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March 24, 2005

creepy inner circle HRC stuff

coffee and brownie at cafe panchesco in AZ
Coffee and brownie at the cafe where Panchesco works. Photo by Homer.

During breakfast this morning I caught up on some news from this weekend's Washington Blade. There was an article in there about HRC's inner circle, confirming some suspicions I've held for a while.

HRC always kinda creeped me out. For one thing, I don't like the fact that a single organization has so much power, and that so many people blindly support a single entity to represent us. I would like to have more options in which groups I choose to support. I'm asking for a democrazy of organizations I suppose. It's important to point out that we are still a movement, not an institution. And yet they have an impressive institutional edifice built in their honor down 17th street and hold their rallys there during rush hour, regardless of the protestors' safety during the well-attended events. Hint: stop masturbating, get a local park permit, and hold your rallys where it doesn't block traffic or endanger lives.

Not much substance to the above statements, I know. Just a feeling, but feelings matter. HRC just creeps me out in the same unspoken way that Wal-Mart creeps me out, which is all I can say. Yeah, they remind me of McDonald's and Wal-Mart and Subway...they are everywhere you go, and always a safe bet. But the food all sorta tastes the same.

What was interesting in the Blade article was that a long line of HRC leadership hails from Boston, the capital of the overly-educated. And I would contend the disconnected. After reading the article and imagining the close-knit board shuttling to and from DC along the narrow route between here and Boston, I had to wonder, do these people have any idea of what's going on between the coasts? Most of the HRC "insiders" quoted in the article had nothing but praise for the Boston Board. But in an established institutional culture of conformity, what kind of comments do you expect? I'd like to see something new, a shakeup, and a wider diversity of opinions and options, for HRC is not the movement, we are. And depending on a single organization to change things for us is a risky venture at best.

Posted by jimbo at March 24, 2005 3:32 PM


If one organization is representing it, it's because we've put them in that position with our own donations and involvement. There are plenty of other organizations out there, like Lambda Legal Defense Fun, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and so on. Some do great work. Some are so busy tying themselves in knots over internal identity politics that they are ineffectual (paging NGLTF, paging NGLTF).

HRC is a PAC and therefore their people are political operatives who know how to work the system. That's inherently a little bit disturbing to those who like to imagine that we live in an actual representative democracy where it's all about what citizens think.

But if that is the system we've got, better to have someone who knows how to work it. As for the Massachusetts thing: Massachusetts was the 2nd state to have a gay civil rights law. It's the first to have full gay marriage. The adoption laws are great. I say, bring on the Massachusetts people, they seem to know how to get things done.

Posted by: John at March 24, 2005 6:44 PM

And another thing :).

I think you're absolutely right about people in Boston being out of touch with the rest of the nation, but I think it's equally true of pretty much ever big coastal city - DC, SF, LA, Seattle, NY. And it's not just the political leadership. I'm really amazed by the utter ignorance about the rest of the nation I've heard from people since moving to the middle of it.

Posted by: John at March 24, 2005 6:46 PM

But wasn't Wisconsin the first state to enact a civil rights law protecting state employees against discrimination based on sexual orientation?

Posted by: jimbo at March 24, 2005 7:26 PM

I actually went to an HRC Meeting Tuesday night. It was a 101 of the organization and a quick talk about their legislative plans for this year.

First off Joe Solomonese, the new HRC chairman, stopped by for a quick chat. He's the CEO (or something like that) of Emily's List and actually doesn't start working at HRC until the 11th. As soon as he starts, he's on the road meeting with various organizations around the US. He's starting off in Kansas, and Dallas, and fun places like that. And I actually think that's a good idea. HRC needs to be seen as more than just a DC organization and needs to work with and support the state level organizations.

Then we had a quick talk about the re-organization and some of the new efforts they are working on. One of them is a religion group that tries to work
with mainstream religious groups and communities to help promote equality.

Then we had a talk about the legislative agenda. Unlike last year, the focus isn't on defeating a single bill (like FMA last year), but more about
finding ways to insert pro GLBT initiatives into ongoing legislation. When the social security legislation is draft, try to work in partner benefits. When the immigration legisltation is drafted, try to work in partner immigration support. Things like that. Trying to pass ENDA, or the Hate Crimes Bill, is still important, but in the current climate, not very realistic. So the goal is to kind of use some existing/planned legislation to slowly infiltrate into the different areas where we think we can push
equality. Use things that we know poll well: hospital visitation, making domestic partner benefits non-taxable, etc. Push stuff that is pro-business (who wants to keep two accounting systems: one for non-taxable spousal
benefits, and one for taxable domestic partnership benefits), pro-equality. Stuff like that. We need to use these efforts to help educate people on un-just, and un-equal the system treats us. Trying to use the marriage argument at this point just threatens to become a big target. But if you
start to nibble away at the over 1000 benefits you get from the federal government, if you do it as the opportunity arises as part of ongoing
legislation, then there's the great chance of getting some real tangible positive progress.

