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Human Rights Campaign Under Fire in LGBT Community

Queer groups call foul on the largest LGBT nonprofit, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), for glorifying corporations the groups consider to be downright dirty.

(Image: JR / TO; Adapted: Jerald Jackson, Geoff, Tom Haymes)

Queer groups call foul on the largest LGBT nonprofit, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), for glorifying corporations the groups consider to be downright dirty.

Chevron. Goldman Sachs. Monsanto. None of these are brands that we tend to associate with bringing justice into the world. And yet these three corporations, along with many other Fortune 1000 companies, were awarded a “100 percent” rating in the 2015 “Equality Index” put out by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve probably seen the HRC’s stickers – a yellow equal sign against a blue background – on a bumper or in the window of a coffee shop somewhere. The campaign claims to be the biggest gay rights organization in the country and is a self-appointed voice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people everywhere.

The HRC is the de facto organization journalists call when they need an “LGBT viewpoint” on a topic. It has the ears of high-profile politicians – even deeply conservative ones like Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, who credited an HRC postcard for causing her to vote with “The Gays.” And the campaign is one of a few large LGBT nonprofits that hog political advocacy funding for the community’s issues.

However, lots of people from the increasingly fractured “community” (often, white, wealthy gays vs. the rest) don’t want to support an organization that devotes a good deal of its resources into making certain big corporations look like they’re on the right side of history. Different LGBT people have different values – and even the stalwart HRC is beginning to see this, recently giving lip service to the issue of intersectionality.

In November 2014, the group put out a press release decrying the Michael Brown grand jury verdict that ignited protests in Ferguson, Missouri and beyond. But words are cheap. The press release seemed plenty hypocritical when, within the same week, the HRC handed out awards to companies like Wells Fargo, a bank responsible for helping push Ferguson’s home foreclosure rate to an incredible 50 percent, and Boeing, which earlier in the year took the number one spot in the International Business Times’s listicle “12 Companies That Will Conquer The Drone Market in 2014 and 2015.”

Lots of queers are taking their critiques of the HRC online (see: a zillion Blogspot and Tumblr accounts), into theaters (characters in the film Criminal Queers break into HRC headquarters to find a shrine to Ronald Reagan), and to HRC charity shops (somewhat famously, in 2011, the HRC storefront in DC’s Dupont Circle was paint-bombed by a group calling itself “The Right Honorable Wicked Stepmothers’ Traveling, Drinking and Debating Society and Men’s Auxiliary”).

How Narrow Can You Go?

Kate Raphael has organized for decades with the Bay Area queer radical collective LAGAI – and has had beef with the HRC for almost as long. “They call themselves Human Rights Campaign – they don’t claim to be the ‘Gay Rights Campaign,’ and yet their frame for what is a human rights issue is incredibly narrow,” she argues. Regarding the Equality Index, “They put out this guide in which they rate corporations supposedly on their human rights record, when all they’re looking at is things like domestic partner benefits, or how many gay people they have in management. That’s not a human rights record, that’s a very narrowly constructed gay rights record that affects a very small number of people.”

In 2007, LAGAI and another San Francisco queer activist collective, Gay Shame, organized their first protest outside the HRC’s San Francisco store (in the organization’s own lingo, “Action Center”). Here, you can purchase HRC T-shirts, tote bags, and those ubiquitous stickers in the space that used to house gay martyr Harvey Milk’s camera shop, which was the setting for much of the 2008 Oscar-winning film Milk.

“Exxon-Mobil, IBM and Gap were getting great ratings [in the Equality Index] at the same time that they were being targeted by other organizations for human rights violations,” remembers Raphael. “So we felt like it didn’t make any sense for there to be this store in the Castro [district] where people are going thinking that they’re supporting something that’s good – something that’s promoting human rights – when a lot of the kitsch that they sell in the store is being manufactured in sweatshops.”

(Milk’s close friend, gay rights activist Cleve Jones, had plenty of negative things to say about the choice of the camera shop for the Action Center, telling the Associated Press that Milk “was not an ‘A-Gay’ and had no desire to be an A-Gay. He despised those people and they despised him. That, to me, is the crowd HRC represents. Don’t try to wrap yourself up in Harvey Milk’s mantle and pretend you are one of us.”)

Many in the trans community will never forget how, in 2007, the HRC supported an employment anti-discrimination bill that left out trans people.

But a coauthor of the HRC Equality Index and head of the HRC Foundation’s Workplace Equality program, Deena Fidas, disagrees with critics like Raphael, saying that single-mindedness is the beauty of the report. “We have seen great success with rating criteria that are discrete and objective. For example when we started the CEI in 2002, only 3 percent of the Fortune 500 had gender identity protections as compared to two-thirds of the list today, largely spurred in by the CEI.”

Say this is true, and the HRC is mostly responsible for these changes (Raphael says other grassroots groups and individuals ought to get the bulk of the credit). If the HRC is helping to affirm the existence of corporations that do harm in so many other ways in order to achieve concessions inside the cubicles of a few commercial skyscrapers, activists ask, how much of a positive change is that, really?

Past Transgressions

The 2015 Equality Index is noteworthy in the amount of words that it devotes to transgender inclusion in the workplace. HRC President Chad Griffin – a white, cisgender gay man who worked on President Clinton’s communications team around the time Clinton signed the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act – spends much of his introduction to the report cheering on trans people. It’s a marked about-face for an organization that has traditionally left trans issues by the wayside. Many in the trans community will never forget how, in 2007, the HRC supported an employment antidiscrimination bill that would’ve made it illegal for companies to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals – but left out trans people. (Pretty much every other LGBTQ organization came out against it.)

