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HRC's Chad Griffin on Trans Inclusion, ENDA, and Michael Sam

HRC's Chad Griffin on Trans Inclusion, ENDA, and Michael Sam


Interviewed just hours after his historic apology to trans people at the Southern Comfort conference, Griffin talks to Advocate contributor Rebecca Juro about HRC's plans and priorities.

If you're a trans person who feels wronged by the Human Rights Campaign, HRC president Chad Griffin wants you to know two things: he and his organization are sorry for how the group has behaved in the past toward trans people and issues, and the nation's largest LGBT lobbying group intends to make things right.

If you're skeptical that HRC will keep the promises Griffin made during his speech at Southern Comfort, Griffin wants you to hold he and his colleagues accountable.

In an interview that aired on The Rebecca Juro Show Friday, just a few hours after he gave that historic speech, Griffin took on the issue of repairing HRC's reputation in the trans community, why he believes trans people can be assured that the organization has genuinely evolved on trans inclusion and issues, the path forward on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a proposed omnibus LGBT civil rights bill bill, HRC's commitment to diversity and inclusion within its own ranks, and even the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team, Michael Sam.

Rebecca Juro: I want to ask you about your own perspective on trans issues and HRC's relationship with the trans community. In your speech at Southern Comfort earlier today, you spoke about attending an HRC gala in Ohio and discovering that while HRC's event was taking place on the second floor, there was a separate trans event taking place on the floor above you. As you said, the divide between HRC and the trans community was literally right there in front of you.

Most of the history which created that divide happened before you took over as president of the Human Rights Campaign, but now you're the public face of this organization. What do you see as your role in the process of healing old wounds and helping HRC evolve into a truly trans-inclusive and supportive organization?

Chad Griffin: Obviously, I came into this job well aware of the history and well aware of this divide. I've been in this job for about two years, and I really wanted the time to be in that building and to work with our staff and to be able to improve our programs and ensure that we are, everywhere we can and across the board, making trans issues a priority and integrated into every single one of our programs.

Although what you saw in the speech that I gave today, I made very clear that I formally apologize for HRC's wrongs with the transgender community the past -- something I was obviously well aware of when I came into this job. But something that was very clear to me from the beginning [was] that we had to close this gap, and the buck stops with me. It is my responsibility.

I obviously have an incredible team, phenomenal board members and volunteers I work with on a daily basis on all of these important issues, but this is my job, because we have so much to do. So for us to have such a divide, and for us to have made these mistakes in the past, and I make clear that not [only] am I apologizing for the things you mention specifically, but I also apologize for the many times that the trans community has been either underrepresented or unrepresented by this organization. It is my responsibility to fix that, and that is exactly what I have been spending time on over these last couple of years, and I intend to continue to make that a priority.

It is common knowledge that you're not president of HRC in the same way as Barack Obama is president of the United States. HRC's executive board is the entity that actually sets policy for the organization, and you serve at their pleasure. In other words, if the board decides they're not happy with you, they can fire you.

We also know that many of the same people sitting on HRC's executive board today were also there when HRC was still actively advocating for legislation that wasn't inclusive of gender identity and expression protections. I know that these board meetings are private, but I'd like you to talk a little bit -- as much as you can -- about the evolution of HRC's executive board on these issues.

Specifically, why should trans people be confident today that we won't see a repeat of the board's past behavior in regard to trans inclusion and issues? How can we be sure that one day HRC's executive board won't just vote to go back to treating trans people and issues the way they have historically?

It's absolutely a fair question. I am the president of this board; we do have a board of directors, obviously, who hired me, and I can tell you that this is the view and has the full support of our entire board of directors. When I came into this organization, I made very clear that this was a priority for me and it would be a priority for our staff. The board as well made very clear that this is a priority for them. I can tell you that this board was as eager for us to move forward ... as I am.

I have the full support of the board of directors in the apology that I made today, as well as the commitment of our staff and our resources and our budget to these issues today and in the future, so I speak with great confidence, not only on my behalf, [but also for] our entire organization, as well as our board of governors and our board of directors, when I say that this apology is sincere and that our commitment today and going forward is unwavering.

