This past summer, I was a Family Project intern of the Human Rights Campaign. Depending on who I’m talking to at Yale, that sentence can serve as a coming-out statement on various levels.
Aside from my friends who are conservative in their attitudes on same-sex marriage, I have progressive friends who are angry with HRC. I’ve been carrying an umbrella and mug displaying HRC’s logo — the equal sign that took Facebook by storm last March — only after giving it much thought.
I’m wary of entering a heated debate at any moment, with friends on my right or my left. At some points I have felt frustrated with the organization too. In fact, I didn’t make their logo my profile picture last March. But this summer my relationship with the organization changed.
When my friends criticize HRC, they often discuss the organization’s history of excluding transgender individuals, and HRC’s more mainstream stances on LGBT issues — for example, their centralization of same-sex marriage in their national work, to the exclusion of other important issues.
Often members of the LGBT community will simply reblog Tumblr posts critiquing HRC without thinking critically or doing some research; I didn’t want to fall into that trap, so I aimed to dig deeper.
When I decided to take the internship there, my goal was to gain an insider’s view of HRC while maintaining a critical distance. I took notes on daily interactions, interviewed staff members and asked tough questions during intern brown bag lunches.
Over the course of my summer, I learned that the organization is doing much progressive work that isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
What’s known as the HRC is truly two component organizations. One is a Political Action Committee focused on lobbying on hot-topic policy issues such as same-sex marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The other component is the HRC Foundation, which takes on less mainstream subjects and focuses on intersectional issues.
One of HRC’s most fatal flaws has been the invisibility of the Foundation and its progressive work in national media.
HRC is aware of this problem and has taken steps to address it. During my final three weeks, they hired Jay Brown as the first Director of Foundation Strategy.
At the moment of his hiring, Jay became the only transgender member of HRC’s staff of 150. Jay has been tasked with bringing more media attention to the Foundation’s work on progressive issues, such as health care equality, religion and faith diversity and outreach to foster care agencies.
This summer I was able to watch one of their innovative projects in action: I saw Foundation staff facilitate a workshop that equipped early childhood educators with the tools to build a welcoming classroom environment for LGBT students.
As much as I saw HRC doing important work this summer, I also noted that there are continuing gaps in their agenda, and members of the LGBT community whom they have failed to reach.
HRC cannot claim to represent all LGBT Americans and continue to leave out various parts of the queer community, such as LGBT homeless youth and adults, sex workers, transgender people incarcerated and abused by police at irregularly high rates and people living with AIDS.
While the organization as a whole is out of touch with these marginalized communities, there are progressive staff members — many of whom I worked with — who are passionate about addressing more radical issues in the LGBT community.
Going forward, I hope to see these staff members educating the organization’s board of directors to encourage them to reach out to communities traditionally marginalized by HRC.
Many staff members I spoke to acknowledged that reprioritization is necessary at the HRC. I wholeheartedly agree. Refocusing around the cutting-edge work of the Foundation and not just the policy-oriented work of the PAC will be vital to that process.
Recently, HRC President Chad Griffin wrote a Huffington Post article declaring that the organization will be intensifying its focus on social service and medical HIV resources. This is an area that the HRC has not historically taken on, and it’s a step in the right — or rather, left — direction.
The HRC needs to continue engaging more with community members in need, rather than dedicating most of their resources and time to engaging with policymakers. The next step would be to open up a dialogue with other organizations in the queer movement, without dismissing their criticism.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic about HRC. But if they fail to deliver on their new commitments, I have no doubt my friends who have critiqued the organization in the past will be quick to expose its wrongdoings once more.
This time around, I won’t hesitate at all in joining them, because a new agenda is long overdue.