Last Friday, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin stood in front of several hundred trans people, friends, and allies from around the country at the annual Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta to say something that has been long overdue. He acknowledged and apologized for past slights and behaviors at the heart of a significant gap between HRC and the trans community in the hopes that fences can finally be mended. Just as important, he pledged that the organization would do better in the future.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, letting it seep in and settle in my consciousness. What happened in 2007, when then-HRC president Joe Solmonese stood on that very same stage making promises and commitments that would prove to be inconvenient and hollow less than six weeks later, continues to be a dagger between the shoulders for many of us who dared to believe back then. Perhaps nobody felt that pain more acutely than I.
At the time I was the first and only trans member of the HRC board of directors. I was the cochair of the diversity committee. Jamison Green and I worked tirelessly for the business council, and many of the workplace protections and benefits that have become such an important reality for many trans people today are a direct result of the work that we started. As a board member, I raised a significant amount of money to fund the critical work we were doing, and I spoke passionately and tirelessly at dinners around the country. I rolled up my sleeves and wasn’t afraid to fight on the front lines wherever and whenever necessary. Why? Because I believed. I trusted that the organization would stay true to the lofty ideals I thought we represented. When it proved that it didn’t, I had to go.
Knowing what I know of the backstory of what happened, all I can say is that my sense of betrayal, anger, hurt, and frustration continues to this day. Time has dulled some of it, but the scab has still not healed. I realize we all need to put the past behind us in order to move forward, and I’m trying my best to do that, I really am. What happened was deeply, deeply personal, and there has still been no closure for me. But that’s water under the bridge at this point, and none of that is Chad’s fault.
Although Chad stood on that stage and apologized last week, the truth is that he fell on a sword that wasn’t his to fall on. It was drawn by leaders in the organization who are no longer there and who I can say without hesitation were directly responsible for what unfolded and how. Chad inherited their ill-conceived legacy of anger and distrust, and has pledged to fix it. I respect him for that.
It’s important to recognize that HRC today is not the same organization it was then. At the same time, the collective trans community (and entire LGBT community, for that matter) has changed too. We have matured. We have weathered tests that strained the bonds of “community” and challenged our collective commitment to the high ideals I spoke of in my resignation letter. Whether we realize it or not, we have emerged the stronger for it.
I have never met Chad Griffin, so I have no personal sense of his commitment to his words or his ability to keep his promises. Although I give him the benefit of the doubt, I hope to meet with him at some point to form my own opinion, as I trust my instincts. However, he’s off to a good start. The organization that he leads is already light-years ahead of where it was when I first got involved more than a decade ago. People I admire and respect greatly who left the organization around the “dark time” are back in leadership positions. Jay Brown, the director of foundation program strategies, is someone I’d stand with in battle any time, anywhere. Brandon Braud again leads the initiatives involving historically black colleges and universities with passion and skill. I met Hayden Mora, the deputy chief of staff, at Southern Comfort and came away impressed and hopeful. Internally, the organization has revamped and realigned its foundation structure to address the issues that affect the daily lives of many LGBT people.
Can the organization do more? Of course it can. Per Chad’s speech, he recognizes that, and he pledged to address it through action. I have several nuggets of constructive personal advice for him. Let us help you keep the commitments that you made Friday. Don’t think you are doing things for us — do them with us. Actively reach out and engage those of us who may not have sipped the Kool-Aid yet, and take what we tell you seriously. Ask us what we need and what our priorities are; don’t presume to tell us. Don’t patronize us or placate us — it will only make us angry. Lead through example. Respect us, include us, embrace us, but most important of all, for God’s sake, realize that honesty and integrity must be nonnegotiable if this relationship is going to work. Without that, there is nothing.
I want to believe that things are different now. I really do. It’s not that I’m a glutton for punishment. Rather, I consider myself a pragmatist first and foremost. We need to make this relationship work, not simply for the sake of the T but for the sake of all who define themselves by some letter of our continually growing LGBTQ+ alphabet soup. We’re either in this together or we’re not. Anything gained for some at the expense of others will ultimately prove itself to be a hollow victory for all. Been there, done that.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Based on Chad’s comments last week, all I can promise in return is to do my best to try. Let’s start with that and see where it goes. If enough of us feel similarly — well, I dare to dream.
DONNA ROSE is a transgender activist and a former Human Rights Campaign board member. Read her blog at DonnaRose.com.