Rift widens among gay-rights groups

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010   Share on Facebook   Share on Twitter

The failure to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell this year has caused a split over tactics.

The gay-rights movement literally began to split at a March 18 rally.

Dan Choi, an Army lieutenant since discharged under the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, stood before a group of hundreds of activists with the Human Rights Campaign at a gathering that day in Washington’s Freedom Plaza, a popular protest venue.

“Our fight is at the White House,” Choi told the crowd, “and I am asking you to send a message to the president with me, to my commander in chief.”

Choi then left the rally for Pennsylvania Avenue, where he chained himself to the fence in front of the White House in his camouflage uniform.

But the leadership of the Human Rights Campaign—the nation’s largest gay-rights group—did not follow Choi that day. They stayed behind, along with comedian Kathy Griffin, who was in town for a cable TV special on the issue.

The split has only grown in the months since, with activists such as Choi staging aggressive, low-budget protests to pressure key Democratic leaders, while the Human Rights Campaign has worked quietly behind the scenes in meetings with some of the very same politicians.

The tension between those two radically different approaches came to a head last week when Senate Republicans successfully filibustered an attempt to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Many activists now worry the policy may not be repealed in the coming lame-duck session and has little chance in next year’s likely more Republican Congress, meaning hundreds or even thousands of more soldiers discharged for being gay in the coming years.

If that happens, it will be a historic loss for the gay-rights movement at a time when polls show a broad majority of Americans support overturning the ban and Democrats who officially favor repeal have controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

It could also change the face of the movement, widening a split between more aggressive advocacy and inside-the-Beltway lobbying—a rift that has happened to a number of other social movements in U.S. history.

Many activists involved in the issue say a large part of the blame goes to the Human Rights Campaign, the most well-funded and politically connected gay rights group in the country. They say it did not act quickly enough, did not spend enough money on the issue and failed to pressure Democratic leaders to take action before the elections.

“If you’re solely riding on being a voice at the table and remaining at the table, eventually you’re going to have to show us results,” said Servicemembers Legal Defense Network spokesman Trevor Thomas, a former employee of the Human Rights Campaign. “I don’t know how you’re going to do that when we lose the House to the Republican leadership.”

For its part, the leadership of the Human Rights Campaign maintains that it worked hard to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and believes the policy could still be overturned by Congress in the coming months.

A timeline for repeal

As a candidate, President Obama made a campaign promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which has led to the discharge of more than 13,000 soldiers since 1993.

After his election, many gay-rights activists felt they had their first real chance in years to end the ban.

The Human Rights Campaign was the biggest player—a 30-year-old organization with a $35 million budget, 750,000 members and a political action committee that helped elect many of today’s top Democratic leaders.

Still, it was not the most visible group pushing for repeal this year.

Choi’s protests were backed by GetEqual, a startup group with a $250,000 budget and 55,000 supporters.

A grassroots tour of gay troops was organized by the Human Rights Campaign in cooperation with Servicemembers United, an five-year-old advocacy group with a $53,000 budget and 22,000 members.

And the well-publicized rally in Maine featuring pop star Lady Gaga was organized by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a $3-million organization which began 17 years ago to defend members of the military who have been discharged under the policy.

After Obama’s inauguration, Servicemembers United and SLDN said they jumped on the opportunity for repeal. By one account, the Human Rights Campaign did not.

In June 2009, the Daily Beast reported that the Human Rights Campaign had told Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was not a priority for the White House that year. That summer, the group instead worked with Democrats to pass a bill expanding the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation.

Around that time, the Human Rights Campaign hired Jarrod Chlapowski of Servicemembers United to create a nationwide tour of veterans, called Voices of Honor. Chlapowski said he was given $20,000 to create a five-city tour. He stretched the dollars to visit 20 cities and wanted to do more.

“HRC was very reticent about adding extra tour stops even though I stayed close to budget,” Chlapowski said.

