The ongoing war between the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the trans community is not only longstanding but quite damaging for both sides. And yes, before you ask, it most certainly is fair to call it a war, albeit a war that's being fought with press releases, money, media access and political influence rather than bombs and bullets.
The vast majority of today's LGBT activists and allies are supportive of an LGBT civil rights agenda that not only includes but actually works to support the interests of all LGBT people and doesn't focus almost all its resources exclusively on a single issue that directly affects only a comparatively small minority (those who already are or wish to become married) but on issues of key importance to a far greater number of LGBT Americans, such as basic civil rights protections in employment, housing and access to public spaces.
Increasingly, these activists, particularly those who are younger and have come into activism through more modern and forward-thinking organizations, consider trans support, inclusion and issues unquestionably intrinsic parts of the agenda that they want to pursue. As recently as just a decade ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of progressive civil rights organizations that considered trans inclusion and our rights important and something that they supported as a part of their larger mission, even if not a direct focus, but now it's much harder to find those that don't.
Despite all the changes in the public perception and inclusion of trans people, not only in the progressive and LGBT activist communities but in modern American culture, one organization seems intent on steadfastly resisting any evolution in their agenda or the way they do things, no matter how strongly the winds of change are blowing in the opposite direction. That organization is HRC.
This war started long before my time, but I've played some small part in it in terms of the media surrounding it. In 2004 I broke the story of HRC publicly claiming to be supportive of a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) while a staffer for then-Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) told trans lobbyists that trans inclusion in ENDA would be much easier to achieve if HRC were onboard with it. The important point here is that HRC was telling one story publicly while those who were actual witnesses to what was happening at ground level were telling a very different one.
In 2007 HRC stood virtually alone among LGBT civil rights organizations in refusing to oppose a non-inclusive version of ENDA, even though it was well-known at the time that President Bush intended to veto the bill if it ever made it to his desk.
That same year, Joe Solmonese, then the president of HRC, spoke before a crowd of approximately 900 trans people at the Southern Comfort conference and promised that, going forward, HRC would support only trans-inclusive legislation, and that they had sent that message loud and clear to Capitol Hill. That promise wouldn't even survive two full weeks. Once again it was revealed that what HRC was claiming publicly and what they were really doing in terms of actual advocacy on the ground were two very different things.
About 10 days later HRC announced that they would neither support nor oppose the non-inclusive version of ENDA being promoted in Congress by then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). It was political hairsplitting of the first order, and it confirmed for many trans people and allies the poor reputation that HRC still suffers in our community today, as an organization focused chiefly on the needs and interests of the very wealthy, the very white and the very assimilationist.
Trans people and allies began protesting against the organization's sellout on ENDA at HRC events all over the country, including a huge protest in San Francisco that drew more people than the HRC gala it was protesting. Powerful Democrats who had often used these events as ways to interact with big-money left-wing political donors were now forced to pick sides, and many chose not to walk those long gauntlets of angry progressive activists. Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, canceled a keynote speech that he was to make at the San Francisco event. Local political favorites of the LGBT community, like San Francisco's Bevan Dufty, Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano and New York City's Christine Quinn, came out in support of trans inclusion and refused to attend their local HRC galas.
At the time, I had Donna Rose, then a member of HRC's executive board, on my show. She told the story of HRC's flip-flop on trans inclusion after Solmonese's speech at Southern Comfort and how Solmonese and the rest of the executive board had proactively kept her out of the loop until the very last minute, after the decision had already been made. I reached out to HRC and asked for someone to tell their side, but aside from the boilerplate "we're saddened..." press release when Donna chose to resign from the Executive Board, HRC refused to discuss the issue publicly.
So here we are in 2013. HRC is still doing exactly what trans people disliked them for doing nine years ago and even six years ago, still doing it exactly the same way, and still folding in itself and refusing to deal with the rest of the world when its plans go horribly awry because the rest of the modern LGBT activist community has evolved far beyond their little mainstream-media-friendly button-down Mattachinic world.
Much as in the case of the NRA and private gun owners, politicians and their constituents are all discovering together that HRC doesn't really represent the views or the interests of nearly as many LGBT Americans as they claim to, nor is their political influence within the LGBT community itself even close to what it once was decades ago, before they threw it all away through divisiveness and misbehavior.
