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    November 19, 2008

    Growing chorus for change at HRC

    Posted by: Chris

    Hrcnotequals A number of influential voices are echoing the view raised here (and here) about the need for fundamental change of mindset and personnel at the leadership of the gay rights movement:

    • Andrew Sullivan: Why are non-gay Mormons more capable of organizing and fund-raising on a gay rights measure than HRC, the biggest national gay rights group? I mean: HRC claims (absurdly, but bear with me) 725,000 supporters and members. … They are supposed to have "expertise" - but the ads that ran in No on 8 were the usual fearful, focus-group driven, conviction-free pap. So in the biggest national struggle in the history of gay civil rights, this organization - which has vacuumed money from the gay community for years - were by-standers. Why is that not a scandal? How many struggles do we have to wage with these people always, always failing to lead - before we demand accountability and reform?

    Following up on Andrew's point about who wanted it more, it turns out that James Dobson's Focus on the Family is facing layoffs of more than 200 staffers because it pumped $539,000 into the Proposition 8 battle in California. Can anyone imagine HRC giving till it hurts like that? In fact, HRC claims to have donated $237,409 in "staff time." (HRC claims to have given $3 million, but it's counting bundled money from HRC donors).

    • Markos_moulitsas Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas: As a gatekeeper, the Human Rights Campaign sucks. Sullivan calls for the organization to be abandoned and defunded. But something worse is happening -- it is being rendered irrelevant by current events, and with irrelevance, it will shrivel up and die on its own. … The anti-Prop 8 campaign was an exercise in frustration. What we're seeing now, straight out of Taking on the System, is brilliant. And the movement is spreading far beyond California's borders. These nationwide protests are a watershed moment of sorts -- the moment when the gay community realized that it had the power to fight for change on its own, and didn't require any of it's so-called, self-appointed "leaders" to give them permission to engage.
    • Gw200h267 Robin Tyler (quoted by AP): The movement's leaders "were very timid. They were too soft," said Robin Tyler, a lesbian comic who created a series of celebrity public service announcements with the slogan "Stop the Hate, No on 8" that were rejected because they were deemed too negative. "We were lightweights on our side."
    • Queerty: In our struggle to change the mind's of others, we may have to change our own. The grassroots, "everyone has a voice", web-centric nature of the campaign that started after Prop. 8 passed is a direct response to the hierarchical, "here's the plan, get on board or go away", "shout from our bubble" effort that preceded it. Madness is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different response. It's clear that the strategy (or lack thereof) of the HRC and No on 8. campaign did not work. … To the people who feel that questioning our gay leaders will only make us more divided, I point to our defeat and ask, "What makes you think we were ever united?"
    • Rexaz2_2Rex Wockner: Was it really just six days ago that I wrote here: "Maybe Stonewall was Activism 1.0, ACT UP was Activism 2.0, the failed corporate activism of HRC and No On Prop 8 was Activism 3.0, and now we are witnessing Activism 4.0 being born."? Was it really just six days ago that I wrote here: "I sense the power could be shifting, from the suit-and-tie professional activists with their offices, their access, their press releases and their catered receptions, to the grassroots."? It was.
    • Hrcspanight Michael Petrelis: After all the hard work HRC did shoving gays back into the closet during the No on 8 campaign, … HRC is now giving the San Francisco community what it truly needs at this point as we pick ourselves after being knocked down by the voters. It's HRC Spa Night! … What's next? Get a face-lift and HRC gets 10% from the plastic surgeon, to fight the next ballot proposition? … One thing that is surely not next from HRC is an achievement of any significance for gay Americans. What would happen to the gay movement and its quest for fairness and equality if we once and for all stopped giving even a dime to the worthless Democratic Party hacks burning through $40 million community dollars annually?
    • Box Turtle Bulletin's Jim Burroway: The HRC’s tepid response to ballot measures is now 0-30, their accomplishments on Capital Hill are minuscule — they are in serious danger of becoming completely irrelevant. With this, they are now reduced to self-parody. It’s like they’re not even trying anymore.
    • Andytowle2 Andy Towle: Voices are ringing out from all areas (liberal and conservative, some more critically than others) in the wake of the grassroots-organized protests around the nation, that national gay organizations, which have been the well-funded standard bearers for the gay movement for decades, must adjust to the new activism we've seen these past few weeks. Voices are ringing out that the national gay organizations must … adjust to this new reality" or "wither and die." Or perhaps, as we witnessed last weekend, they already have in many ways.
    • Waynebesen Wayne Besen: There has been a paradigm shift in the movement following marriage defeats in California, Florida and Arizona. ... The leaders of what is being billed as Stonewall 2.0 are not coming from large, established organizations. ... Up until two weeks ago, major GLBT groups instructed people to write a check and then essentially instructed donors to check their activism at the door. Sometimes, one was asked to take their commitment a step further by sending e-mail or attending a dinner. I think this week's protests mark the end of the Passive Era of gay politics. A sign at protests, "No More Mr. Nice Gay", highlighted this monumental change. ... Organizations that do not adjust to this new reality will wither and die.

