January 21, 2008
AIDS and Elizabeth Birch?
Posted by: Chris
In response to my post about a leading lesbian volunteer for the Democratic National Committee joining in the trashing of the gay press and Dem gay activists who question the party, a reader writes:
The two worst things to happen to the gay equality movement were AIDS and Elizabeth Birch. AIDS killed most of those who might have stopped, or at least diminished, her takeover of national LGBT politics, or so emotionally debilitated those who did survive, that combined with a series of disastrous leadership choices by the older and once dominant NGLTF, a vacuum was created that she and her huge intellect and even greater ambition filled. She was the original Borg queen. And, trans rebellion notwithstanding, resistance is still futile.
While she did bring some much-needed organizational structure and marketing skills to the movement, making it like a corporation became the end and not the means to an end. Two, she enshrined the philosophy that one-time “Advocate” owner David Goodstein had started—exclude by structure and “door charge” the average gay person who think that putting all of our proverbial eggs into the basket of politicians that MIGHT fight for us was a gamble at best. A wiser, more diverse policy somewhere between the understandable barring of well-intentioned but totally unstable personalities like Sylvia Rivera who once was arrested trying to climb over walls into a New York City Council meeting and the activities that have resulted in references to the “Human Rights Champagne fund” is still sorely needed. …
With very rare exception, the “educational” efforts of HRC, NGLTF, GLAAD, et al., amounts so often to preaching to the choir that their “leaders” should qualify as ordained ministers by now. This would be bad enough alone but it is criminal given that the Antigay Industry spends millions demonizing us in dozens of languages around the world through their own print organs, radio, and television.
Yet our “leaders” brag about opinion polls that show growing “support” for gay equality even as most antigay ballot initiatives pass again and again at the polls that really count. The strategy of hoping politicians you support to deliver only makes sense if you empower them in other ways to do it with impunity.
AIDS certainly did rob the movement of a generation of would-be leaders and followers and has a singular place in our history, but it was also the slap in the face that woke gay people up to the reality that our government treats us as second-class citizens and only we will ever change that.
I spent the better part of a decade criticizing Elizabeth Birch for the monumental misjudgment of linking the Human Rights Campaign and the gay movement generally too closely with the Democratic Party -- not because the Republicans were any better, but because she robbed HRC and the movement of the independence needed to aggressively lobby our "friends" when they failed to defend us or follow through on their promises.
I do not share in criticism of her "corporatizing" of the movement, however. Yes, it went too far and HRC is horribly bloated, its building a huge waste of resources and its salaries ridiculously padded. But the movement was badly in need of professionalizing and Birch deserves credit -- along with others like William Waybourn at GLAAD and Rich Tafel and Kevin Ivers at Log Cabin -- for making that happen.
If Birch's overextended tenure at HRC had been followed up by a new leader with more vision, greater political independence and less inside-the-beltway thinking, the house-that-Birch-built could have been leveraged to produce real change. Instead we got Cheryl Jacques, who was more partisan than Birch, followed by Joe Solmonese, who is a classic D.C. lobbyist with no business running a civil rights organization.
The reader is absolutely right, on the other hand, that "education" efforts by HRC and the other leading gay rights groups have been so stripped of substance by marketing experts and focus groups that they fail to inspire, lead, cajole or even guilt the public into adjusting its views on gay equality.
The debate in 2006 over the federal marriage amendment is a classic example of how these two misjudgments crippled the movement's effectiveness. Facing a vote that everyone involved knew we would win, HRC's Hillary Rosen (Elizabeth's then-partner) bought into the Democrats' partisan strategy of avoiding the gay marriage "hot button" in favor of attacking President Bush and the Republicans for pressing a "non-issue," which was only a distraction from "real issues" like Iraq and rising gas prices.
It was colossal missed opportunity for a gay rights group to agree to the Democratic Party's self-serving strategy of avoiding gay marriage linkage and instead calling the movement's signature issue a distraction -- thereby punting on the free-media opportunity to educate the public about why we want to marry in the first place.
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