I think they've learned some lessons from last year and are trying to make some changes. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

Posted by: Trey at March 24, 2005 9:45 PM

I have to agree with Jimbo. In smaller towns, at least mine, HRC has replaced most of our local A-lister causes (besides the big other one, HIV--which seems to be less and less on the radar). The new place-to-be-seen at event of the year here in Nashville is the HRC fundraiser. I realize organizations need lots of money to play with the big boys. But $150/plate dinners still somewhat smack of elitism, to me. Or at least seem exclusive. We're already disenfranchised enough.

Posted by: Dellwood at March 24, 2005 10:19 PM

Your post seems kind of bitter. This is a pretty turbulent time for gay people in America and, thus, a pretty hard time for the HRC. (I know - blablabla! - but it's true, right?) Whoever is at the top is going to take a lot of heat. It is my experience that it's often a small group of dedicated/obsessed people who get things done. That the larger "group" as a whole often exhibits a short attention span or fair amount of apathy.

Elizabeth Birch always impressed me a great deal - I saw her speak on TV, at an HRC dinner and at the Equality Rocks event, which was really moving. Her departure was a big loss in my mind. Matthew Shepherd happened during her tenure and I thought the HRC handled that "story" very well.

There are incredibly dedicated people from all over the US on their business council, etc., so the Mass. thing seems a bit overblown. They aren't saints but many of them have a lot of integrity and ARE in it to make things better. I know for a fact that there was a LOT of teeth-gnashing over the headquarters - if the money would be well-spent or not. Recently, the bullshit over Cheryl Jacques is distracting; I hope they get past that quickly.

In the meantime, if you don't like what they are doing or have an alternate view, maybe you should make yourself heard to someone there. Loudly! Just be sure you do it with information to back up what you say.

The urban vs suburban/rural divide IS an issue, but I am not sure how that will be solved if the folks who know what the "heartland" is like don't make it clear to the city mice at the HRC.

This is not meant to attack your viewpoint; I just don't see HRC as a big monster like Walmart or McDonald's, swallowing up gay people and mashing them back out as hamburger. [didn't mean to write a novella! Also don't know why the spacing is not working on my post]

Posted by: xolondon at March 24, 2005 10:44 PM

I guess I haven't seen as many visible results from HRCs past efforts as I'd like, and agree with Dellwood on their frequent high-priced elitist events vs. results seen. They don't seem to see the 'little gays' in smaller villages between the coasts.

If I had money or more time, I'd get more involved with PFLAG or the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, who seem to be targeting the core of the matter - changing public attitudes and raising public awareness of discrimination and violence caused by gender stereotypes. www.gpac.org

Plus, it's good to quesion our percieved leadership and authority, and I'm not afraid to have doubts about the big guy. It's dangerous to be apathetic to change.

Posted by: jimbo at March 24, 2005 10:56 PM

1. It isn't "city vs surburban/rural." At least I don't think that's what Jimbo meant in his post. And by the way, the middle of the country isn't a rural area. I am writing this from an inner city neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the US... in the middle of the country (more or less). What was that I was saying about coastal people being generally ignorant about the rest of their country?

2. I don't think $150 a plate dinners are elitist. They are supposed to raise money. The only excuse for charging $150 is that you can't get $200. It's a fundraiser, not a self-esteem session.

Posted by: John at March 25, 2005 12:42 AM

Call me a cheapskate, but $150 seems like a lot for an entree to me!

Posted by: jimbo at March 25, 2005 11:04 AM

I have to agree in part with Jimbo on this one. I got the impression that the HRC is pretty elitist, also I got the impression that if you dont agree with them your either Anti Gay or your a self hating homo. Of course it could be said for many groups that are out there.

My husband and I dont like the HRC, for to many reasons to list.

And I agree that $150 is alot for an entree.

Posted by: Dax at March 25, 2005 1:07 PM

I've got the same vague discomfort for HRC, bolstered by their stupid, unforgiveable endorsement of Al D'Amato over Charles Schumer of NY. Al D'Amato was a pseudo-centrist who peddled all sorts of BS to stay in power, often pitting various minorities against each other.

The HRC is like TV: it scoops up parts of the gay community, finesses them, repackages them, and then sells this idea to Congress, and back to us. It's the "We're all perfect people, and white, and rich, oh and did we mention white?"

These big dinners have insane overhead. Look at what happened to the Palotta AIDS Ride, where expenses ate up almost all the donations. Still if it gets rich people to pay their share, it's a necessary evil.

I hate the HRC stickers on people's cars, because they suggest a discomfort with being gay. Like "ooh this is my secret", and tell people "Oh I'm for better math education". In some parts of the country that's fine, but in DC it's just sad.

Posted by: copperred at March 25, 2005 1:53 PM

Sorry Jimbo, just remembered something...

HRC is actually well known in many smaller towns for trampling on the locals. The HRC often acts very imperiously towards local and state groups who when all is said and done, are the ones who have to stay and fight the battles.