He and Servicemembers United’s founder, Alex Nicholson, said they continued to pressure the Human Rights Campaign to expand the grassroots efforts that fall without success.

They say that the Human Rights Campaign, which was also working to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, appeared to be waiting for a signal from the president before devoting more money to the issue.

Obama sends a signal

The green light seemed to come during the State of the Union address in January.

“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” Obama said.

On the same day, the Human Rights Campaign said that it would do another Voices of Honor grassroots tour, though Chlapowski claims he didn’t get the money to begin the effort until March.

In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testified in favor of repeal and the Pentagon announced a yearlong study of its implications—a key signal that the military brass would not fight to maintain the ban.

The Human Rights Campaign announced that week that it would spend $2.6 million on pushing for repeal. The group hired field staff in six target states and worked with Chlapowski and Servicemembers United to bring 300 veterans to lobby on Capitol Hill that May.

But that didn’t quiet the group’s critics.

The Human Rights Campaign came under fire for holding a fundraiser with Obama that March, where the president reiterated his promise but added that his plate was full with issues such as health care and the economy.

Choi and other activists chained themselves to the White House fence that month and openly criticized the Human Rights Campaign for not pushing Obama enough.

In May, the groups’ efforts paid off as the Senate voted the repeal out of committee and the House passed it as part of the defense authorization bill. Still, many activists say they worried the bill would stall in the Senate if the vote was held to close to the November elections.

Chlapowski decided to leave the Human Rights Campaign around that time, saying he was frustrated a lack of initiative by the group to engage in meaningful grassroots work around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Before last week’s filibuster of the bill, Chlapowski—through his position at Servicemembers United—publicly pressured Reid. SLDN did the same and in the final week of the fight got tens of thousands of Lady Gaga fans to contact the majority leader.

During that time, the Human Rights Campaign targeted the Senate as a whole with a national call-in day.

An insider role

Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz provided Congress.org with a 16-point list that detailed the group’s efforts on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

They include generating thousands of e-mails and phone calls from its members, organizing rallies with Servicemembers United, and holding weekly coalition meetings with the other groups involved.

“If the measurements are have we worked strategically, have we worked collaboratively, have we always had the advancement of the issue as our goal, then yes, I think that we have been effective,” Sainz said.

But Brad Luna—who held Sainz’s job until this spring—said it was interesting that the list does not include what many in the gay-rights community expect the Human Rights Campaign to do: pressure Obama, Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Yeah, you sent five of your billed staffers to Indianapolis Pride to march for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but what is the point when, on the same day, your legislative and political folks are walking into the White House and cutting deals about how the plan is going to go,” Luna said.

Gay donors have also been critical of how the Human Rights Campaign played the inside game.

Paul Yandura, an advisor to funder Jonathan Lewis and a former advisor on LGBT issues for the Clinton White House, said he attended a closed meeting of donors and advocacy groups in January where the Human Rights Campaign opposed other groups who wanted to apply pressure on the Obama administration.

“[The Human Rights Campaign] said that we have to trust that the White House is going to do the right thing,” Yandura said.

Yandura said that the Human Rights Campaign’s Vice President of Programs David Smith told him later that the organization was “banking on the president’s commitment.”

Yandura likened the situations to one he faced while working for Clinton. After the Defense of Marriage Act passed and the Clinton administration paid for ads on Christian radio stations touting it, the LGBT activist said he threatened to quit unless the White House pulled the ads.

“At some point you build your moral authority as an insider by standing up when you need to,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s happening with the Human Rights Campaign.”

The Human Rights Campaign’s closeness to the White House and other top Democrats also led others to question which way the pressure was being applied.

Chlapowski said the group tried to convince the other groups to ease up the pressure on Reid during a coalition meeting after the August recess.

“There was strong hinting by an HRC representative that we shouldn’t target Reid and that it would be better to target others such as Durbin,” he said.

