sides of the aisle."
For those who do believe in the work HRC is doing, they see having a new person in charge as helping to build bridges with the agency's detractors on the West Coast.
"The relationship between the Human Rights Campaign and the local community has always been a complicated one," acknowledged gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, an HRC Federal Club member who termed off the group's national board in 2010.
Wiener, who spoke out against HRC's handling of ENDA in 2007, told the B.A.R. that he believes Griffin's hiring is "very good news" and he will be able to "continue moving the organization in the right direction."
Current HRC board member Frank Woo, who lives in San Francisco, called Griffin a "fabulous" choice and hopes he is able to address the long-lingering complaints HRC has faced in the Bay Area.
"I think it seriously may help if people hear what HRC is doing from a different voice. Probably Joe was tainted in the minds of some people," said Woo, referring to the backlash Solmonese faced due to HRC's ENDA stance five years ago. "But if they hear about what we have been doing with transgender people at the corporate level, people are amazed."
HRC has been doing a lot of work both locally and within California, said Woo, but its detractors often overlook its accomplishments.
"We have been doing a lot within the state but people still don't want to believe we are doing anything," said Woo. "I just hope people have a renewed look at us since a new person will be there. They might see things differently."