The Queer Issue: You're Doing It Wrong
The Human Rights Campaign—the Country's Largest LGBT Lobbying Group—Has Failed
The Queer Issue: You're Doing It Wrong
I once entertained the fantasy that I might one day be a politician. Prime minister, of course. There was no need for modesty at the age of 9. But it took a little growing up—a fun but tumultuous student political career at Oxford and a stint running one of America's better political magazines, the New Republic—to realize I was useless at it. I was no plotter; I found it hard to lie to people's faces; I hated the forced socializing; I was a useless negotiator, always asking for exactly what I wanted from the get-go. I found it hard not to take opposition personally. And my misanthropy—it's really much more universal than just misogyny—put the kibosh on it.
Gay politics—in so far as I have engaged in it—was even worse than the regular kind. Most of us were emotionally damaged enough to spend most of our time backbiting or time-wasting. There was so much PC bullshit all around, you were lucky if it didn't splash up and infect your pierced nose. There was a cloying leftist smugness combined with a supine attitude toward any straight politician prepared to cash a check. And there was no strategy. The gay leaders who actually had something to say, and an ability to say it well, were in the mainstream or alternative press or theater. The idea that, say, former Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch or current HRC president Joe Solmonese had ever had a dream—apart from meeting Cyndi Lauper—was ludicrous. Solmonese had barely written a single op-ed or given a single speech in defense of gay equality before he was parachuted into the leadership by boomer donors and pro-choice monomaniacs. I spent much of the 1990s watching Birch go into one whiny defensive crouch after another because hardball political opponents (like, er, Bill Clinton) were mean to her. The week in 1996 when we actually got the first congressional hearing on marriage equality—the most prominent forum ever for the argument—she called "hell week." She just wanted her non- discrimination bill from her nervous Democratic Party stalwarts in return for gobloads of cash.
At first I was just bemused by this. All these fags and dykes without a clue how to play hardball politics—just like me!—were pushing the gay movement nowhere slowly. And I mean nowhere. In 1989, HRC's top priority was passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In 2011, HRC's top priority is still passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. They were scared of tackling the military ban and absolutely terrified by any notion of civil marriage rights. First things first, we were told. Employment nondiscrimination polled the best, annoyed the fewest, and was an easy pitch to nervous Dems. Besides, it had massive public support. Today, a federal employment nondiscrimination law for gays polls at around 90 percent. In fact, 90 percent of Americans think it already is the law! But it isn't. Any organization that places its top priority on a law that has 90 percent approval but cannot get it passed in 20 years is doing something wrong.
Here's what you don't do. You don't give standing ovations to politicians like Clinton and Obama who just screwed you over. You don't prematurely endorse a primary candidate (Hillary) who goes on to lose; you don't endorse a Democratic presidential candidate (Obama) before you even know who his opponent will be; you don't tell a new president that you're happy to wait eight years to have your agenda implemented (Solmonese's classic gaffe in 2009). After Obama's speech at HRC's dinner that year, as he was driven back to the White House, the president remarked how stunned he had been by the response. "I was expecting a rough crowd," he said, according to a White House source. How pathetic were the gays that they would throw themselves in front of him even after he had failed to advance any of their core objectives in his presidency thus far? This wasn't how politics was played. Was it a triple non-bluff bluff? Or were they just useless?
Here's more of what you don't do. You don't deep-dive into local communities, hire Bravo TV celebs as speakers, and vacuum all the donation cash to build and own a multistory complex in Washington, DC, that screams "We don't expect to be done with this for at least a few decades." You don't build a civil rights movement by selling rainbow fucking candles and teddies-for-equality in gay neighborhoods where nobody needs persuading in the first place. You don't get the vapors when you get invited to talk to the White House; you don't go to West Wing cocktail parties as a substitute for real legislation. You don't become a rolling carnival of glittered black-tie silent-auction dinners.
If you want to see how to do it, check out AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They raise shitloads of money and leverage it with a cold-blooded brutality against any candidate of either party who strays from within an inch of the Israeli government's line of the day. They ally with a massive movement, the religious right, to keep the GOP in line, and give 10 times the amount that gays do to congressional candidates through networked member donations. They get the American taxpayer to give billions in aid to the most prosperous and well-armed country in its region. And they pummel any critic of anything to do with Israel as an anti-Semite. They take no shit, and they make their case with constant passion and amazement that anyone could possibly think otherwise.
We do not need inspirational thinkers or speakers at HRC—we have plenty of them everywhere you look. We do not need more communicators (although the cloying, smug, corporate-speak messages from Solmonese could do with a vicious copy editor). Our message has reached millions in the best way possible—through a cultural revolution, an intellectual argument, and a non-lefty mainstreaming strategy. What we need are people able to harness this broad and successful movement and bring the federal legislative goods home. We need an organization with some cunning, persistence, and passion in getting lawmakers to vote the way we want them to. It can be done—look at how Tim Gill's relatively tiny movement focused its energies and got marriage equality in Iowa and New York State. It requires professionals with more interest in getting shit done than basking in celebrities' reflected glory or sending out press releases. It requires letting Democrats know we are not pussies and letting Republicans know they should fear us and our families.
It requires those with no talent for this kind of politics to leave the stage. It's time the gays handled political bargaining with the same zeal and attention to detail as a lesbian real estate agent with a mortgage or a gay cardinal planning the Easter Vigil. We can surely do it—but on a federal level, we almost always haven't. Yes, HRC is an easy target. But only because they so magnificently deserve every flying turd they get.
Andrew Sullivan is an award-winning author, editor, political commentator, and blogger (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com).