Commentary

Is traditional LGBTQ leadership faltering? Washington insiders think so.

Joe Biden LGBT
Joe Biden speaking at the Human Rights Campaign Spring Equity Convention.Photo: Cliff Owen/Associated Press

The LGBTQ rights movement is at crossroads. The Equality Act is dead. The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority, with an extremist tilt. More than 100 anti-transgender bills are flooding the states. Most Americans support banning trans youth from sports teams. The road ahead is unclear and neither lobbying for new laws, nor expanding old laws seem like solid strategies to further LGBTQ rights.

The question is how can our LGBTQ organizations show leadership and succeed in the decade of the ’20s?

Related: Is it time for HRC to do away with the Corporate Equality Index?

Evaluating the success of LGBTQ rights groups is an exercise in drama over data. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is a good example. There is a cottage industry based around hating HRC.

Some of it is historical, based on their original business model that relied on large galas that Steve Endean had in mind when he founded the organization. Some of it is jealousy because HRC grew into a more corporate juggernaut under Elizabeth Birch that attracted more money and press. And some of it is well-earned scorn for their treatment and handling of the transgender community, state-wide groups, turf wars, ballot measures, and fundraising.

I am here to present the results of a survey in the clearest way I can. I conducted a survey last month of 52 LGBTQ lobbyists and advocates. I asked them to rate the level of success of 17 leading LGBTQ rights organizations.

The average score for each organization is listed in order below.

  1. Lambda Legal (7.76 out of 10)
  2. ACLU (7.75)
  3. National Center for Lesbian Rights (7.21)
  4. Equality Federation (7.18)
  5. Victory Fund (7.14)
  6. National Center for Transgender Equality (7.04)
  7. PFLAG (7.02)
  8. ACT UP NYC (6.50)
  9. GLSEN (6.48)
  10. Human Rights Campaign (6.46)
  11. Amnesty International (6.00)
  12. SAGE (5.86)
  13. GLAAD (5.84)
  14. National LGBTQ Task Force (5.82)
  15. Outright International (4.43)
  16. Intersex Society of North America (3.54)
  17. Log Cabin Republicans (1.92)

The first thing that stands out is the perceived strength of legal organizations, namely Lambda and the ACLU who are rated first and second. This makes sense given the historic legal victories on sodomy (Lawrence), marriage (Obergefell), and trans rights (Bostock). In addition, NCLR comes in third with well-respected staff like Legal Director Shannon Minter.

The second thing that stands out is the poor perceptions of HRC, GLAAD, and the Task Force. HRC does particularly badly with current LGBTQ lobbyists. Or put another way, those who know HRC the best don’t think they are particularly successful.

In my new book, I look at how much money HRC spends on lobbying. I find that HRC spends about $2 million dollars on lobbying, which is roughly the same amount that it makes on HRC-branded merchandise sales. I write, “Put another way, the Human Rights Campaign could fund much of its federal lobbying for 2019 on t-shirts and other merchandise sales.”

However, all three organizations occupy the middle to the bottom of the list. Where once, the Task Force was seen as a rival to HRC, now they are both in the lower half of LGBTQ organizations. In addition, GLAAD has seemed interested in taking on a larger role but both it and the Task Force are chasing the bottom.

Third, we see some LGBTQ organizations that focus on grassroots organizing receiving the recognition that may otherwise not be recorded.

The Equality Federation’s work with state-wide LGBTQ organizations, the Victory Fund’s focus on political candidates, NCTE’s work to mobilize the trans community, and PFLAG organizing parents and families. These all stand out because organizing work with states, politicos, trans, and parents is often not as sexy as federal work. In fact, the Equality Federation rated highest among transgender survey participants.

The last takeaway from the data is the cataclysmic collapse of Log Cabin Republicans. This is a legacy of a failed actor. Gone are the more principled days of Rich Tafel, Patrick Guerrero, and Patrick Sammon. There really is nothing more to say.

Where to now?

First, stop bullshitting the community with the Corporate Equality Index, gala dinners for celebrities, and legislation that is going nowhere. The LGBTQ community is sophisticated. Here are just three examples from my book about the Corporate “Equality” Index:

  • “Pfizer has a 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in 2020 and they donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration in 2016 (Balhaus, 2017).”
  • “Lockheed Martin has a 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in 2020. The company has previously donated nearly $70,000 to Senator Ted Cruz”
  • “Blackstone Group has a 100 score and also donated more than $93,000 to Senator Mitch McConnell.”

Second, it is important to recognize that these educational and fundraising devices often draw resources away from the states, where the battle can be won. Again, to be clear, the battle can be won in states, but we are taking resources away from these areas. As a result, the programmatic and fundraising models of organizations that rely on these tools should be examined.

Third, LGBTQ organizations could show leadership and embrace the fact that the LGBTQ movement is a statewide movement, whether we want to admit it or not. Duluth is not sexy and neither is Tallahassee but this is where the leadership needs to be shown. Small, rural communities are where our most marginalized live. And we should be prioritizing the marginalized. This is leadership.

The data presented in this survey is a wakeup call about the leadership in the LGBTQ community. Success is not about the size of your wallet or the size of your party.

The movement is demanding results to improve the lives of queer Americans. The question now is how LGBTQ organizations will respond.

Dr. Christopher Pepin-Neff is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney. His new book, “LGBTQ Lobbying in the United States” is available online.

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