The (un)equal sign: It’s time to break up with HRC

April 1, 2013

When you look at the pink and red Human Rights Campaign equal sign that many queers and their allies displayed on Facebook last week, you might see a simple testatment to marriage equality. You might see a promise to fight for equal rights. However, a recent incident forces us to ask this question: Members of the community might stand with HRC, but does HRC stand with them? Does the organization's commitment to equality include everyone?

Sadly, the answer is no.

When gay marriage supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. to stand against DOMA and Prop. 8 last week, attendees brought rainbow banners that suggest the diversity of our community. But at the rally, the HRC proved its true color-blindness.

During the rally HRC staffers asked one of the attendees to move a flag bearing the transgender equality symbol away from the stage, as it was too close to the podium. This was after another HRC staffer asked the holder what the sign meant and was upset to find that there were transgender people there, too. The staffer then allegedly told the attendee that “marriage is not a transgender issue.”

In defense of the move, the HRC claimed that many rally goers were asked to move their flags, so as to stage a patriotic photo-op. Yay, America. According to HRC:

“Featuring American flags at our program was the best way to illustrate this unifying issue which is why when managing the area behind the podium, several people were asked to move who were carrying organizational banners, pride flags or any other flag that was not an American flag.”

I’m not quite fluent in ‘Murican, but this statement is, how do you say, total bullsh*t: Jerame Davis of National Stonewall Democrats witnessed the altercation and confirmed the attendee’s story.

Davis writes: “I was there. I saw it happen. It was only the HRC reps asking for the trans flag to be moved. If they’d only asked once, I’d have given them a pass, but they continued to harrass this person over a flag.” According to Davis, it was only the transgender attendees who were asked to relocate.

John M. Becker of Freedom to Marry stood behind Davis’ account. He stated:

“I’m sure it was not HRC's intent to exclude or deeply offend, but regardless of the circumstances, people felt excluded and were deeply offended. HRC really should apologize for this regrettable incident before it casts any larger a shadow on an otherwise beautiful event.”

HRC initially ignored criticism of its actions, but as opposition to the organization's douchery spread over social media, the group was forced to apologize. HRC issued a statement that read in part:

"We apologize for having caused harm to the individuals involved. Apologies are being made individually and collectively and we are working to make amends."

Then they frowned, collectively put their hands in their pockets and spent the rest of the day sulking in their room while playing XBox.

A forced mea culpa is better than noa culpa, I guess, but I don't think we can take the organization's apologies seriously. This is far, far from the first time the Human Rights Campaign has been criticized for its relationship with trans people. Remember: This is the same organization whose former Executive Director Elizabeth Birch said that fighting for transgender inclusion in employment legislation would happen “over [her] dead body.”

The HRC is kind of like that boyfriend you had in college who claimed to “love you so much” but then wouldn’t take you out on dates or be seen with you. You never got to meet his friends, and you always ended up paying for him on dates. When it came to the bedroom, it was all about him. “Next time, it’s your turn," he would say. "Just be patient. I’ll get to you.”

How many more ways can HRC tell trans people, "I'm just not that into you?" The organization has been neglecting trans rights and taking trans support for granted for years, whether that meant throwing trans people under the bus during the ENDA legislation negotiations or having transgender health initially left out in HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. In a survey on the nationwide Municipal Equality Index in 2012, the group referred to transgender inclusions as “bonus points.” Bonus, meaning “doing more than what is expected.”

In the brief, the HRC referred to trans protections as “not achievable by all people at this time.” HRC didn’t even include trans folks in their mission statement until 2001:

"The Human Rights Campaign is America's largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all."

I don’t understand, HRC. If you're fighting for "equality for all," what about equal health for trans people isn’t achievable? Can you only get T on the moon, or is it lost at the bottom of the ocean like the heart necklace in Titanic? Is the idea of protecting trans people so alien that we can’t hold employers to a standard of basic humanity?

Last year, HRC honored transgender filmmaker (and all around awesome person) Lana Wachowski with its (Token) Visibility Award. In her moving speech, Wachowski detailed her struggle to find a community that could accept her and move past seeing herself as “broken” or a “freak,” while acknowledging that sometimes our greatest struggles are for self-acceptance and to simply endure.

Was Wachowski's survival marginal, HRC? Is she a bonus?