    The commentary from Towle and Besen is noteworthy because Towle rarely uses his über-popular Towleroad blog to criticize gay groups and Besen was a long-time staffer in the HRC communications department during the Elizabeth Birch years, working with HRC lifer David Smith, who remains at the org.

    It's particularly disappointing to see how behind the curve HRC is on the use of technology to push grassroots advocacy, given the dozens and dozens of young, tech-savvy staffers who work at the agency. It just goes to show you how the top-down approach to politics pushed by Smith, Joe Solmonese and other HRC leaders results in in-house management that further cripples the group's effectiveness.

    Change may well be coming to HRC, for no other reason but that many of its leaders are no doubt jockeying for jobs in the incoming Obama administration. (Query whether they will be embraced by the White House, given how obviously they sided with Hillary Clinton during the primaries. It's noteworthy that none of the seven out gay politicos with roles in the Obama transition team hail from HRC.)

    Either way, the gay rights movement is moving on with a retooled HRC or without it. The question is whether the D.C.-based gay groups want to remain relevant to the constituents and the movement they claim to lead.



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    1. Andoni on Nov 19, 2008 2:22:49 PM:

      The main problem going forward is that HRC has convinced Congress that are the face of the LGBT community. Any time I talk to a Congressperson, they ask, "What does HRC say about that?" or "Have you checked with HRC?"

      So HRC has brainwashed Congress quite well. Maybe it's the money.

      Practically speaking, if HRC could change that would be better. But I don't really think they can.

      The alternative to HRC without having to set up a new organization, is a million folks bombarding Congress directly, coordinated via the internet. We'll have to stay connected and unified, however.

      I know that HRC is only supporting the passage of ENDA and Hate crimes before the 2010 elections. I think we can do better than that. I think we can get most of the Obama-Biden Plan for LGBT folks with the possible exception of repealing DOMA.

      We have to be careful not to be the first out of the gate, but we should start pushing in late spring and continue until we succeed.

    1. repeal8 on Nov 19, 2008 3:21:39 PM:

      I think the best way to change HRC may be to lobby the Board of Governors and Directors. That's how other executive directors and senior staff have been removed: by smart, fact-based analysis of incompetence and lack of vision. Hitting them in the pocket definitely doesn't hurt either. Completely eliminating HRC doesn't seem like a constructive use of time because that will take years but reforming them seems possible. I think HRC's PAC is still useful and yes, that's the only reason they have as much clout on Capitol Hill as they do. Of course money talks. Unless Tim Gill or another major gay donor wants to go head-to-head in gay PAC dollars, HRC will be the ones who have the ears of Congress. This isn't because they are better advocates but simply because they can write a check that gets them in the door to talk to congressional leaders. Are there non-LGBT movement examples of the grassroots becoming so disillusioned by their movement's institutional leadership that they successfully reformed or brought them down? I know similar dissatisfaction exists among other groups, including dissatisfaction with NARAL in the pro-choice community. Incidentally, HRC's current political director came from that organization (she had no previous LGBT advocacy experience that I am aware of).

