Transgender people and the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest and arguably most influential LGBT civil rights organization, have issues with each other. Big, long-standing issues.
After more than 30 years of feeling marginalized, the vast majority of trans people and their allies simply stopped believing anything this organization says. In some cases, HRC couldn't donate money or provide other support to local and state trans organizations because those offers were refused by activists who detest HRC so much they couldn't bring themselves to cash the donation checks.
HRC was seen as falling behind the rest of the LGBT rights movement. Same-sex marriage is no longer the headline news story it once was, Laverne Cox is on the cover of Time, Janet Mock is a best-selling author, and trans journalists are writing for The Advocate and a variety of publications in commercial media. The country has changed and become far more trans-inclusive and supportive than it used to be, but HRC hasn’t done a very good job keeping up.
Was it really only just over a year ago when an HRC staffer, a field director no less, told a young trans man to remove his transgender flag from a rally stage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court because “marriage isn’t a transgender issue”? Unbelievably, shockingly, yes, it was.
Even more concerning, though, was the way the organization defended itself by making blanket denials of everything, including eyewitness accounts, and finally apologizing only when public pressure mounted and threatened to boil over.
I believe this incident was a turning point for HRC, the moment when those in charge finally came to understand that the organization had been denying reality. The state of the relationship with trans people is the responsibility of HRC and those who have set and administered its policy over the years.
What’s most interesting and significant is that HRC appears it has finally begun turning the page. I know that’s a tough sell for a lot of people, especially for those who have been around as long as I have, but I believe the available evidence supports it.
One of the most common criticisms of HRC is that it has very little trans representation on staff and virtually none in its management ranks or on its executive board. Since the flag incident last year, HRC has been making a significant and commendable effort to put more trans people on staff. I’ve met and interacted with a few of HRC’s new trans staffers and anyone would be impressed with the choices. These are good people. They’ve got the skills and they represent the trans community well. HRC still has a lot more work to do on this front, but there’s also no doubt that it’s made an excellent start.
In my opinion, HRC sending its president, Chad Griffin, to deliver a keynote address at Southern Comfort, one of the longest-running and best-known annual events for trans people, was a pretty ballsy move. Griffin faced an audience that was predisposed to skepticism about anything he said. Just being willing to get up and speak before an audience like that earns Griffin and HRC some respect in my book.
Indeed, it was speaking from that very same stage at Southern Comfort in 2007 that HRC’s previous president Joe Solmonese further shredded HRC's tattered credibility with the trans community by promising it would no longer support legislation that wasn’t trans-inclusive, a promise that didn’t last two full weeks.
Why that promise was broken doesn’t really matter now. What does matter is that it firmly cemented in place the already popular mistrust of the HRC and those who lead the organization.
I’ve been criticizing this organization and its behavior for a long time. Knowing what I know, seeing what I’ve seen, I’m as skeptical as anyone when I see HRC making yet another attempt to rally trans people under its banner. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that it’s different this time.
But even if I’m right and HRC is genuinely looking to make things right with the trans community now, one speech, no matter how contrite it is or what it promises, isn’t going to be good enough. HRC’s platitudes and promises alone aren’t going to change the hearts and minds of this community.
Simply going before a big audience of trans people and saying “You can trust us now” would have been utterly worthless. No one would have believed it, especially not after 2007. Positive, visible, and effective action to better the lives of trans people in real and lasting ways is the best way for HRC to begin the process of convincing people like me that things are different now.
Trans people will want more high-quality trans hires, including more trans people in decision-making positions on policy and in management. They'll want to see more money spent, more (wo)manpower deployed, and more political capital expended on the issues that matter most in the lives of trans people. In short, the HRC must now deliver on becoming the advocate for trans people it’s been claiming to be for a generation now. Nothing less will do.
This speech may prove to be yet another turning point in the relationship between the trans community and the Human Rights Campaign, and I hope it is. Now that the words have been said, though, they must be backed up with visible, verifiable, and effective action in order to be taken seriously.
An HRC that trans people can rely on to have our backs would be a powerful ally, but allies must be trustworthy. For myself, I’ve been fighting this organization for a long time, for most of the 17 and a half years I’ve lived as an out trans woman. I don’t want to fight HRC anymore. I want our community to benefit from effective use of the resources of the largest and most influential LGBT civil rights organization in the country to better our lives. I’d much rather work with HRC for the betterment of all of us than to see our community have to keep expending so much time and energy working around it.
Just as HRC’s behavior over the years has brought us to this place, it will be its actions going forward that may guide us beyond it.
REBECCA JURO is a journalist and radio host who writes about media for Advocate.com. Her work has been published by The Bilerico Project, The Huffington Post, Washington Blade, and Gay City News. The Rebecca Juro Show streams live Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. Eastern.