Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I just learned via Pam's House Blend that HRC and the AIDS Institute are trying to broker a meeting between Mike Huckabee and Jeanne White-Ginder. For those not following this particular sordid mess, Huckabee is the Rethuglican former governor of Arkansas who has recently appeared to gain ground in the pre-Iowa-caucuses polls, and who has recently defended his 1992 statement that "we need to take steps to isolate the carriers of" HIV/AIDS. Jeanne White-Ginder is Ryan White's mom; Ryan White was a cute little white kid who contracted HIV in 1984 (from blood products used to treat his hemophilia) and then a well-known AIDS activist, who mostly spoke out about how AIDS can't be transmitted through casual contact, until he died in 1990.

Huckabee... is a rant for another day. Reading this has brought back to mind what I was feeling last week as I left the ENDA Town Hall, aka the New York date on HRC's Humility Tour.

Two comments from the "town hall" especially resonated with me, in a bad way. The first was the statement that HRC really wanted [a gender-excluding] ENDA to pass [the House, despite the complete futility of trying to get the current Senate to pass it or Bush to sign it] this year because that would provide "a positive experience..." I think the speaker meant that it would be a positive experience for *the congresspeople* insofar as some of them would vote for it and then manage not to lose the next election...he might also have meant that it would be a positive experience *for HRC* and another brag-line on their website (Jon Winkleman at the town hall pointed out some of the hollow and inane brag-lines currently there). But meanwhile, there were more than fifty angry trans-people-and-allies *just in the room that one night*, and there had been hundreds if not thousands of op-eds and blog entries already about what a terrible mess this was for the "LGBT" community, so it seemed arrogantly insane to say this ever could have been "a positive experience." Later, when his back was really getting up against the wall, HRC Vice President David Smith tried to say that "every...civil rights hero" to speak out on the matter had supported HRC's strategy of passing a gender-excluding ENDA first. He was immediately shouted down by people pointing out that the people he meant were "straight" civil rights heroes who didn't necessarily understand all the issues at play. Meanwhile, I looked around in disbelief -- several of my own civil rights heroes/heroines were right there in the room, and were saying very loudly that they did not support the strategy.

I felt a lot of things that night -- disgusted at some of the things Smith said, curious about why Sultan Shakir (HRC's local field director) was on the dais but stayed so quiet, pleased that Smith eventually acknowledged HRC would probably not handle matters the same way if it could repeat the 2007 ENDA struggle from the top, initially impressed but then seriously annoyed at the hecklers in the front row who made it hard for both Smith and questioners to speak, amazed that the HRC reps came off so unprepared...etc. But what has stayed with me the most is a sense that HRC does not speak for me, and I'd like to work with other people on respectfully and clearly expressing that.

The queer community has limited resources. There are gays and lesbians with tons of money, but the majority of them (with significant and admirable exceptions) are not actively engaged with progressive politics, with improving matters for heartland gay and lesbian people, much less more marginalized sectors of our society. That leaves a minority of a minority to really work for change (in collaboration, hopefully, with progressive and revolutionary folks outside the queer community). I really hear the people who think it's stupid to cannibalize ourselves, to waste limited resources on infighting when there are some clear and powerful enemies to fight. That sentiment came up on the QJL listserv and elsewhere during the planning and marketing phases of the Nov. 20 Christopher Street protest of HRC.

Nonetheless, I'm really uncomfortable with the status quo, in which HRC is the largest and by far the wealthiest of "LGBT" advocacy groups, and thus its voice is often the loudest, its lobbyists seem to have the most congressional access, its talking heads get the most cable news screen time, etc. My comfort, obviously, is not the most important consideration for our movement. But for the trans people who got so explicitly thrown under the bus by HRC a few weeks ago, it's more than a matter of comfort, it's more like a matter of dignity (I can't speak for trans folks, but this is the impression I get from trans friends, bloggers, and speakers at the 12/5 event). Trans people, and other gender-non-conforming people, simply deserve better than to have the group responsible for disrespecting them so badly honored as the leaders of our movement. So that's one consideration. But in addition, there is an issue of leadership, and an issue of integrity.

HRC's priorities are incompatible with those of many LGBTQ individuals in this country. A host of ulterior motives have been attributed to them in the last two months as people tried to make sense of the ENDA debacle, and in prior years during other controversies (such as HRC's 1998 endorsement of Al D'Amato for U.S. Senate -- I realize that queer activists older and/or wiser than me have fought all of this out before), but I don't think one even has to go there to see the problem. We, as an LGBTQ community, have urgent needs right now. Just as a few examples we have horrific rates of new HIV infections among young queer men of color, we have a great many trans folk living in extreme poverty because "straight" employment and urgently necessary medical care are inaccessible to them, we have violent hate crimes continuing to occur every week in the U.S., not to mention in the countries our government apparently sees only as strategic assets or liabilities in an oil war... and so we need advocacy, right this minute, of great quantity and high quality, and I don't think it's safe to trust HRC to lead that charge when their track record for unifying and mobilizing the queer community is so weak over the past few years, their direction is so clearly coming from corporate and wealthy individual donors, and their priorities are so far out of whack. Plus, if you take HRC at its word and listen really carefully to their version of the 2007 ENDA story, they fucked up...they thought they had the votes to pass an inclusive ENDA, and then they turned out to be very wrong.

But back to the ulterior motives...it's easy to read the ENDA mess as HRC trying to punch its own meal ticket, to create conflict that helps weaken other groups and aspects of the movement, to highlight the power of the middle-to-upper-class homosexuals who dominate its board and benefit the most from its Corporate Equality work and don't, in general, suffer from discrimination on the basis of "gender expression." David Smith's statement at the town hall that Joe Solmonese "misspoke" when he declaimed in September, about how HRC would oppose any gender-exclusive versions of ENDA, simply wasn't credible. [The part about how he "regrets" saying it now, I believe -- everyone hates getting called out as a hypocrite.] Several other people said it during their comments and questions on 12/6, and I'll say it too -- I don't trust HRC. I don't want them speaking for me, either publicly or in the symbolic sense as lobbyists.

So. Do I plan to show up on Rhode Island Avenue with a bomb, a pie, or a manifesto? No. Do I think HRC is going to do or say anything that contradicts my personal values in the course of this Huckabee controversy? Not really. Do I know anything about Jeanne White-Ginder's personal politics or actual relationship with HRC? No. I just think that going forward, we need to be even more vigilant as progressive queer activists about getting other groups' names into the media, about taking charge of events and controversies rather than allowing HRC's field staff to step immediately into the breach, about directing our resources and our friends and acquaintances' resources toward other LGBT organizations (IMHO the most progressive national ones are NCLR and the Task Force, though I know both of those have ties to corporations and warts of their own). In particular, I don't think we should waste our breath arguing with HRC about its handling of the ENDA vote in its "Congressional Scorecard" system -- that's treating them as the voice of our community, and I think we need to step away from that.

It's easy to accept HRC's role as the largest and loudest LGBT organization (especially while also trying to resist, say, the Democratic Party and the patriarchy), and it's easy to let their agenda drive public discourse about queer issues. But I think we can do better. And I'd like to work on doing better. Next time HRC royally fucks up, they shouldn't even be in a position to do a Humility Tour.

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