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The LGBT Grassroots vs. HRC: Fighting for a One-Bill Equality Strategy (And Our Lives)

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Most people have no idea what goes on inside the LGBT movement. The basic questions of who actually controls this $161-million enterprise, and what their strategy is, and how they arrive at it, remain unexplored, off-limits to media and the LGBT community alike. What we do know is that after 60 years of movement struggle, there is clearly still no intention among the top-1-percent donors in charge and their private corporations -- the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force -- to even file a bill for full equality anytime soon.

Rather, the Task Force sent folks to Capital Hill on Jan. 26 asking for employment-nondiscrimination, pay-equity, anti-bullying and safe-schools laws, tiny additions to America's civil rights laws, which protect race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, and disability from discrimination expansively in all societal realms. If these things were all we asked, and all Obama delivered in a second term, this would leave in place legal discrimination in housing, credit, all federally funded programs and services, public places and government facilities, marriage, military employment, immigration, disability and family leave. We would be nowhere near equal or safe.

So on Saturday, Feb. 4 in New York City, the front guard of the LGBT grassroots took on HRC (as covered by the Advocate and The Huffington Post), united in demanding a new strategy from our movement stewards: one comprehensive bill to outlaw LGBT discrimination entirely by 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Why? Well, because HRC is not even seeking full LGBT equality legislatively, and it controls the game, operating as a closely held corporation with no shareholder rights or voting members. An impenetrable corporate fortress, it rejects the idea that there should be a transparent community process for matters of common concern, a model that modern organizing rightly insists on. Instead, we have corporation vs. community.

It's not fun to have to protest our own. But to get full equality even on the table for the 113th Congress, or in the 2012 elections, we have to target HRC, which is resisting, with the power of top-insider status, the new single-bill strategy being pushed by many activists. In short, if HRC doesn't seek full equality, neither will President Obama, and neither will the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, which is also strongly resisting calls for a one-bill solution, as they continue to file a disorganized array of bills that scream "unworthy of equality." Fortunately, like in the early times of HIV/AIDS, the LGBT grassroots is now organized and increasingly aligning to bring radical change to our agenda and tactics.

A historic event of this kind occurred in the fall of 2009, when the grassroots defied HRC and Congressman Barney Frank, the Democrat keeping us in check, by calling for the National Equality March in D.C. With just three months of organizing and a tiny budget, over 250,000 people descended on the Capital, joined by Lady Gaga in their demand for "full federal equality now!" Days later President Obama added protections for LGBT people to hate crimes laws.

Rebel grassroots action is also clearly linked to other key victories, like the anti-DADT action at the White House, when brave volunteers with GetEQUAL chained themselves to the fence, and marriage equality in New York, where Queer Rising got arrested blocking streets and occupied the state house the entire last week of deliberations, standing down hateful opposition. This is the intangible power of self-sacrifice.

There is also a truth and integrity to the grassroots organizing, because the meetings are open to the public, democratically run, and many meet weekly, volunteering countless hours to the cause. Contrast this with the LGBT Roundtable, a private group of LGBT corporate entities that meets a whopping twice a year, according to NGLTF's website, or the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, which has no regular meetings and none scheduled, according to Congressman Polis' staff.

As if this weren't shocking enough, both Brian Branton, Mr. Polis' gay chief of staff, and Diego Sanchez, a transgender spokesperson for Congressman Barney Frank, routinely argue that we cannot even file a bill for equal LGBT civil rights without first obtaining permission from the black caucus, which they will not seek with us. It is like The Wizard of Oz with these folks. They send you out to gather endorsements they never expect you to get, like a witch's broom, intentionally creating gatekeepers to our equality. This is our leadership.

