Why We Need - But Shouldn't Always Use - HRC

Necessary Evil?

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Civil society’s essential to the democratic process. It’s that nebulous, accessible space between the state and the people in which the masses can rally for or against particular issues. Nailing down a definitive meaning of “civil society” has proven to be a matter of political contention, so we’re going to settle on a fairly well-regarded and flexible definition from the London School of Economics: “Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values”.

The United States constitution reserves a special place for this special social space. Our first amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the [freedom] to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Our democratic process thrives on – and incorporates – a variety of civil organizations, including nonprofits such as Human Rights Campaign.

Arguably one of the most well-known and mainstream gay rights organizations, HRC has come under serious fire over what some activists perceive to be a soft stance on trans rights. As more than 300 activist groups coalesce to fight for a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, HRC refused to actively oppose an orientation-only act. Rather, the group says they’re not supporting it, but hesitates to come out for trans rights, despite the fact they’ve worked on this bill for over three years. So, why’s HRC rolling over? One Washington insider has a theory:

HRC can’t be trusted on this issue. They’re desperate for a legislative victory. They’re as desperate for the victory as the democratic leadership is, because they’re about to kick up their fundraising and they want the gay money.

While that may be true, such an accusation’s only part of the story. And, even if it were the whole truth, it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Not politically, at least.

HRC’s been fighting for an inclusive ENDA since 2004, when it joined other non-profits calling for nothing less than trans-inclusion. The “T” in LGBT would not be dropped, no way, no how. That position fell apart earlier this month when Barney Frank announced that he and his allies didn’t have the votes for the proposed bill.
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In an effort to save some scraps of freedom, Frank said that ENDA would be broken into two bills, one prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and another dealing with gender expression. Queer activists were furious and, under the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s leadership, launched the United ENDA campaign. Members of that coalition have rallied against the exclusionary bill. Frank, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Tammy Baldwin seemed to hear the calls, because they then said they’d mark up the bill and attempt to reunite ENDA and GENDA. That, of course, wasn’t the end of the story.

The shit really started hitting the fan when Frank told us that he can’t muster the votes for an inclusive bill. We should settle, he said. The situation got even stinkier when Speaker Pelosi reportedly told HRC and other organizations that she was going to push a vote on an orientation-only bill. HRC described this move as “unprecedented”. And they’re right. HRC president Joe Solmonese explains:

What the speaker was implying was that at anytime we’re in a position to [vote on an inclusive bill], she would do that.

Her point was that it will go to the floor whenever it’s ready. Now, you could read that as “nothing new” or as “an unprecedented gesture by the Speaker”. It depends on how closely you follow these sorts of legislative fights.

No doubt HRC’s been following Congressional patterns for years. They’re accustomed to legislative battles and putting a political spin on seemingly favorable developments.

Steve Endean founded Human Rights Campaign to explicitly lobby elected officials on gay-related policies. From its inception, about a decade after the formation of more militant non-profits, HRC has worked to build stable, efficient relationships with American politicians. And they’ve had excellent results. Over twenty-five years since its founding, the group’s become the most visible gay rights organization with a whopping budget and even more contacts. They are taking full advantage of our democracy’s civil society. The group spent $260,000 on contracted lobbyists last year, more than any other gay rights organization, many of which don’t even have outside representation. The group’s so ingrained in Washington, in fact, that their primary lobbyist group, the Raben Group – on which HRC spent $120,000 in 2006 – employs two former HRC staffers. What’s more, they share a building with HRC. And, what’s more, Raben Group founder Robert Raben once worked for Barney Frank. Through their massive – and expensive – efforts, HRC’s become the LGBT insider group in Washington. It’s this insider status that makes HRC so powerful – and so powerless.