I want to talk about what HRC is doing on trans issues now. We have to start with the big one, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Many organizations, as you know, have withdrawn support for the bill because of the broad religious exemption which would allow religiously affiliated businesses to fire or refuse to hire based on religious beliefs, even for positions that have nothing to do with the practice of religion, such as janitors and nurses.

You announced today that in the next session of Congress, HRC will lead the campaign for a fully inclusive omnibus LGBT antidiscrimination bill that will cover not only employment but also housing, public accommodations, credit, federal funding, and education.

I've got a couple of questions here.

First, does this mean HRC is completely withdrawing its support for ENDA?

No, it does not. I have made clear that ENDA, including the ENDA that we all together as a community pushed our elected leaders in Congress to move forward, that we got out of the United States Senate ... in a bipartisan vote, all the Democrats and 10 Republicans supporting it. There is no question that this bill isn't perfect but ... let me make clear what it is and what it does.

There has been a lot of confusion out there about this bill and what it does and doesn't do. Passing ENDA is one of the most important pieces of legislation for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community today. There's no question.

When we went in to negotiate this bill, in order to get the votes that we needed, we as a community all agreed on two priorities. We cannot leave anyone behind: it must an inclusive bill. We will support nothing else.

The second thing we all agreed was a priority and was non-negotiable, was that private employers could not use religious reasons to discriminate. Now, what you refer to as the religious exemption, there is an exemption that goes further than Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964], that allows religious institutions to discriminate. I wish it wasn't there, it shouldn't be there, but this bill does a lot of good.

And if we can get this done and cover the vast majority of LGBT people living all across this country, especially in the places between California and Washington, D.C., places where the need is the greatest, where there are zero protections, we would change thousands, in fact millions of lives immediately. Our job will not be done, no question. There would need to be improvement, need to be fixes, but ... it's my view and it's our organization's view that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good in this case.

I wish the religious exemption wasn't there. It is unnecessary. It shouldn't be there. Unfortunately, in order to get legislation done in Washington, that was something that was required. It was something that was supported by some Democrats and many Republicans.

Now, let me say something really important. As we move forward ... we really have an ability in the next Congress, and I think it is something we must do, and I have said and I said in my speech earlier today that HRC will lead the campaign for a fully inclusive, comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill. And this is not a bill that just provides employment protections, but it's something that will touch all the aspects of our lives when it comes to protections that we need, from housing to public accommodations to credit to federal funding and to education. Something the entire community needs to succeed and to thrive.

Right now it seems very unlikely Democrats will retake the House during this year's election. We also know that Speaker Boehner is hostile to LGBT civil rights protections and has been thus far unwilling to allow a vote on ENDA. Talk a little bit about what that effort will look like, and how HRC plans to confront the political realities of today's Congress. Do you see a path to passage on a bill like this at this time?

Well look, let me be honest and let me be direct, just as I was earlier today at the speech at Southern Comfort. We're not doing this because it's going to be easy. It will not be. We're not doing this because it's going to happen overnight, because it won't. We're doing it because it's the right thing, and we should as a community be asking for and advocating for full and complete protections for our entire community. And we've got to start somewhere.

And so you're absolutely right. Today we can't get a vote in the House on ENDA, and just as it relates to employment protections. Now, having said that, there are folks who said we couldn't get this done in the Senate, and we were able to count to over 60 in the United States Senate.

I will not give up. I will not give up until the last day of this Congress, and we will fight like hell to move every single vote we can. And we are organizing today in over 30 congressional districts all over this country. We've invested millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer and staff hours all across this country.

Now, as we move into the next Congress, we should not assume that the political landscape is going to change dramatically. That's our job. We as a community have to organize. We have to organize at the grassroots level. We have to work with business at the grassroots level in order to move elected officials. And not just Democrats, but some of those Republicans, too, that we can move to our side of this issue, because it's going to take Republicans and Democrats coming together before we can get anything done -- the current ENDA or the fully expansive civil rights bill you and I are talking about today.

We are committed to leading that, and we are committed to ensuring that the resources of this organization are devoted to that issue, and of course partnering with the incredible groups all across this country that we will need to be working and marching with arm-in-arm to ever ensure passage.

