Tough Times at HRC: The Human Rights Campaign-The Nation's Most Prominent Gay Rights Group-Is Battling Not Only Antigay Forces but Also Activists Questioning Its Size and Strategy

By Wildman, Sarah | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), March 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Tough Times at HRC: The Human Rights Campaign-The Nation's Most Prominent Gay Rights Group-Is Battling Not Only Antigay Forces but Also Activists Questioning Its Size and Strategy


Wildman, Sarah, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


On an unseasonably warm night in February, some of the East Coast's wealthiest gay men and lesbians gathered at the posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. At $350 and up per plate, the dinner was a fund-raiser for the Human Rights Campaign; the program was to honor the drug company Pfizer and the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition and featured appearances by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and American Idol finalist Kimberley Locke. Susan Sarandon canceled at the last minute.

Amid the pomp, it was likely that the arriving HRC supporters failed to notice the 30 or so protesters whom eight policeman escorted away from the front of the Waldorf to a space across the street. One held a sign that summed up their argument: WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING WITH ALL OF THAT MONEY?

Ordinarily it would be easy to dismiss such a ragtag group of protesters, especially since HRC has been attracting criticism since its founding almost 25 years ago. But in this case, the man holding the sign is veteran activist Larry Kramer, cofounder of both Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP and author of the just-published manifesto The Tragedy of Today's Gays. "This day and age, what is there to celebrate?" Kramer said from behind his placard. "Everyone's all dressed up and they're going to go in and feel good about themselves. What is there to feel good about?"

In an e-mail he added, "I do not know what place [HRC] has in the community. I do not know what it does. I do not think it would make one bit of difference if they disappeared tomorrow."

Kramer's concerns are shared by many gays and lesbians who want HRC to better explain its day-to-day work. In the five months since one of the most disastrous elections for gay and lesbian rights, many gay activists are turning their anger away from powerful antigay forces and toward HRC, if for no other reason than that it is the country's wealthiest gay rights group.

There is no uniformity of feeling about HRC, though there is no shortage of opinions either. State, local, and grassroots activists are split on the group's effectiveness. While some express gratitude and offer praise for HRC's support, others are questioning just how well the group is doing its job and voicing skepticism about its potential for producing legislative victories in 2005 with a White House and a Congress controlled by vocally antigay Republicans.

Several such activists declined to be quoted on the record, not wanting to incur HRC's wrath. As tiffs story went to press, in fact, one prominent state activist called The Advocate in a panic, having been telephoned by an HRC board member who didn't want any negative comments in the press. Others were more public with their frustrations.

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of New York group Empire State Pride Agenda, says, "People want to know what the largest LGBT organization in the country has delivered for them." Oklahoma activist Terry Gatewood accuses HRC of having been "AWOL" during his state's marriage right in 2004. "I understood they got spanked [in previous state ballot battles], and they were reassessing how much money they were going to put into these rights," Gatewood says. "We just got the total runaround."

"HRC has always had critics and probably always will, and we hope to address those criticisms in a direct, forthright manner," says HRC spokesman David Smith, who was the group's director of communications under former executive director Elizabeth Birch and has just returned to HRC after more than a year away from the organization. "HRC has broad appeal within our community and straight allies. That is evidenced by membership and strong support."

Claiming 600,000 members, HRC remains the country's most visible gay rights organization. Other activists and straight allies look to it to set the national agenda on the right for gay equality and view its victories and its defeats as bellwethers for the gay and lesbian rights movement. …

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