Meanwhile the demand for "civil rights now" could not be louder. In October 2010, in the largest civil disobedience in recent history for LGBT equality, roughly 300 regular citizens descended upon Grand Central Station, some in wheel chairs and with babies, all defying police to lie on the floor as corpses symbolizing our dead, our suicides, our murdered:

Many individual activists are simply beyond impatient and taking desperate action, consumed with the emergency of our suffering, and the minority stress we endure as human beings rejected and abused by our own society. Richard Noble, for example, has walked on foot over 1,800 miles, pushing a baby carriage with his tent and supplies, carting the American Equality Bill (or AEB, a one-bill strategy concept first initiated in 2009 by movement veterans at eQualityGiving.org) and a rainbow flag from California to Washington with one message: equal civil rights now. Imagine walking alone across country on foot, and perhaps you can start to imagine his desperation. Our desperation. With Richard now approaching Louisiana from Texas, mayors from West Hollywood to Austin, Oakland to Boulder, Salt Lake City to Houston (and even the president of the Oglala Sioux) -- altogether representing over 7 million people -- have endorsed this walk and the call for the AEB.

Still, even getting a bill filed is an unbelievable battle. To push this, in the 2010 midterms, activists Alan Bounville and Iana DiBorna, and others including Dan Choi at times, occupied the sidewalk outside Senator Gillibrand's NYC campaign office for 37 days calling for the AEB to be filed. Her staff also raised the black caucus, women's caucus, and others as gatekeepers to our fundamental human rights.

So this is the internal resistance we face, as an oppressed minority trying to save ourselves, working though organizations and people that have become assimilated themselves with, and quite comfortable as part of, the system of oppression.

Obama to the Rescue

Fortunately, President Obama routinely calls upon our community to "hold his feet to the fire" and in June helped pass a historic resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council affirming the United States' legal duty to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, an obligation made explicitly clear in Secretary Clinton's historic speech and the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner's subsequent report. He also passed a hate crimes law to punish violent acts, methodically repealed DADT, and administratively established certain civil rights protections for LGBT people in housing, schools, and soon, perhaps, in employment under government contracts via a pending executive order. He has set the perfect stage for a full equality bill in the 113th Congress, which could well be Democrat-controlled, and with a real filibuster rule in the Senate, or none at all. We cannot give him the excuse that we did not ask for it. But that's where things stand.

The 2012 Race

Of course, the 2012 candidates understand that the LGBT community voted almost 30-percent Republican in the 2010 midterms, and Romney will court our vote as he did in Massachusetts. For once, the two-party system may offer a choice, and we should not have to wait for a political calculus for a bolder commitment from the DNC to secure our protection. This is indeed the first responsibility of government -- to protect us from harm -- and the first civic duty we share toward one another -- to create a safe space for all of us. And still we wait. But the grassroots will wait no more.

Riding the surging tide, on Feb. 4, when the Queer Occupy Wall Street Caucus joined forces with Queer Rising, Queerocracy, Radical Faeries, and others, a new plateau was realized. A shared voice emerged -- at an HRC gala for Goldman Sachs, of all places. Not missing a beat, HRC quickly announced that the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was the new marriage equality corporate advocate, in a rather brilliant media move that took our cause into major outlets everywhere. Bravo, but it is? Ultimately, HRC has shown time and again that profit and access, not principles, determine their actions. In submission to the DNC, they have embraced piecemeal legislative goals for decades and continue to ignore the community's right to a place at the table with impunity.

This is why we need your help, the 100-percent, everyone, even the Ron Paul supporters who understand individual liberty, which is all nondiscrimination laws do: protect individual liberty. We need The Leadership Council on Civil Rights, and the NAACP, which, in contrast to HRC, is democratically operated but still will not say that LGBT people deserve equal protection under civil rights laws. We need each member of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus -- all 100 of them -- to lead harder for equality, to meet regularly as warranted by the public health emergency we face, and to invite the community to the table.

The LGBT community needs everyone to take the reins of our movement. We need bigger groups and coalitions driving our cause, more transparency, and more democracy. Then, whatever strategy we come up with together, we'll have a shared intention created through a legitimate process -- and maybe we will all agree to seek full equality by 2014. Why not?

Please help by learning what full equality really entails, far beyond ENDA and DOMA repeal, by studying the "Pledge for Full LGBT Equality by 2014." If we don't ask, we'll never know. Equality now.