It has been reported here, here, and here, and probably elsewhere, that Joe Solmonese will shortly be stepping down as the head of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). [Update: It is official.] For those not in the know, the HRC is the largest, most powerful, and best connected gay rights organization. It aspires to be to LGBT rights what the NAACP was to the Civil Rights Movement, although HRC is a far more inside-the-Beltway organization than the NAACP was in the 1950’s. HRC is also an extremely controversial organization within the LGBT community.
For most of the time I have been aware of HRC, the organization’s results have been tepid at best, and that is being kind. For every victory the HRC could claim, a crushing defeat followed. I suppose you could say that it has been one step forward five steps back. For example, HIV/AIDS protections were included in the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, but then Congress passed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act in the Clinton Administration, which was allegedly gay-friendly. And then there was the extremely painful night in November 2004 when 11 states banned either same-sex marriage or civil unions. Many of us, myself included, also blame the HRC for being practically invisible during the ballots to overturn same-sex marriage in Maine and California. Some may argue that this was outside of HRC’s scope, but I strongly disagree with that. They were highly invisible during those battles, so even from a public relations point of view, they failed (along with every LGBT-rights group.)
HRC treads a thin line because it is supposedly party-neutral, but in reality that simply is not true. The overwhelming majority of the LGBT community lies somewhere along the left-wing of the political spectrum–from moderately progressive to outright Maoist. Yes, there are some exceptions like the Log Cabiners, and the useful idiots of GOProud, but for the most part, the LGBT community is firmly liberal, and therefore firmly Democrat. With good reason too; Republicans have staunchly allied themselves with the religious right, people like James Dobson, Michele Bachmann, and Jerry Falwell. People who have more or less called for the destruction of the LGBT community, even if they don’t say it in those exact words. Therefore, HRC tends to skew Democrat. Every time HRC tries to cozy up to the Republicans (for example suggesting that they might support the privatization of Social Security if same-sex couples were included), the backlash from the LGBT community is loud and severe.
HRC is simply not very popular among the larger LGBT community, and it goes beyond endorsing the occasional Republican or conservative idea. The community, despite general political uniformity, is remarkably diverse in terms of economic, ethnic, and cultural makeup. There is actually very little about the community that is similar, the idea of a “community” is little more than an umbrella group for historical outsiders who defy society’s gender definitions. HRC has, with some justification, been repeatedly accused of being a group that caters primarily to the concerns of specific subset of that community: white, gay, economically secure men (in other words, the homosexual counterparts of the same people who have always been in charge.) HRC’s annual black tie dinner–which costs a pretty penny to attend, but gets some very powerful and prominent speakers–only reinforces this image, as did HRC’s implicit support of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that protected sexual orientation but not gender identity. (The transgender community has had a long history of neglect from the gay rights movement.) One of HRC’s associates/competitors, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, attempts to be so inclusive that it doesn’t actually do anything, which could suggest HRC’s elitist strategy is the right way to proceed. On the other hand, an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress with a Democratic President could not pass even a watered-down ENDA, which shows exactly what the Democratic establishment thinks of HRC.
Nevertheless, since 2009, the gay rights movement has seen tremendous gains, and for the first time really these gains have been at the federal level as well as the state level. There have been two major pieces of pro-gay legislation (the Matthew Shepard Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), and the federal agencies have become more aggressive and proactive at protecting LGBT rights, culminating in the Justice Department’s refusal to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act. Additionally, a US-led coalition basically forced the UN, the epitome of inefficiency and homophobia, to declare gay rights to be human rights–for the little that such a declaration is worth. No doubt HRC would like to take credit for that, and it has tried. Not being privy to the Washington, DC corridors of power, who am I to deny HRC such credit?
But from where I stand, it looks like these changes happened despite the HRC not because of it. HRC appeared to drag its feet, and Solmonese especially was hesitant to criticize a Democratic President who appeared unlikely to spend any political capital on the LGBT community. The pressure, and therefore the change, actually seemed to come from grass-roots activists who were loud, angry, and unafraid to criticize (and, amazingly enough, from the Log Cabin Republicans whose lawsuit against DADT forced the President into action.) From an outsider’s perspective, it was these people who made the Democrats fear for the first time that they would alienate a key constituency. This may not be the truth, but in politics the perception is reality, and HRC appears feckless.
Whoever replaced Solmonese will have a full plate, particularly given how broken down the federal system now is. One of the major questions though that the new leader must answer is whether HRC will actually lead or whether it will continue to sit back watch the change happen.