Most people in the Mountain states, for example, would like to see basics like benefits, visitation and child custody fairness, and HRC comes in with their EQUAL MARRIAGE demand, and blows years of hard work away. PFLAG on the other hand, has multiple chapters locally and works with the people who live there to forge common goals. A mother with a gay son who has lived her life in her home state is far more effective than some coiffed, prettied up HRC staffer from DC or LA.

Posted by: copperred at March 25, 2005 2:00 PM

Some valid criticisms here, but... OK, I'm as white as they come, but I look for this "we are so white" thing from HRC and I just don't see it. I recognize that I may be missing it because of my own perspective. But I keep wishing someone would explain it to me. I understand that glbt people of color have a bunch of additional issues to deal with that white people don't, but I'm not sure what specific policy changes at HRC would deal with that.

As for the stickers, I'm not sure they are any less understood than the rainbow flag ones. I guess we could all stick "I'm A Homo" sticker on our cars. Personally I find the omnipresent rainbows kind of dorky, but that's just me.

Posted by: John at March 25, 2005 2:41 PM

Oh, the stickers! I forgot about those unctious stickers! They only serve as branding for their retail products, and for gay people to identify each other on the road. But that's about it. The rest of the nation has no idea what it means, much less the rainbow symbol. If push came to shove and if everyone with a rainbow flag or HRC sticker had to replace it with one that said "I AM GAY," less than 25% would do it I'd wager.

Posted by: jimbo at March 25, 2005 3:12 PM

I argue that rainbow stickers are an important step in our becoming more of a presence in society. Write it off as a retail symbol if you want, but it's a subtle way of letting other gays know that there are lots of us out there. 35 years ago, we'd be arrested or beat up for doing it. These days, you see rainbow stickers everywhere, in lots of small towns. They're not really needed in DC and SF and other "safe" areas, but in other areas, seeing them and putting them on your car and letting those "in the know" in on your secret can be a big deal and a big step towards changing attitudes in areas far from the coasts.

We're not a clearly visible minority in the traditional sense, so I think some kind of branding or way of showing our unity is essential...hence the rainbow crap.

If you don't like how the HRC operates, like someone else said, speak up or donate somewhere else. Money talks, and so does volunteering. You don't have to go to A-list $150 dinners to help. Like John said, as a PAC, their main goal is political and to raise funds to work legislative system. PACs generally don't do things like parade moms of gay kids around the country...they lobby and seek attention for causes.

Posted by: Dunner at March 25, 2005 4:36 PM

I understand your point about having one monolithic group speak for all gay people, but there's power in numbers. I think that without a group like HRC, which can boast that it speaks for X million gay people in the country, it can pack a bigger punch in terms of legislative agendas. I'm not against having other options, but I'm afraid that if there are too many "small" gay rights groups, then none of them are going to be terribly effective.

At HRC dinners, you don't pay $150 for an entree. As someone else pointed out, it's a fundraiser. The money you shell out is only partly for the food, the rest is a donation. Kinda like those Girl Scout cookies. The fact is the amount of cookie goodness you get in there isn't worth the $4.50 (or whatever the price is) that it costs. The rest goes to beef up Girl Scout coffers.

Posted by: Dennis! at March 25, 2005 6:00 PM

Speaking at someone who works at another national LGBT nonprofit, I share some of your concerns about HRC. They do a lot of good work, and they're very informed and fairly effective on legislative matters, but I do find their organizational attitude and their fundraising/program ratio troubling (they spend 40.8% of their budget on fundraising and 48.3% on programs -- by contrast, where I work we spend 10.6% on fundraising and 74.2% on programs). If you want to give HRC money because you're familiar with what they do and that's what you want to focus your donations on, that's fine, but it drives me nuts when people blindly give to organizations just because they have a more recognized name or logo.

That said, something I think a lot of people forget is that people who do national activism for a living usually were local activists first who ended up moving on to what they do now because they're good at it. I can't tell you how often local activists refuse our help, act in ways that ignore the bigger picture, or even barge forward in ways that hurt the movement. It cuts both ways. We try really hard to work with local activists whenever we can -- which is hard, because these folks are often only able to devote a small portion of their time to what they do, with little or no pay, and they're often not terribly savvy about the broader consequences of their actions or how to frame their messages, and we're equally limited by being spread thin and infighting among the national groups.

I guess the best thing I can suggest is to learn about the organizations that work on the issues that you care about, find out about their budgeting issues and genuine effectiveness, and make an informed choice when you figure out where you want to send your dough. Also, find out if the organization you're interested in supporting has special programs that focus specifically on your interests, and whether you have to donate directly to those programs or whether general donations will make it to those programs (where I work, we're a special project at a larger organization, and most people don't realize that if they want their money to go to the gay rights work they have to give it directly to the project -- we don't see a dime of general memberships and donations to national). Otherise, it's a crapshoot, and sometimes you may as well be throwing your money out the window.

(p.s. Paragraph breaks aren't working for me, either. Sorry for the big mass o' text!)

Posted by: Chris at March 26, 2005 4:10 PM