Sainz said the Human Rights Campaign’s position was misunderstood, that it wanted to pressure Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Il.) and Schumer in addition to Reid.

“The subject of the conversation was putting pressure on the three leaders of the Senate in order to get it done,” Sainz said. “Reid would be looking to his caucus, including his top two lieutenants, in order to understand whether or not the will of the caucus was there to bring the defense authorization bill to the floor.”

Sainz added that his group regularly lobbied Reid’s staffers, the sort of insider pressure that does not typically make it into press releases.

Too little, too late?

The Human Rights Campaign’s partners in the fight add that the group could have focused more on the issue if it wanted.

In his 10 months as a consultant for the Human Rights Campaign, Chlapowski said he sensed that the leadership had other priorities. His requests to expand the campaign or devote more funds to the issue were repeatedly denied.

“It seemed to me very early on that a lot of the work that HRC did in the field was very cynical and they didn’t expect it to work,” he said. “They just mobilized so that the membership would feel involved. They weren’t directing them to much effective work.”

He said he now believes that his hiring was just an effort to make the Human Rights Campaign seem more involved on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell than it was. As a multi-issue organization, the group was lobbying Congress for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act at the same time.

“Looking at both ENDA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, they preferred ENDA because it reached a larger membership base,” Chlapowski said.

He added that, after the May vote, “HRC was misleading the community into thinking that DADT was for the most part done, and that we needed to focus our energy on ENDA.”

Sainz maintains that both issues were a priority, and HRC simply pushed the one it thought was more likely to move through Congress first.

The activists say HRC also waited too long before taking action.

Nicholson of Servicemembers United said he met with the group last year to launch a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell campaign by October. It didn’t happen until March.

“What I was arguing to them is it’s going to take longer than two months to build an effective advocacy campaign, one that maximizes our chance of winning,” he said. “A theme of our relationship with HRC was us pushing for more and them moderating that.”

After Obama’s speech, Nicholson said the Human Rights Campaign waited more than a month before releasing the money for the second Voices of Honor tour.

Sainz denied the charge and said his group moved immediately to take action once it saw that the White House planned to move on it.

“We needed something to exist before we could do anything about it,” he said.

Different groups, different methods

The gay-rights groups are hardly the first to struggle with coalition work.

It often takes multiple groups applying pressure in different ways to achieve success in Washington, but that effort is never easy.

Each group has its own set of priorities—Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the most important concern for SLDN and Servicemembers United, while the Human Rights Campaign and GetEqual work on a host of issues.

“They have different ideas of how clear the message should be how much to compromise with lawmakers,” said David S. Meyer, author of “The Politics of Protest.”

The tension between outside agitators and those applying pressure from the inside is also not a new strategy. In fact, groups used it effectively during the civil rights movement and are using it in the environmental movement.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee openly criticized Martin Luther King, Jr., for not being more aggressive. In the end, it was the combination of SNCC’s outside pressure and King’s inside access that led to success.

“In order for it work, the groups have to be on the same general side,” Meyer said. “That absolutely doesn’t mean they have to be on the same page all the time.”

Since the Senate filibuster, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese has issued a statement stating his belief that repeal will happen in the lame-duck session.

The other groups are less hopeful, and at least one of them, GetEqual, has said that it plans to hold the Human Rights Campaign accountable for its promises.

“Joe was fundraising off of saying [repeal] was going to be done by the end of the year,” Heather Cronk, GetEqual’s managing director, said. “It is this strange relationship where in some ways we are trying to hold HRC accountable in the same way they we are our elected leaders, though HRC is not our elected leaders.”

At the same time, Cronk and the other activists believe they do need an insider at the table.

“I don’t want HRC to get out of the way,” she said. “I want them to be more effective.”

Ambreen Ali covers activism for Congress.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many phone calls HRC members made to Congress.

Update: The Human Rights Campaign e-mailed a response to this story. It can be read here.

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