Do Our Gay Leaders Have to Go?

In a post that will surely upset the “We must not be divisive!” crowd, Andrew Sullivan questions the continued value of the Human Rights Campaign, noting that not only is there almost no information about last weekend’s protests on their site, but also:

“In the two decades of serious struggle for marriage equality, the Human Rights Campaign has been mostly absent, and when present, often passive or reactive. Here’s a simple statistic that might help shake us out of complacency: HRC claims to have spent $3.4 million on No On 8. The Mormon church was able to spend over $20 million, by appealing to its members. Why are non-gay Mormons more capable of organizing and fund-raising on a gay rights measure than the biggest national gay rights group?”

It’s not a dumb question.

Now, taking pot shots at the Human Rights Campaign a popular pastime among pretty much every gay political pundit (Queerty included), but the passage of Prop 8. may be seen as a tipping point, with more and more voices questioning the various gay organizations that are commonly seen as “gay leadership.” As Sully puts it:

“It’s time gay people realized that this group is often part of the problem, and rarely part of the solution. It needs to be swept clean of its deadwood, overhauled, or if it persists in its ways, defunded. When we are in a civil rights movement and the biggest organization is essentially a passive observer and excuse-maker, it’s time to demand better.”

One of the common rejoinders being made by gay leaders is that Prop 8. passed “for one reason and one reason only, people were lied to [by the Yes on 8 campaign]”, as L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lori Jean told the Los Angeles protest on Saturday. And while it’s true that the Yes on 8 campaign made false accusations about the meaning of same-sex marriage, political campaigns are a zero-sum games. Just as we would not give any credit to the Mormon Church if the Prop. had failed, we can’t place all the blame on our opponents now that it has passed.

The reality is, we got beat and we need to take responsibility for that defeat. As P.R. exec Simon Halls said last week:

“Pure and simple, they beat us at the marketing game. If we learned anything from President-elect Obama’s brilliant and victorious campaign, it’s all about your efforts on the ground. The new president and his team organized at the grassroots level. They honed a clear and focused message and they were incredibly disciplined.”

The No on 8 campaign put all their money into TV ads (many of which did not even mention that Prop. 8 was about gay marriage) and into phone banking. During the campaign Julie Davis, Northern California campaign director for No on 8 made fun of the Yes on 8’s on-the-ground approach which she described as “randomly knocking on doors”. After they won, what did the Yes on 8 people credit their win to? You guessed it:

“We thought it would go this way,” Proposition 8 co-chair Frank Schubert said. “We had 100,000 people on the streets today. We had people in every precinct, if not knocking on doors, then phoning voters in every precinct. We canvassed the entire state of California, one on one, asking people face to face how do they feel about this issue.

“And this is the kind of issue people are very personal and private about, and they don’t like talking to pollsters, they don’t like talking to the media, but we had a pretty good idea how they felt and that’s being reflected in the vote count.”

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. Saying it’s because the bad guys are liars and cheats gets us nowhere. Asking “Who are we?”, “What do we want?” and “How do we get there?” does.

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?”