HRC seems fine with transgender people if they are part of an appeal for dollars or a face on an ad campaign – as long as the group doesn’t also have to actually fight for trans rights.

HRC also honored Goldman Sachs with a Workplace Equality award in 2012. This is the organization whose "corporate malfeasance" and subprime lending helped us get into the financial crisis, mind you, one that has particularly impacted those at the margins. (Statistics show that 40 percent of America's homeless population are queer.) This is the same organization that has, in the words of Samuel Bakkila of Harvard, consistently “supported conservative politicians who oppose LGBT equality." Goldman Sachs was also one of the largest donors to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. You might have forgotten him already. Let me remind you. Mr. Romney once informed us that "some gays are having children." According to Romney, "it's not right on paper, [and] it's not right in fact." 

Oh, and did I mention that HRC hired Goldman chief executive Lloyd Blankfein to be a spokesman for its marriage equality campaign in 2012? Salon called the move to honor our toxic 1 percent "offensive." I call it licking the hand that feeds you.

HRC also receives funding from other financial companies like Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. These political donations go to conservative and anti-gay causes at disproportionate rates. There’s a reason HRC’s nickname is “Gay Inc.,” and it’s not just the pretty penny it makes off those shirts. It’s because of the group's status as a tool of big business, its consistent valuing of "profits over people." The symbol shouldn't be an equal sign. It should be a dollar sign.

Despite what HRC would have you believe, the reality is that this organization doesn’t speak for our community, or even reflect it. The HRC's cadre is made up of disproportionately white, cisgender people of wealth, power and privilege, who end up fighting, not for social justice, but for personal self-interest. Donors think they are putting their dollars toward equality, but they are merely paying for homonormativity and assimilation. There’s nothing equal about deciding who gets rights and who gets left out.

As marriage equality continues to dominate the media conversation, I think back to the HRC logos I saw slapped on bumper stickers and windows as a queer youth. I grew up in a conservative city often hostile to anyone who wasn’t drunkenly tipping over cows on a Saturday night. But seeing that little blue and yellow square made me feel like there were safe spaces for me. I knew I had people in the world looking out for me. I knew I would turn out OK.

As a white, cisgender-ish individual, I still have that privilege. I can look at that symbol and know that HRC portends to fight for my rights and protections. But that’s meaningless unless we start working to extend our systemic privileges to all. HRC needs to grow up and stop hogging all the toys for itself. It needs to start sharing.

I’m fine with organizations working to become more trans inclusive and fighting their histories of transphobia. I’m incredibly proud of GLAAD for making the necessary moves to include trans folks in the organization’s name, realizing that an acronym that leaves the B and the L out contributes to the very marginalization it's hoping to fight. Its work isn’t perfect, but it recognize that. A first step is still a step worth honoring.

However, I’m tired of HRC saying it will change later. I’m tired of HRC telling us, in more ways than one, that transgender rights aren’t everyone’s rights. I’m tired of the group pushing trans people to the side. I’m tired of HRC patronizing the trans community, speaking for them instead of working with them and claiming it is fighting for trans rights in its own way. You’re not Jesus H. Christ. I don’t want you to work in mysterious ways. I want your ways to be visible and transparent. I want to know your ways even exist.

More than that, I’m tired of being tired with the HRC and complaining about their commitment to shiny, $450-a-plate galas and “surface-level politics.” Our community needs to stop giving HRC free passes and instead needs to look into the face of the organization we enable. We need to stop being nice and start getting real.

Let’s be clear: HRC is the problem. They are a giant, wailing infant of a problem and they need to be spanked and to change their poopy diaper politics. However, we are also part of the problem when we keep giving this group money. We need to stop rewarding an organization that we know doesn’t speak for the diversity of our community, one that fights for the wealthy few at the expense of the many. We need to stop accepting later as an answer and expect change to start today. We need to start voting with our dollars.

We need to expect more than sorry. If not, we’re just going to keep going back to the same broken relationship, and we’re never going to be happy. If the HRC can’t learn to give back, we need to stop giving to it and support one of the many other organizations doing more intersectional, transformative work.

I think it’s time the queer community breaks up with HRC, before it breaks us. If we want to fight for true equality, this is not the marriage we want.

Nico Lang covers LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can follow Nico on Tumblr or Twitter @Nico_Lang or find them on the Facebook.