At first thought, it's difficult to understand how the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington, D.C.-based gay group that employs slick and high-powered lobbyists, could stumble into the p.r. disaster it did in recent weeks. It only becomes plausible when you remind yourself that those who live on Planet Beltway often don't have a clue about what's happening back on Earth.
Soon after John Kerry's defeat, news leaked and spread via the gay blogs that HRC was axing its executive director, Cheryl Jacques, the former state senator who hailed from the bluest of the blue states and had been at HRC for less than a year. The group's board was sending her packing back to Massachusetts; the reasons cited were Jacques' supposed stridency—signing off on bumper stickers that said, 'George Bush, You're Fired!'—and her post-election refusal to bend on the issue of marriage rights.
HRC officials, caught off-guard as the group's board was convening in Las Vegas, confirmed the reports of Jacques' forced resignation and then went into damage-control mode, claiming that the firing was about Jacques' 'management style.' They adamantly denied that it had anything to do with marriage equality.
But a week later, HRC's heterosexual board co-chair Michael Berman was quoted in a front-page story in The New York Times explaining why gays need to tone it down in order to reach out to red-state America. Berman, who will take a leadership role until a new executive director is found, went on to say that the group would be willing to back George W. Bush's radical plan to privatize social security if it meant gays and lesbians and their partners could be included under the benefit. This was like throwing gasoline on a fire, sending activists across the country into fits of anger.
Far be it from me to criticize someone for their sexuality—some of my best friends are straight—but when you're firing your lesbian executive director and telling the world you're going to moderate your positions—on the front page of The New York Times, no less—it's perhaps not the best time to make a straight guy the mouthpiece of your organization. Imagine if a man popped up as a spokesperson for the National Organization for Women, telling the press that NOW will be 'moderating' a bit on the issue of abortion.
What if a white guy took over as NAACP honcho to explain why the group should consider 'compromising' on affirmative action in light of Bush's victory?
Because of the endurance of the closet, gays are invisible enough in American culture and politics. When we have an opportunity to show the world what gay people actually look like—as when the leaders of our organizations speak to the press—we should take full advantage by actually having a gay person out front. Berman's sexual orientation isn't even half the problem. Being quoted on the front page of the Times in support of controversial right-wing policies invites every other gay leader to knock you off your perch. That's what many did, as when the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force fired off a letter to every member of Congress, now signed by over 1,000 gay-rights activists.
'We specifically reject any attempts to trade equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a group that includes many elders, for the rights of senior citizens under Social Security or, for that matter, the rights of any other group of Americans,' the letter stated, initially signed by dozens of prominent gay-rights leaders.
It was a way of saying, 'Don't mind that man behind the curtain' about HRC, a group that had convinced itself and many Beltway politicians that it was the great and powerful Oz of the gay-rights movement. And it could prove to be devastating. If you're a lobbying group, you need to let the Beltway believe you have either money or bodies—masses of voters to organize across the country who will follow your lead—or both. HRC, with a $25 million budget, is minuscule compared to the gun lobby or pro-Israel groups in terms of influence. If HRC can't convince politicians that its endorsement can deliver the gay vote—or that it even speaks for the gay-rights movement—what use is it?
Clearly thrown by the bold step of other activists—which the Washington Post focused on prominently the next day—HRC quickly tried to moderate its position on moderation. The group sent a letter to the Times insisting that the story wasn't accurate, and told anyone who inquired that they had not changed their commitment to full and equal rights under the law. The group did, however, refuse to sign on to the letter to members of Congress, which served to support the worst charges about the group's initial intentions.
Soon Jacques' friends and colleagues were telling the Boston Globe that HRC had indeed fired her because she refused to back down on marriage. One of her defenders is the former Massachusetts attorney general, Scott Harshbarger, who is also a former president and CEO of Common Cause in Washington. In an interview, he said that to those outside the Beltway, HRC's approach looks naive and self-defeating.
'But inside the Beltway,' he told me, 'this is the entire problem. This is the problem that John McCain exposed four years ago when he ran for president to the shock and surprise of so many people inside the Beltway. It's why the Democrats were shocked by Howard Dean, because there is an inside-the-Beltway mentality [ that premises everything ] in terms of being incremental, being so pragmatic and compromis [ ing ] , as opposed to being willing to confront issues and try to deal with them head-on. You might lose, but at least you make a case and fight them another day.'
HRC, Harshbarger added, has 'undercut a lot of people' who supported gay rights. 'How'd you like to be a supporter of this issue [ in Congress ] who went out on a limb in a district where maybe it wasn't popular, and now find out that the leading advocacy organization is backing away from it?' he asked. 'It represents a weakness and a lack of courage.' It also represents a group that is out of touch with the gay-rights movement.
Signorile hosts a daily satellite radio program on Sirius OutQ 149. He can be reach via www.signorile.com .