In the 1995, attorney Elizabeth Birch was named executive director of the Human Rights Campaign. She left nine years later, in 2004, to spend more time with then-partner Hilary Rosen. (Rosen, subsequently, became HRC’s interim director just nine months later.) It was Birch’s agenda that led HRC to where it is today: Always begging for cash from “members,” but really unwilling to put tangible pressure on its friends in Washington. Sure, the organization pushed for federal hate crimes prevention laws, but at the cost of a real effort to end (or prohibit) Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, which became law on Birch’s watch. It’s this very beguiling strategy that HRC’s current head, Joe Solmonese, today stands accused of perpetrating: Telling the White House to get certain laws passed while letting them off the hook in ending other types of discrimination (e.g. marriage, military). And now that HRC finally has something to pat itself on the back for — the Matthew Shepard Act — it’s Birch who’s once again revisiting her own Gay Inc. strategy that many would-be supporters have come to despise: Every gay civil right must be put on hold until LGBT hatred is recognized as a special class of crime.
We understand the strategy: By getting the federal government to, for the first time, recognize LGBTs as a class as the Matthew Shepard Act does, activists can build on that cornerstone for other legislation. Since queers are a special class of victim, surely you can’t continue discriminating against them, right?
That’s Birch’s theory. And, it appears, HRC’s strategy still.
“This was the moment that was required in order to have new laws follow.” That was her at HRC’s reception celebrating passage of the Matthew Shepard Act.
And it’s got folks like Andrew Sullivan asking: “Huh? You have to have a federal hate crime law in order to recognize the existence of gay married couples? Or in order to stop the government persecuting servicemembers? How on earth did the civil rights movement for African-American equality unfold all the way to inter-racial marriage without a single hate crimes provision? I think Birch was saying: this was the easiest get, and thereby gets the gays marked in federal law as a protected victim class. Once gays are turned legally into victims, more laws can be passed enshrining that status. The trouble is: victims are not servicemembers or married couples. Marriage and military service do require real things from gay citizens, real responsibilties and real equality.”
The theory, while plausible, is in fact bunk. But from HRC’s perspective? It’s one based on survival. Continues Sullivan: “Victim laws merely require things from government. And that’s why the hate crimes fixation makes sense from the HRC point of view. The campaign was a brilliant decades-long marketing measure to provide HRC with funding, while giving Democratic party officials an alibi for not tackling the actual question of equality. It was a way to give lawmakers cover for saying they oppose actual equality. I predict that this congress will be up for re-election with this as the single legislative achievement for gay equality. Which is how HRC lives for another fundraising cycle. And how they get their Democratic paymasters off the hook from the community.”
It would be unfair to say HRC has done nothing for gay rights. Of course they have. Without their fundraising and presence on the Hill, we might not have the Matthew Shepard Act right now. But from their perch atop the Gay Inc. mountain, they rightfully stand accused of the same thing many cancer and AIDS organizations do: Operating on a strategy that puts their ability to survive first, and their reason for existing second.
Which means HRC might, one day, have a hand in enacting the remaining types of gay rights legislation, like ENDA, UAFA, and killing DOMA and DADT. But their delays and weak pressure increasingly appear to be based more on the organization’s commitment to having a purpose in the coming decades than on ensuring gays have their rights right now.