“The more we can do to lift up the stories of transgender people, the more progress we will all see,” writes Griffin, who rakes in an almost half-a-million dollar salary. “While many Americans are getting to know the transgender community for the first time, Corporate America has long been a leader in the fight for transgender inclusion.”

“There’s no investigation into how people have actually been discriminated against, because the company is not going to tell you that.”

In September 2014, Griffin made a public apology in a speech in front of several hundred transgender people at a conference in Atlanta. “I am sorry for the times you have been underrepresented or unrepresented by this organization. What happens to trans people is absolutely central to the LGBT struggle,” Griffin said. “And as the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, HRC has a responsibility to do that struggle justice, or else we are failing at our fundamental mission.”

Three months isn’t long enough to gauge whether Griffin’s speech was genuine or not. Ryan Conrad, cofounder of another group critical of the HRC, Against Equality, called Griffin’s speech a “disingenuous PR move.”

Against Equality (AE) uses as its symbol a remixed HRC logo – the same yellow and blue, but replacing the equal sign with a “greater than” sign. Montreal-based AE cofounder Conrad explains the idea behind his design:

Why settle for mere equality when we could have a better, more just, and more equitable world rather than an equal stake in today’s deeply inequitable and harmful institutions? Or similarly, as AE contributor Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has so beautifully articulated, “When did our dreams get so small?” We must envision and fight for a future far greater than the confines of inclusion provide.

While trans people have recently gained “political muscle and visibility,” Conrad says, the HRC’s embrace of trans people at this particular point in time “shows how calculated [the HRC] has been with historically marginalized segments of the LGBTQ world.”

Trusting Corporations to Tell the Truth About Themselves

Activists find another big problem with the report’s very design. The major way Fidas’ team does their thing is by compiling the results of a survey in which corporations self-report their policies around LGBT inclusion. The HRC gives negative points for “known activity that would undermine LGBT equality,” saying it tracks (again, self-reported) IRS and SEC filings, and looks to the media and courts records for additional help. It also considers whether any individuals reported cases of discrimination to the HRC directly. But the surveys remain the principle form of info-gathering.

“As far as we know,” says Raphael, “they don’t do any independent investigation into what their human rights record is. There’s no investigation into how people have actually been discriminated against, because the company is not going to tell you that.”

Because so much of the survey is based on company self-reporting, “Even just the narrow standard of how good of a place it is for gay people, or god forbid, trans people, to work, I really don’t believe they know that.”

Upon being honored, corporations take little time before issuing self-congratulatory press releases about their supposed gay-friendliness. Example: Monsanto, which has received unwanted attention for everything from its use of child labor to the spreading of GMOs, soon used the opportunity to promote itself to the media as an LGBT-friendly company “focused on collaborating to find sustainable agricultural solutions.”

Enraged and Making Minimum Wage

While the HRC is busy promoting the labor conditions at Fortune 1000 companies, one former employee’s story calls into question the organization’s own practices.

“So when there is police killing of unarmed people, we’re all concerned about it . . . because as queers we know what violence from the police means.”

Then in their early 20s, in 2010, Julz Hale Mary (who prefers the gender pronoun “they”) moved to San Francisco from California’s conservative Central Valley. Soon, they were working at the HRC’s Castro Action Center, “as a way to meet other politically active LGBT people.” In San Francisco, they hoped to live “the queer dream that places like the HRC capitalize on,” but instead they found theirself laboring for minimum wage, selling HRC merchandise “like a used car salesman at a desperate lot” while trying to make rent amid the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis.

“Selling T-shirts made in Vietnam in order to secure rights for American, assimilated, white gay men secretly enraged me,” the drag performer says, “to the point I sat down with a union organizer who entertained the spectacle that would be trying to unionize the HRC.”

That didn’t pan out, but they couldn’t quit the job because they needed the money, and their only work background at the time was in retail. “My manager constantly talked about how if his employees wanted to complain, they could get a job elsewhere. This was very intimidating and crushing to hear from a place that was supposed to ‘help’ us LGBT folk.” At the time, they were living in a studio apartment with four other people and could only afford to spend $25 per week on groceries. According to Hale Mary, “The people who work at HRC retail stores are doing so because they really believe in assimilation and/or because they have no other options.”

An Oppression Is an Oppression Is an Oppression

Raphael hopes that the HRC is finally getting the message that oppressions are connected. “The same things that are important to gender-conforming people are essential to us queers,” she says. “And so when there is police killing of unarmed people, we’re all concerned about it, and we’re especially concerned about it, because as queers we know what violence from the police means. Many of us in the community have been affected directly, and those who don’t experience it directly, know people who have.”

But she realizes the organization could just be making sure that the nonprofit industrial complex keeps bulldozing its way toward precious donors who aren’t interested in just funding marriage and military equality campaigns anymore. “I think they realize that they are going to lose the community completely if they don’t at least pay lip service to these issues that are preoccupying people in our community.”

Julz Hale Mary, who eventually met friends who helped them find work as a mental health counselor, says that more than anything, the disempowerment they felt working at the HRC radicalized them. “I don’t want equal rights anymore,” they say. “I want the whole system destroyed, but you know, that really doesn’t sell T-shirts.”

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