Over the last year or so, HRC has been hiring trans people into staff positions and as you announced today, Hayden Mora, who is a trans man, has been appointed deputy chief of staff. Most of the trans people I've talked to are encouraged by this effort, but they want to see more trans people hired at HRC, and they specifically want to see more diversity in terms of age and racial and ethnic background. What can you tell us about that? Can we expect to see HRC hiring more trans people and putting more of us in management and policy decision-making positions?

Without question. ... The job is never done, in ensuring that not only within our staff, but also in our board, as well as in our programs. When I talk about the priority and importance of diversity, if we're not diverse in our people and in our work, then we're not doing our job. We have to be diverse, and I'm glad you mentioned Hayden.

You know, Hayden, he is an incredible leader. He was at [Service Employees International Union] for a long time, has been with us for about a year, and has now been elevated to deputy chief of staff, and one of the responsibilities within Hayden's portfolio as deputy chief of staff will be our diversity and inclusion efforts, not only internally in the organization but also externally, when it comes to our programs and our work as well as our volunteer committee.

We can never do enough on this issue. The diversity of this organization over the last couple of years has improved, as you acknowledge, but it's never enough. We have to continue to ensure that every time we have an opening we have a diverse pool of candidates, and that's how we're able to infuse diversity throughout our building, and I am very proud at the lengths we've been able to go in these last two years.

We still have a long ways to go today. We have seven openly trans and gender-nonconforming staff and it is progress. It's not enough, and we will continue to do more, and I am so glad that Hayden's on our team, as you mention.

I have several listeners who will never forgive me if I don't ask you about Michael Sam, the very first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL. Sam was drafted and then cut by the St. Louis Rams, but picked up by the Dallas Cowboys for their practice squad. I'm no great expert on football, but friends who are into it tell me that if Sam hadn't come out they have no doubt with his record and skill level he'd have easily made a first-string squad somewhere. Do you believe that homophobia played a role here?

You know, I'll be totally honest. I don't know the answer to that. I do love that the Dallas Cowboys, that he now has a home. Michael Sam is someone who is a brave, brave hero in my opinion. You know, you look at Michael Sam, you look at Jason Collins, you look at Brittney Griner, these are folks who are trailblazers. They are standing up and they are coming out in professions where they are literally on an island, where they are the only one, and so I think that in many ways they are tests to see how folks are going to respond. I think ... the things I've seen Michael Sam say have not indicated this, and I think it would be inappropriate for me to in any way pontificate as to why that did happen or might have happened. I would defer to him on it.

What I have been so impressed with is his poise and his confidence and his willingness to speak up and speak out while constantly saying, "I have one job, and that's to be the best damn football player I can be," and I think that we all owe Michael and Brittney and Jason and so many others a great deal of gratitude because they're trailblazers, and they certainly have struggled. Some we'll probably never know about, as they come out and achieve success in their careers, but what we do know, they're making life better already today for thousands, countless young people all across this country that now see them as role models, and in some cases perhaps even saving lives, and they'll make it so much easier for those who come behind them. It's an exciting time in sports.

Is there a role for HRC in taking on the issue of homophobia in the NFL and other pro sports?

Well, I think one of the things that we can do, first of all, that we've consistently done with our communications and public affairs platform, is always call out the hate when we see it. That's number 1, but number 2, elevate those stories, elevate the story every single time, whether it's a high school athlete or a professional athlete [who] comes out of the closet.

You know we've dramatically increased our work in the South ... including in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, that don't have a single protection even in a city that is yet law. Also, no statewide LGBT organizations in those states. So we have made places like that a true priority in the Midwest and in the South. And if you look at the South and you look at the importance of athletes, players, and coaches, it's incredible.

Young people growing up look up to those athletes, and so to have not only folks like Michael, Jason, Brittney, and others coming out of the closet but having straight allies, having other players and coaches vocally, verbally, stand up and publicly support them, it does a lot of good. And [what] we can do is amplify those positive stories, and I hope we're entering a place where we have more positive stories to amplify than we have hate to call out.

The full interview can be heard here.

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