    1. Sean on Nov 19, 2008 4:03:09 PM:

      It is clear as the reaction continues to November 4th rocks our community and challenges our notion of the Gay Civil Rights Movement, strategy and focus clearly must change, the question still remains "How do we change our message and strategy and who will direct it?"

      Current organizations that include HRC, the Equality organizations, the Task Force, etc., will not be challenged to change unless membership truly removes dollars and and alternative face is put forth. The two commentors before me have already mentioned this. However, for any of this to happen there are those who will have to step out of this new breed of activists and take on the risk of distinguishing themselves as a "rival" to these juggernauts and influence peddlers.

      Who will be the brave one to do it? Bloggers blog and generate the impetus for change, but will fear of repraisal or failure may keep the rising new batch of GLBT leadership from stepping forth. New apathy may return forcing us to settle for the same old same old. Sure we had an event, how do we step up and change it? Money is a worry but the true aim should be the hook to draw people away... whoever finds the hook will take the laurel in these political games.

      It is only when these answers are given that Question 1: "How do we change our message and strategy and who will direct it?" gets answered and then Question 2: "How do we sustain it?" starts to be tackled. You must take down the old king first before the next can rise.

    1. Jasmine on Nov 20, 2008 12:38:55 PM:

      Thanks for the great posts on this topic. I'm doing a series of posts at www.jbf.typepad.com related to emerging strategy recommendations for where the movement goes next, and concrete alternatives to continuing to rely on the big 501(c)(3)'s for leadership. They've proven, time and again, that they just aren't nimble enough political actors to respond to emerging events like Prop 8, or Join the Impact.

      I'd love to hear from anyone with specific ideas and recommendations!

    1. Cam on Nov 20, 2008 1:32:47 PM:

      Asking HRC to change is useless. They are Irrelevant. The Equality Organizations have pushed lawsuits for Marriage, done outreach and all on a buget that is minescule compared to HRC. Equality Maryland pushed the Marriage lawsuit up to the Maryland Supreme court, it lost, but they backed it while HRC sat on their hands not wanting to appear too pushy. Additionally Equality Maryland pushed a Trans Rights bill through Montgomery County while HRC was pulling Trans protections from one of it's bills in Congress because the "Ick" factor might have killed the bill. HRC is next to useless unless I want to go to another dinner and stand in line to get my picture taken with Rosie O'Donnell and her girlfriend, at least the Equlaity groups are out there fighting.

    1. Tim Cravens on Nov 20, 2008 1:47:28 PM:

      I gave up on HRC a long time ago. Someone subscribed me to their email newsletter at work, and I was horrified to read in today's email that they linked to and bragged about a National Journal article naming them "one of the five most effective interest groups in 2008 elections".

      I agree that something new is needed, but I think it is important not to underestimate the extent to which HRC will dig in its heels to preserve its status. I hope our community will stop giving them money. The previous commenters are correct that we will need something new in its place (and in the place of the rest of the gay rights industry establishment) to replace it.

    1. John on Nov 20, 2008 2:23:35 PM:

      Sorry, but I think listening to a "parade of bloggers" about how ineffective HRC is hardly creates a compelling argument. Sullivan, in particularly, has always hated the group. Further, HRC seems to be getting blamed for things that are not its core mission: enacting legislative change. The reality is, HRC has positioned itself as a player in DC and, with Democratic majorities in the Congress and a Democratic President, can quit playing defense and start pushing through legislation. The truth is that getting change through Congress is a lot harder than showing up for a rally. It takes YEARS of work and it's slow going. Having said all that, if in four years there have not been significant gains at the Federal level through HRC's efforts, I think it's fair to question the organization's effectiveness.

