After millions of dollars, and several decades of mediocre advocacy, is it time to take away the keys, and the checkbook, from Gay, Inc.?
Columnists Tanya Domi and Clinton Fein hold a discussion.
Clinton: As we head into a new election season, it’s instructive to take note of powerful initiatives that have been and continue making an impact. Consider Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project or the “Ben Cohen Acceptance Tour 2011,” by the England World Cup rugby player of the same name. Both address homophobia and bullying and the recent spate of widely publicized suicides and beatings that are finally making people take notice. Most recently, the world champion San Francisco Giants released an “It Gets Better” video. An unprecedented coming out of professional and/or amateur sports figures is shattering stereotypes and providing kids with diverse and powerful role models.
Tanya: I agree Clinton with your conclusions. To date, Savage and Cohen’s groundbreaking efforts have been the most powerful, visually attractive, and personally effective messages advocating for the acceptance of LGBT people in American history.
I actually think Savage and Cohen were able to create these platforms and projects because they were not hemmed in by organizational politics and had no limits of creativity as individuals. Despite all the cash that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), has managed to raise, they have not created anything to date that comes close to that of Savage or Cohen.
Clinton: Seventeen months before the election HRC, the gay community’s largest lobbying organization announced they are endorsing Obama in 2012. The issues they claim to be focusing on are the same ones they’ve been focused on since anyone can remember. The only newsworthy thing about their predictable, yawn-inducing announcement was that they shot their wad earlier than usual – before the presidential field has been formally established. And even so, hardly anyone noticed.
Tanya: Yes, they will be invited to more White House receptions perhaps because of this endorsement and they may get meetings with some key officials, but in the final analysis, they are not taking the community with them. We still do not have complete repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, nor do we have a date of certification to repeal. David Smith, the Vice President of Programs backed the White House “take or leave it DADT repeal plan” proposed by Jim Messina, the then-deputy chief of staff of the Whites House in late 2009 (now the Obama ’12 campaign manager), and Smith’s takeaway was essentially “the community may not like it, but we (HRC) will follow the White House lead and do exactly what they dictate, no matter the fall out,” according to a person familiar with the process.
Now, there are anti-gay amendments included in the House National Defense Authorization Bill that would impede the final steps for repeal. What is the plan? Wait on the White House? That is not a strategy. HRC did not lead alone on the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Hate Crimes Act, but co-chaired the effort with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Anti-Defamation League, who has led the hate crimes coalition and has been a leader on fighting bigotry for decades. HRC has not moved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to a successful vote in Congress, 17 years and counting. They own the federal legislative ponderosa — where is the strategy? So despite all the millions in cash they have raised, they have very little to show for it. It is quite a damning legacy.
Clinton: For decades now, the giddy, star-fucking Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) hosts lavish ceremonies, providing awards to celebs for playing gay persons without resorting to old, trite stereotypes — as if that’s either an acting or humanitarian achievement. Again, aside from a few self-defined A-gays clucking at the thought of being surrounded by a few lower letter celebrities, the world was more interested in just about anything else.
Tanya: The question today is should GLAAD close their doors? They have been bleeding money since late 2008. They have lost nearly 14 board members and numerous staff members during the past year and a half because of alleged dubious actions by Jarrett Tomás Barrios, President of GLAAD. According to an interview by journalist Michael Signorile of GLAAD former Board Co-Chair Laurie Perper, on June 7, Perper asserted that Barrios, desperate to hang onto vital board support, agreed to endorse the AT&T-T-Mobile merger, in exchange for backing by Troup Coronado, a board member and a former Vice-President of Public Affairs with AT&T, according to the GLAAD website. Barrios sent a letter of support from GLAAD to the Federal Communications Commission.
Clinton: The whole GLAAD AT&T-T-Mobile mess is unbelievable. Here you have an organization that is supposed to serve as a watchdog to identify and remedy negative portrayals or misrepresentations of gays in the media behaving in a way that brings shame and discredit on the very community it purports to represent. And further, gives fodder to those who have been reprimanded or called out by GLAAD, that their motives are more about self-enrichment than anything else.
It’s time for a metaphorical Gay Inc. exfoliation. Not only is HRC a flaccid, impotent DC-ensconced waste of oxygen, but their complacency and lack of achievement is no longer just a matter of ineffectiveness, it’s dangerous. Their claim that they represent gays and lesbians is slanderous and their raising money on that premise is fraudulent. Who exactly do they represent? (Rich, white males and a few token lesbians need not answer.)
Tanya: This is the point Clinton — HRC is a very effective marketing machine — “but there is no there there”. They organize nice dinners around the country and if the annual D.C. dinner is headlined by an Obama Administration official, they can make a killing in fundraising. But the fact remains, what have they achieved with this money?
Contrast HRC’s achievements with that Paul Yandura, a former politico who served in the Clinton White House, who teamed up with Jonathan Lewis, a progressive funder, took their money and resources elsewhere, despite overtures from HRC (who asked gay donors to back their/White House DADT repeal “strategy and plan”) and started Get Equal in January 2010 to amazing, concrete results in just 12 months by helping push DADT across the finish line. This nascent and nimble civil disobedience organization, has put some kick back into accountability of government officials and the gay organizations alike. Get Equal drove Obama and many of his staff members to distraction, as it staged civil disobedience acts and haunted the Administration at every turn during the debate on DADT that ultimately led to the repeal of the law.
Yandura and Get Equal staff have created an effective alternative, as have the successful projects of Savage and Cohen. Their success lifts all LGBT boats. We should not fear change in creating new organizations that are effective. Our movement has significant infrastructure today — +500 LGBT organizations around the country, including 29 national organizations according to the Movement Advancement Project, who spend $161 million dollars in annual operating budgets, with 808 persons on their respective staff. We are at a crossroads and that requires innovation accompanied by new thinking outside the box. If you want to maintain the ossified status quo then stick with HRC and GLAAD and remain frustrated and angry.
But the rules of the game has changed and the new generation of LGBT young people are not going to wait another 40 years for equality. Gay, Inc. needs to be more transparent, less secretive and elite and much more dynamic and responsive. I do not see that happening anytime soon.
Clinton: At a certain point in life, when hearing and eyesight deteriorate and reflexes of seniors who are just a little too slow, driving can become a serious hazard to the driver and anyone on or near the road. It’s up to the people around them to step in before anyone is injured. Caregivers, usually their children, are advised to pay attention to warning signs that it may be time to take away their keys and figure out alternative transportation.
The warning signs have been around for a while now, but they have become increasingly impossible to ignore. Those of us wanting a new kind of organization, with fresh, new ideas, uncompromised transparency and community input need to act.
For GLAAD and HRC, it’s too late. It’s now time for these organizations to stop siphoning much needed money the community could use for far more important, measurable things and to be firmly retired, moved away from the machinery and have their keys taken away.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
Clinton Fein is an internationally acclaimed author, artist, and First Amendment activist, best-known for his 1997 First Amendment Supreme Court victory against United States Attorney General Janet Reno. Fein has also gained international recognition for his Annoy.com site, and for his work as a political artist. Fein is on the Board of Directors of the First Amendment Project, “a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition.” Fein’s political and privacy activism have been widely covered around the world. His work also led him to be nominated for a 2001 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.