The year 2004 was not kind to the country's leading national gay-rights organization. It stumbled badly on the three essential P's of a civil rights organization: people, policy, and politics. It needs to address its deficiencies in all three areas if it is to be an effective voice for gay equality.
Start with HRC's leadership crisis. For years, HRC was guided by the articulate, intelligent, moderate-sounding Elizabeth Birch. She helped transform the group into a real political powerhouse, dramatically enlarging its staff and budget, and for the most part guided it successfully among the tricky shoals of Washington politics.
But Birch stepped down in early 2004 and was replaced by Cheryl Jacques, a Democratic state legislator from Massachusetts. Jacques was newly out of the closet and had no experience in Washington politics. But she seemed like a quick study.
By all accounts, the choice was terrible. Jacques had a management style that irked HRC's staff. As a partisan Democrat, she seems to have had no taste for the compromise so essential in a Capitol dominated by a party hostile to her cause. Her rhetoric was often shrill; worse, she presided over some truly dreadful policy shifts and political maneuvers.
Next, consider policy. In the summer of 2004, after years of principled resistance, HRC announced that it would not support the legislative centerpiece of the national gay rights movement, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), unless it protected transgenders as well as gays from job discrimination. This decision followed years of protest against HRC on the issue by transgender activists and gay leftists.
The reason for HRC's previous unwillingness to add transgender protections to ENDA was obvious: adding "gender identity" would greatly weaken the prospect of passing the bill anytime soon. Jacques penned a column for the gay media defending the about-face for two reasons. First, she offered a lot of blather about respecting the movement's "diversity," as though effectively killing ENDA would enhance diversity.
Second, she argued that protection for gays would be incomplete without protection for transgenders. This appeal to gays' self-interest was untrue, as any honest person familiar with the law should know.
Most irresponsibly, HRC made this symbolic gesture apparently without conducting any research about what its political impact would be. How many congressional sponsors might be lost? How many moderate Republicans and even Democrats would support a transgender-inclusive ENDA? We were never told. When HRC insisted for the first time in 2004 that senators sign a nondiscrimination pledge including "gender identity," many fewer senators signed the pledge than when it had previously included only "sexual orientation." Under Jacques, HRC had done exactly what it resisted doing under Birch: it had sacrificed practical goals for therapeutic grandstanding.
Finally, consider politics. In 2004, HRC sounded and acted in a more partisan Democratic fashion than ever before. Part of this can be attributed to how bad the Republicans have become, especially with the GOP push for a Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA). But HRC overreacted, endorsing John Kerry in the spring of 2004 and thus ending any leverage its endorsement might have given it over him.
That leverage would have come in handy. Kerry backed a state constitutional amendment in Massachusetts to end gay marriage there, said he had "no problem" with a similar measure on the ballot in Missouri, waffled on the ban on gays in the military, hardly ever even used the word "gay" during the campaign, and never repeated his earlier-stated support for pro-gay measures like ENDA. On gay issues, he was the worst Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis. But HRC had nothing to say about these matters during the campaign.
The other big political mistake was HRC's failure to endorse the most important gay-friendly Republican in the Senate, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Specter is hated by social conservatives for his pro-gay policy positions, including his opposition to the FMA. He's also in line to become chair of the important Senate Judiciary Committee, which vets judicial nominees.
So why no HRC endorsement? Because Specter voted for a motion to close debate and bring the FMA up for a vote in the Senate. Voting against this procedural "cloture" became the be-all and end-all of HRC's endorsement process (except when it came to the national Democratic nominees, who didn't even bother to show up for the vote but kept HRC's endorsement). It was a wooden and silly decision with ramifications we have yet to appreciate.
Can anything be done to save HRC from the political wilderness? Here are three suggestions. First, HRC should hire a Republican executive director. This will be unpopular among gay leftists, but it should help repair relations with Republicans like Specter and help moderate the group's image and rhetoric in a national political climate likely to be dominated by the GOP for some time.
Second, the group should back off on transgender inclusion in ENDA. HRC can offer the excuse that it had not fully gauged how much opposition there would be to the move. To quell the outcry on the left, have a member of Congress introduce a separate, transgender-inclusive bill supported by HRC.
Third, refocus time and energy on state issues and legislatures. In the current climate, little can be done at the national level except to fend off anti-gay proposals like the FMA. The real action has moved to the states, where some progress toward the legislative recognition of gay relationships may be made and where will be fighting anti-marriage initiatives for several election cycles to come.
Alas, HRC seems unlikely to do any of these things and so its distressing slide into irrelevance will probably continue.