      While I am truly thrilled about the turnouts at all these protests, my fear is that it will be much ado about nothing. It's relatively easy to show up once or twice to a rally or protest. It's something else entirely to get in the trenches and do the hard work necessary to make progress happen. And at least here in Florida, the yoeman's share of that work was done by HRC volunteers and staff.

      A telling anecdote: an ex of mine had 5 friends who attended the rally here in Orlando to show their support. Not a single one voted in the election or did any work campaigning to fight Amendment 2 here in Florida. How many of the folks now saying they know better really busted their butts and got involved. Maybe some of them, but several did not I'm sure. Did Andrew Sullivan knock on doors? Donate any money?

      Finally, I think there is a fundamental analytical problem with all the folks decrying the failure of the anti-amendment groups to frame the debate on an "unfair to gays" basis. I saw a lot of the focus group research - it overwhelmingly said that was a losing message. I think people are confusing the effectiveness of telling their personal stories to people they know and changing hearts and minds, versus what can be accomplished by organized groups via TV, flyers, blogging and even going door to door. It is the personal connection that changes minds, not a media strategy. I'd be happy, quite frankly, if everyone would stop bitching and start pitching in.

    1. Sean on Nov 20, 2008 3:03:51 PM:

      Cam - May I remind you that EQMD got a lot of its money from HRC. They list them as a financial supporter.

      We like the Republicans have to fight it out amongst ourselves and truly get down to what we ned to do. What we are doing is not working. SUre we got a close % in CA but look at the other three amendments/initiatives! New leaders must rise and like Obama energize supporters to pick up their torch and work hard. I too am concerned that if we don't harness the power of this anger that we will lose it and will have to rely on the courts again rather than people power.

      As for HRC, we need a policy group but being a spokesman for the cause... I don't think so. However, what usually wins these battles is internal organization, my question is how do you beat the internal arrogance of established institutions? Money unfortunately is the key and HRC and others have it.

    1. Sean on Nov 20, 2008 3:05:25 PM:

      And John this is where I am too...great points!

      "Finally, I think there is a fundamental analytical problem with all the folks decrying the failure of the anti-amendment groups to frame the debate on an "unfair to gays" basis. I saw a lot of the focus group research - it overwhelmingly said that was a losing message. I think people are confusing the effectiveness of telling their personal stories to people they know and changing hearts and minds, versus what can be accomplished by organized groups via TV, flyers, blogging and even going door to door. It is the personal connection that changes minds, not a media strategy. I'd be happy, quite frankly, if everyone would stop bitching and start pitching in."

    1. leschuck on Nov 20, 2008 3:52:50 PM:

      After John Kerry's abysmal and losing campaign in 2004--a moment for progressives and Democrats not unlike the moment we face in our movement today--"net-roots" activists at Daily Kos and other sites took over much of the Democratic Party--from the outside. They organized and funded their own challenge to the old losing ways, and took over. Then, they got their candidate of change and optimism--yes we can!--a foothold in the primary, and used their small-donor army to fund his ascent to the White House.

      We can do that, too. As a movement, it appears we need to grow and change in order to make gains. Why not adapt winning progressive strategies to our own struggle for equality? We are certainly capable of cultivating, organizing, and unleashing our own "net-roots" movement and our own "small donor" funding system.

      And here's the kicker--we don't need to take down HRC. Someone here likened them to a king we must overthrow--but that is not the case! HRC and the other ossified and failed organizations are not kings. They are paper tigers, so flat-footed and ineffective that they cannot do anything--let alone stop us from taking control of our own movement.

      We do not need to go through HRC anymore--we can go around them, over them, under them and through them in order to get what we want.

      Our agenda is equality. There is good reason to believe the status quo--the leaders, organizations and strategies this year--will only continue to serve up losses. So let's try net-roots activism and small-donor funding and see if it will work for us, too.

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