The news late last week that the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group, had tapped Chad Griffin as its new president had many LGBT activists responding to their Twitter feeds with a collective, "Wow!"
Griffin, among his many credits, was the executive producer of the 2009 film Outrage, the controversial documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Kirby Dick that outed various closeted gay politicians who'd voted anti-gay -- and which made the case for why that's proper journalism. The film sent a jolt through the political establishment and had some newspapers, like The Washington Post, withholding the names, while others, like The New York Times, let them rip.
And here is Griffin now, taking the helm of HRC, the most establishment group in the gay movement, often accused of bowing to the White House and to Capitol Hill politicians and criticized for failing to challenge political leaders on hypocrisies and unfulfilled promises for fear of losing access to them.
As I said, "Wow!"
The choice of Griffin was an inspired, bold, and ultimately necessary move for a group that was becoming increasingly irrelevant and even counterproductive in the eyes of many in the broader LGBT activist community. It's not inaccurate to say that while HRC certainly has its many supporters and has done critical work, many have viewed the group for years, rightly or wrong, as a lackey to the Democratic establishment and the Obama administration.
Recently that impression has begun to take hold among the moneyed gay crowd that gives generously, in addition to the many average LGBT people who just were not inspired by HRC. You only have to read the Facebook updates of many politically aware gay people and the comments on LGBT political blogs, or listen to the callers to radio shows like mine, to hear the sentiments -- and they're often much more blistering than I've characterized them here.
Griffin, a marketing and P.R. strategist based in L.A., spearheaded the battle against Proposition 8 in California, co-founding and leading the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which brought in the dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies to make the powerful case that got Prop 8 ruled unconstitutional.
Because of that, Griffin is respected by many in the grassroots of the LGBT movement for doing something completely counter to conventional wisdom, something that the gay establishment -- and that includes many at HRC -- saw as too risky but which has proven to be exactly what the movement needed.
Griffin is well-connected in Hollywood and has raised millions for AFER in the community there. But he also served in the Clinton White House as a member of its communications team. His firm"s client roster bridges the worlds of entertainment and politics in a way that is vital for the times we live in and an asset to any group seeking equality.
Whereas outgoing president Joe Solmonese built his career as a Beltway political operative, having come from Emily's List to HRC (and now going on to be co-chair of the Obama campaign), Griffin comes to gay activism not because it's a career he pursued but because he and others who formed AFER -- including director and actor Rob Reiner, film producer Bruce Cohen, and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black -- simply believed that something had to be done about Prop 8.
And they didn't care if they stepped on toes to do it. Almost all of the LGBT establishment was opposed to the Prop 8 lawsuit, believing that a loss would be devastating, and some did whatever they could to stop it. In time, just about everyone came around -- a testament to Griffin's fortitude and leadership.
It's remarkable in that sense that HRC chose Griffin, and it tells us a couple of things. Clearly the majority of the board decided it was a "do or die" moment for HRC. AFER was a major threat to HRC -- another LGBT political power base growing far outside Washington and doing things that were not following the LGBT establishment's rules. And AFER was taking a lot of the money in the community that would previously have gone to HRC. AFER couldn't be expected to just go away once the Prop 8 battle was over.
The move also means that the most recent grassroots rebellion against HRC -- which began expressing itself with the National Equality March on Washington in 2009 and the formation of the direct action group Get Equal in 2010 -- was heard loudly and clearly by the HRC board.
Solmonese had inspired much distrust among grassroots activists when he went back on his word in having HRC back an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that did not include protections for transgender people in 2008. He never fully recovered from that debacle. This was only compounded by what many people saw as HRC's readiness to give President Obama a pass on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, back when he was dragging his feet. Many believe that if it wasn't for the continued pressure of Get Equal -- and Lt. Dan Choi and others chaining themselves to the White House fence -- both the White House and HRC would not have moved on the issue.
For those reasons, activists have been very closely watching the process of HRC choosing a new president. It remains to be seen what direction Griffin takes HRC. And institutions have a tendency to be unmovable even when a firebrand is brought to the helm. But everyone who cares about LGBT equality should applaud HRC's board for having the courage and the foresight to do something bold and to realize that this important group needed a new jolt. And we should all do whatever we can to help Chad Griffin and HRC be a smashing success.