Thursday, 06 January 2011 18:08

Don't Feed the Beast: A Criticism of HRC

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In order to achieve full federal equality, we need the best organizations utilizing resources in the most effective way. There are thousands of LGBTQ centered organizations across the country, the most  recognized being the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Founded in 1980 to raise money for candidates for public office who supported equality, HRC became a well known and powerful organization. Their square blue logo with the yellow equal sign would soon adorn LGBTQ owned vehicles in every city in every state in America. It became a calling card of sorts of the LGBTQ community, a statement of belonging, a symbol of equality and unity. HRC not only became a common name in households all over the nation, the organization would also become well known in Washington, DC and well connected in the Obama White House. However, HRC has many critics and skeptics in the LGBTQ community, many who claim HRC is an ineffective and lackluster organization bilking the LGBTQ community and profiting from our inequality. Why is the most powerful and well connected LGBTQ rights organization in the world coming under such intense scrutiny from the people the organization exists to represent?

Although on their website HRC touts that their organization grew quickly and became a "resilient force" in the LGBTQ movement, many question just how much of a force they have been, what they have actually accomplished, and if it was worth the millions of LGBTQ dollars spent. Despite HRC's growth across the country since their formation, current relationships with leaders in the Democratic Party including influential members of Congress and the President himself, and a budget of over $40 million in 2009 to organize for equality, the LGBTQ community grows increasingly restless with the organization. Over the last few years there has been a growing discontent and distrust amongst activists, bloggers, and grassroots organizations who see HRC as more a monument to the status quo than an agent of equality, an enabler of the Democratic Party rather than a force to hold elected officials accountable. The organization's ties to the Democratic Party have specifically been pointed out as a hindrance to holding Democrats accountable for their lack of movement towards equality.  Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish wrote about HRC's Democratic entanglement, stating that they are "a patronage wing of the Democratic party, designed primarily to get its members jobs in future Democratic administrations or with Democrats on the Hill", a sentiment echoed by many in the LGBTQ community. Sullivan also called for Joe Solmonese's resignation after Solmonese stated that criticism for President Obama should be "reserved for his second term" and called Solmonese a "craven tool of the Democratic Party."

Solmonese, who took the helm in 2005 as Director, has been called out by others in the LGBTQ media as well as a barrier rather than an asset to full federal equality.  Critics include John Aravosis of AmericaBlog Gay who accused Joe Solmonese and HRC of failing to show leadership on key LGBTQ legislation such as DADT and for not pressing President Obama enough.  Aravosis accuses HRC of "covering" for Obama and the Democratic Party.  Pam Spaulding, of Pam's Houseblend blog, made news in December when she called for Joe Solmonese's resignation from HRC stating, "One can only call Joe Solmonese's reign as a 'could have been,' with DADT as the latest of a string of lobbying efforts, such as they are, that seemed more in tune with keeping the peace (and cocktails) flowing when it was clear to even a political novice (or Cheetos-stained blogger) that the Obama administration had only a limited amount of time to move any LGBT legislation in the first two years."  HRC came under fire from Petrelis of Daily Kos because of what little is done with the large budget HRC has to work with to bring legislative change.  HRC had a budget of $45.7 million in 2009 with a mere 3.2% spent on lobbying efforts, in a year when LGBTQ legislation was the most likely to pass given the Democratic-controlled Congress and a Democrat in the White House.  Although Joe Solmonese has the ear of the president and leaders of Congress and HRC sits on assets worth over $20,000,000 and brings in millions of dollars each year, they do not utilize valuable resources to influence those connections.    

In addition to criticism of how much money is spent on lobbying, there is questions regarding secrecy and lack of accountability in HRC's fiduciary responsibilities. HRC does not disclose financial records in a way many other nonprofit groups do in order to remain open and accountable. The Better Business Bureau reviews charities and non-profit organizations in order to report on accuracy and accountability in their finances. According to the Better Busines Bureau's charity review on HRC, "Despite written BBB Wise Giving Alliance requests in the past year, this organization either has not responded to Alliance requests for information or has declined to be evaluated in relation to the Alliance’s Standards for Charity Accountability. While participation in the Alliance’s charity review efforts is voluntary, the Alliance believes that failure to participate may demonstrate a lack of commitment to transparency. Without the requested information, the Alliance cannot determine if this charity adheres to the Standards for Charity Accountability. A charity's willing disclosure of information beyond that typically included in its financial statements and government filings is, in the Alliance's view, an expression of openness that strengthens public trust in the charitable sector."  HRC's refusal to cooperate with the BBB is more than another red flag warning about the mission of the organization, it is a stop sign for all who whip out their credit cards anxious to support the work towards equality.

Another reason people pull out the credit card for HRC is to buy their merchandise.  They are product central for the LGBTQ community, which creates another PR problem for the organization. They are increasingly being seen as a brand, a merchandising outlet more than an avenue for our community to achieve equal rights. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara blogged on arsenal & grand that "HRC invokes Milk and MLK at every turn, but rarely delivers on the substance that so distinguished the work of both men. Instead they give away branded accessories. It takes a particular kind of hubris, or myopia, to do this time and again. Enough, I say".   Enough indeed.   

The most current controversy involving HRC is the organization's intent to move into a small storefront in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, previously home to Harvey Milk's camera shop, where they plan to sell memorabilia. Blogger Bil Brown asked "What's next? Removing the Mona Lisa's face and replacing it with the Wal-Mart smiley face?"  Recent outrage over the plan prompted action from the LGBTQ community.  An entire movement evolved, complete with a Facebook page and a storefront protest, pressuring HRC to donate the spot to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth organization.  HRC has now postponed the opening of the "action center" and are reportedly working with the Trevor Project to possibly agree to lease a portion of the store for the Trevor Project to utilize as a call-in center for LGBTQ and questioning youth.     

There are problems in any organization and there will always be disconnects between multi-million dollar corporations and the average American.  However, organizations and their leaders make choices, choices regarding the mission, values, and direction of the organization.  Regarding HRC, their mission, values, and direction seem to serve the organization itself to a much greater degree than it serves the fight for equality.  As we take out our checkbooks and credit cards and decide how we can monetarily contribute to the movement for full federal equality, we should examine closely the organizations we choose to donate to. If all you want is a cool mousepad or coffee cup, an HRC representative is there to take your order.  If what you want is full federal equality, look grassroots to an organization of your choosing. In 2011, rather than helping to create a brand name, lets create equality. 


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