As Chicago sloowwwwly edges its way into spring, canvassers have started appearing on street corners and in front of coffee shops. These are the chipper young individuals with clipboard and colored vests who ask, “Do you have a minute to help the environment?” Or, “Do you a minute to help keep money out of politics?” Or, “Do you have a minute for gay rights?” This last question is being asked by canvassers from the HRC, the Human Rights Campaign, in blue and yellow vests with the HRC’s equality logo large and visible. The rise in canvassers has coincidentally coincided the rise of people changing their Facebook profile pics to a red equality logo to show support of marriage equality.
When I’m approached by an HRC canvasser on the street, I used to say what most people say to canvassers: “Not right now. Sorry, I don’t have time.” (This is if I didn’t avoid eye contact, ignore them entirely, and walk right by.) But lately I’ve been stopping to chat with HRC canvassers and talk about why I have lots of minutes for gay rights, but have no money and little support for the HRC itself. So, with the HRC on my mind recently, and in the news, lets talk about why I’m not a fan.
The HRC and the trans community have a long and contentious history. All the way back in 2007, TransGriot posted an incredibly in-depth and well-written article, Why The Transgender Community Hates The HRC. You should just go read that piece in its entirety, but here are some highlights:
The roots of the animosity [between the trans community and HRC, and by extension the larger gay rights movement] start after Stonewall. In an effort to appear more ‘mainstream’ to the straight community, Jim Fouratt and friends bounced Sylvia Rivera and other transpeople out of New York’s GLF (Gay Liberation Front). Jim Fouratt’s anti-transgender comments culminating in a 2000 one at a Stonewall observance in which he called transpeople ‘misguided gay men who’d undergone surgical mutilations’ also added insult to the injury.
[Jumping over a ton of history, in the 80s and 90s gay rights leaders pushed trans rights advocates to support legislation that didn't include trans protections.] When transgender leaders would balk at those demands or point out the hypocrisy of leaving us behind, they would state they would ‘come back for us’.
[In 1995, Elizabeth Birch took over as Executive Director at the HRC, where she remained until 2004. She was coming from the trans-exclusionary gay rights mindset, and once said] that transinclusion in ENDA (the Employment and Non Discrimination Act) a top legislative priority of transgender leaders would happen ‘over her dead body’.
[Today,] transpeople are also miffed at the lack of HRC concern as to how this backlash [against lobbying for marriage equality] specifically affects our lives. Transpeople were never consulted and had no input whatsoever regarding the push for gay marriage, but the Religious Right anti-gay marriage laws get interpreted by the courts in such a way that they had the negative affect in some cases of wiping out existing pro-trans marriage and even identity rights.
We’re also pissed that the same people who demanded (and still demand) that we accept ‘incremental progress’ when it comes to trans rights hypocritically have no intention of accepting ‘incremental progress’ when it comes to legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
So that’s a very brief history of animosity between the trans community and the HRC, up through 2007: The HRC didn’t support trans-inclusive legislation, came out of an attitude of “we’ll come back for you,” and didn’t take the concerns of the trans community seriously when planning lobbying or activist action.
Giving credit where credit is due, the HRC has changed its official party line. Their mission statement is explicitly trans inclusive, and they’ve said they no longer support any version of ENDA (employment non-discrimination act) that doesn’t include gender identity and gender expression. Likewise, the HRC has had some trans-specific events in the last few years to highlight issues facing the trans community.
That’s all well and good, but it’s not good enough. I’ll give an analogy as to why. I teach middle and high school theater classes. Middle schoolers, especially fourth and fifth graders, are not known for their exemplary behavior. Every once and a while (fortunately not too often) there’s a disciplin issue that needs to be addressed. When that happens, I require two things from my students: They apologize, and they change their behavior.
The HRC is doing an OK job on changing their behavior. (Not a great job, though. More on that in a moment.) But, to my knowledge, they still haven’t apologized for decades of throwing trans people under the bus. I want to hold the HRC to a higher standard than I hold my twelve year old students. We all fuck up. Individuals, organizations, institutions. My worry isn’t that HRC has a problematic past with the trans community. If I wasn’t able to work with people who, once upon a time, had problematic views around trans identity, there wouldn’t be many people left I could work with. But an apology and willingness to admit of wrongdoing is an absolute requirement for me to want that person (or organization, or whatever) in my life.
But perhaps I’m holding the HRC to a too-high standard. (Although I don’t think “things a child should be expected to do” is all that high of a standard.) That might be true, that I was being unfair and not allowing the past to be the past, if the HRC didn’t keep fucking up. Most recently, the trans flag incident. Basically:
- Trans guy held up flag with trans symbol at DC marriage equality rally.
- HRC staffer asked him to move or take it down.
- He refused.
- HRC staffer went away.
- Story blew upon Facebook
- HRC issued a press release denying steps 1-4 had happened.
At the same rally, the HRC also tried to silence a queer activist from speaking up about immigration rights. (Equally important about why I don’t like the HRC, but less trans-specific. Intersectionality, though. And what hurts one of us hurts all of us.)
Isn’t that awesome?
The HRC eventually issued this non-apology apology, about both incidents. It 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.”
Nico Lang has a really wonderful piece about why it’s time to break up with the HRC. He notes that, among a long list of problematic actions, when the HRC was ranking municipalities on LGBT inclusion, the HRC referred to trans inclusions as “bonus points.” I SHIT YOU NOT.
I’m just gonna steal Nico’s conclusion:
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 samebroken 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 moreintersectional, 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.
It’s worth noting that not everyone in the trans/queer community feels this way. Dana Beyer wrote a piece at the Huffington Post about “rapproachment between the trans community and HRC.” I get where she’s coming from, but ultimately think she has an overly optimistic and forgiving attitude. And I don’t bring all of this up when talking to an HRC canvasser on the street. I usually give my “higher standard than my middle school students” analogy, they laugh, and we both go on with our day. But next time (and there’s always a next time with canvassers) I’m going to point out the events at the DC rally, and the HRC’s municipal index, and on, and on.
At some point, if someone isn’t treating you well, you find a way to cut them out of your life. I echo Nico in that I think it’s time for the trans community (and larger queer community) to do just that with the HRC.