by Chuck Colbert
In a gracious and surprising move, the president of the nation’s largest LGBT organization offered an apology to the transgender community at the same time he said the group would take a lead in advocating fully comprehensive federal LGBT civil-rights legislation.
“I want to cut right to the chase here today,” said Human Rights Campaign (HRC) president Chad Griffin in Atlanta Sept. 5, addressing several hundred people at the annual Southern Comfort conference, a major gathering for transgender people.
“There’s an elephant in this room, and, well, it’s me,” he said.
“So I am here today, at Southern Comfort, to deliver a message. … HRC has done wrong by the transgender community in the past, and I am here to formally apologize,” said Griffin.
As he explained, “I am sorry for the times when we stood apart when we should have been standing together.
“Even more than that, I am sorry for the times you have been underrepresented or unrepresented by this organization. What happens to trans people is absolutely central to the LGBT struggle. And as the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, HRC has a responsibility to do that struggle justice, or else we are failing at our fundamental mission.”
Griffin’s speech also decried violence against transgender people, calling it a “national crisis.” He listed a number of ways HRC is working toward transgender equality in the workplace and toward raising the visibility of transgender persons through story telling. Griffin asked that both he and HRC be held “accountable.”
He reaffirmed that HRC would continue to press for a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban workplace bias on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
But Griffin also pledged support for broader protections.
In the next Congress, he said, “HRC will lead the campaign for a fully-inclusive, comprehensive, LGBT civil rights bill. A bill with non-discrimination protections that don’t stop at employment, but that finally touch every aspect of our lives – from housing, to public accommodations, to credit, to federal funding, to the education we all need to succeed and thrive.
“And I’m going to keep being honest with you, this is not going to be an easy fight.”
HRC posted the text of Griffin’s 2,400-word speech on the organization’s blog (http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/speaking-at-southern-comfort-2014).
A healing speech
HRC has long had a fraught relationship with the transgender community. Former leader Elizabeth Birch made some progress, when in 2003 the organization added the “T” to its goals and ostensibly included the entire LGBT community. But HRC has regularly been criticized for not reaching out to trans groups and not having many trans people on its board. Currently HRC has at least one trans-identified board member, Meghan Stabler of Dallas.
In addressing Southern Comfort, Griffin aimed to heal the most recent rift between HRC and the transgender community, which dates back to 2007. That year Joe Solmonese, then HRC president, told Southern Comfort attendees that the organization would advocate federal employment protections, fully inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
But when former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said that ENDA with gender identity provisions would not pass in Congress, HRC followed his lead and supported a measure inclusive only of protections for sexual orientation. Many transgender people felt betrayed by HRC’s backing of Frank, and a deep, if not bitter, divide ensued.
More recently, while ENDA passed the Senate on Nov. 7, 2013 by a 64-32 vote, marking the first time that legislative body approved federal civil rights legislation banning anti-LGBT employment bias, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said repeatedly that he would not bring ENDA to a vote, claiming the legislation is unnecessary and would lead to frivolous litigation.
Meanwhile, a growing number of national and statewide LGBT organizations, including the Transgender Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights, have come out against the proposed ENDA, saying that while it bans workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the federal law also would allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBTs even in non-ministerial or pastoral capacities.
Currently, 21 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have laws barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, with 17 states and D.C. also barring discrimination based on gender identity.
Transgender activists, leadership pleased
Although not in attendance at the Southern Comfort conference, several transgender activists and organizational leaders said they are heartened by Griffin and HRC’s reconciliatory outreach.
“I believe Griffin’s speech may well prove a milestone in the relationship between HRC and the trans community, if the organization follows through on its promises,” said North Brunswick, New Jersey-based Rebecca Juro, a transgender woman, freelance journalist, and radio talk show host, who has often been critical of HRC.
In email correspondence she added, “I think the greatest sense of betrayal felt by the trans community about HRC revolves around the organization’s advocacy in the past of legislation that didn’t include gender identity and expression protections. Griffin not only pledged that the organization would only support fully-inclusive legislation, but also announced an effort to pass an omnibus bill that would include protections not only for LGBT people in employment, but also in housing, health care, credit, public accommodations, federal funding, and education. I believe that’s important, particularly because it challenges the notion that the piecemeal approach to LGBT rights we’ve seen thus far at the federal level is the only way to go.”
Transgender activist, blogger, and columnist Autumn Sandeen of San Diego also voiced praise for HRC’s bridge-building gesture.
“Chad Griffin apologizing to trans people, identifying a path to change the relationship between the HRC and trans community, and then asking to hold the HRC and him to account is important,” she said in an email. “That he made the apology where one of the HRC’s most significant breakings of faith toward trans community began as well signals a real sincerity. I’m hopeful – I’m optimistic – that Chad Griffin and the HRC will make good on this Southern Comfort conference delivered promise to trans community.”
One national trans leaders said the apology was “overdue.”
Masen Davis, executive director of the Oakland, California-based Transgender Law Center (TLC), said in a phone interview that he was “very impressed by the content and what seemed to be the spirit behind the speech at Southern Comfort,” even though “it was in many ways long overdue to approach the transgender community and apologize for what happened in 2007.”
“While that debacle did not happen on Chad’s leadership, I thought it was an important step forward to acknowledge it and pledge to work differently with the transgender community,” Davis added.
With respect to ENDA, Davis said TLC is supportive of “any effort to secure strong [employment] non-discrimination protections for LGBT people at the federal level” provided that the protections “are strong and that they stand the test of time and protect all members of our community, including those who work for religious institutions.”
He also voiced support for Griffin’s call for an omnibus, federal LGBT civil rights measure.
“I am a big believer that we have an important responsibility to ensure that our communities get the protections that they need,” Davis said. “Obviously, employment is so critical, but employment is just one of the many areas that we need to make sure our people are protected.”
Davis cited other areas, including housing discrimination, health care discrimination and discrimination in credit.
“All areas of life where LGBT people run into challenges and to the extent that the federal government has any jurisdiction,” he said.
Davis acknowledged that it would likely take time before a broader LGBT civil rights law is passed in Congress.
“It may take time for that to be crafted and get the champions we need for its passage,” Davis said. “But it wasn’t that long ago that people were concerned that marriage would not get the support it needed, and here we are with a slew of marriage victories. I think we need to set high standards for ourselves and our community and start putting forward the kinds of legal support we need and deserve.”
Shannon Minter, legal director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, said Griffin’s speech was “an important moment in HRC’s relationship with the transgender community.”
“It took guts for Chad to acknowledge that HRC has made some past mistakes without attempting to gloss over the pain and mistrust those mistakes have caused,” Minter said in an email. “I give him huge credit for stepping up and taking that on, even though he was not at the helm when those mistakes were made. That shows true leadership and foresight. I think his remarks were heartfelt and that he is genuinely committed to including transgender people in HRC’s work, which is essential if we are to continue to make progress.”
Looking beyond Griffin’s Southern Comfort speech, Minter said that “the biggest challenge for HRC and all of the national organizations in doing effective advocacy for transgender people is to find ways to stay in touch with what is happening on the ground and to support local transgender activism and leaders, especially transgender leaders of color who far too often are passed over when it comes to funding, visibility, and credit.”
In his remarks, Griffin mentioned the leadership of Davis and Minter, among others, as an “inspiration” to the LGBT movement and “to me personally,” he said.