The incident with the trans flag is just the latest example of something HRC has been doing for a long time, a tactic I'd hoped they'd evolved beyond but apparently is still right on the first page of HRC's media playbook: When we're busted behaving badly, we can't just apologize and move on; instead, we must deny everything and anything that might make us look bad and then close off all communication.
I've tried to get someone from HRC to come on my show and tell their side of the story. Thus far I've yet to receive a response, but I'm still hoping that will change. John Becker, the former communications director for Truth Wins Out, was on the show on March 28 to tell us what he saw and heard. The account of Jereme Davis, the executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, is almost identical to Becker's. Both are in direct conflict with HRC's statement to Q-Notes, in which the organization made the blanket claim that "[i]t is not true to suggest that any person or organization was told their flag was less important than another -- this did not occur and no HRC staff member would ever tolerate such behavior."
It may well be true that no one specifically uttered the words that a trans flag was less important than another, but we also know that the message can be clearly conveyed in other ways, such as by attempting to block one flag with another, as an HRC staffer has been accused of attempting to do in this case.
I can also tell you from personal experience that regardless of what HRC may claim to be the mindset of their staffers on trans people, rights, issues and inclusion, not all of them are on the same page on these issues in the way that the organization might prefer. There have been similar incidents reported at other events, including two involving me personally, that involved HRC staffers taking it upon themselves to act in a discriminatory and unwelcoming manner toward trans people and others who don't fit the organization's squeaky-clean-upper-middle-class-heterosexual-emulating image that they like to present to the mainstream media.
We've also seen how HRC has behaved in the past when their agenda gets in front of the television cameras. Transgender activists were promised that at a 2007 HRC forum on Logo, each of the Democratic Party presidential candidates who were to be asked their thoughts on LGBT issues would get at least one trans-relevant question each. The event quickly devolved into a sad and pathetic single-issue begging session, the majority of those precious 90 minutes squandered asking the candidates in different ways to declare their support for same-sex marriage over and over. The only trans-relevant question of the entire program was an offensively framed query put to John Edwards not about whether he would support protecting trans people from discrimination but about whether he would refrain from firing someone just because they happen to be transgender.
The point is that this has been a pattern with HRC over the years: proactively taking steps to publicly promote the idea that they're trans-inclusive and supportive, but then quickly throwing those ideals and the promises they represent out the window the moment they become a little inconvenient, the very moment when being a true trans ally would mean that HRC would have to be willing to step aside, just a little, and share the spotlight with the trans people that they say they want to represent and support.
I know John Becker and Jerame Davis, and I trust their accounts of what happened in front of the Supreme Court last week. Both of these guys are extremely credible, while the HRC statement not only calls both of their accounts of the incident inaccurate but makes blanket, generalized assertions as to the state of mind of every single HRC staffer at the event, and even of every staffer working for HRC in any capacity.
United for Marriage, the coalition that sponsored this rally, smartly and properly took the high road here and immediately apologized for any mistreatment on behalf of the coalition, leaving HRC standing alone as the only organization still refusing to accept any responsibility or apologize for the incident.
I've made the offer repeatedly through private channels, and I'll make it again now publicly: I'd like to have an HRC representative come on my show and give the organization's side of this incident. As was the case last time, I'll ask fair questions and allow time for full answers, as well as challenges and followups.
My goal here is to air both sides of the story and let listeners decide who and what they believe, but I won't hesitate to air those who are willing to talk to us and offer their perspectives even if HRC is not willing to participate. HRC needs to understand that this discussion and this story will not disappear if they don't agree to be a part of it; it will simply continue on without their perspective being included in the conversation.
This incident has brought some long-simmering hard feelings on the part of the trans community and our allies toward HRC back to the forefront. It's time for this long-overdue discussion be had in a public forum, and it will be, at least if I have anything to say about it. HRC is and will continue to be welcome to join it and add their perspective, but their refusal to do so will not stop it from happening.
Circling the wagons isn't going to help this time. With HRC or without it, the rest of us are moving forward together.