Confronting the Great White HRC

BY KELLY COGSWELL | When Buzzfeed broke the news last week that the Human Rights Campaign had a diversity problem, the response among many activists was a great big, “Duh.” The only surprise was that the HRC folks had commissioned the report themselves, and having decided to look in the mirror, actually admitted that staring back was the face of a privileged white gay male.

So kudos to HRC for bringing in outside consultants to respond to complaints of what the report called the “White Boys Club.” More importantly, congrats on taking steps to make the organization less homogenous.

The only question is just how far HRC is willing to go. It’s easy enough to create gender-neutral bathrooms. And they’ll probably even make some progress in respecting people’s gender identities. It’s not that hard, after all. If somebody that you thought was a woman asks you to refer to them with male pronouns, you just drop the “s” and start using “he.”

Maybe HRC will even start seeing every new hire, every promotion as a chance to look around the table and ask, “Who’s not here?” And to hire fresh talent who may happen to be women, racial minorities, or trans people.

But once they’re there, will they actually have access to power or a chance to exercise their abilities? There’s no shortage of women at HRC right now, just not in managerial positions. In fact, according to the report, the atmosphere is hostile to women and feminine men, with straight women privileged over bi women and dykes, not to mention trans women. And while some racial and gender minorities are represented, they’re also not at the top. Which means it’s not particularly reassuring to find that 80 percent of HRC employees apparently believe diversity is important since the other 20 percent seem to be running the show.

Entrenched as these gay white males are, what on earth would persuade them to share power? Especially now, when they have so much juice that they even turn up on TV as Washington powerbrokers, waltzing in and out of Madame Secretary’s outer office?

I have no idea. Especially since so much of their power comes from their huge war chest, which they can use to lobby politicians or mobilize huge numbers of voters. And funders rarely like change. They want what they’ve bought and paid for. And if there’s any handshaking to do, it better not be with anybody new. Besides, they’re all part of the same informal network. Paul only wrote the check to Bob in the first place because they were both in the same dorm at Yale.

So if HRC leadership are tempted to integrate the boardroom, or even start new programs, I can imagine their fear. Donations may slip. Then their power. We queers are no better than the rest of society. We cling to the little we have. And the closer we get to the center of power, the more conservative we become, and the more we reflect its whiteness, its cisgender, exclusionary maleness.

Still, what does it cost us activists to quit snickering and believe HRC can change, or even see that belief as a strategic necessity? How else can we push them toward it? Remind them of their goals and demand action?

The organization is more complex than the graying monolithic beast we usually imagine. I was unexpectedly invited to HRC a year ago to talk about the Lesbian Avengers, and was surprised to see how many young lesbians were there in the audience and how eager they were to talk about street activism and the limits of institutional power. I was prepared to do a big spiel defending my right to exist, but I didn’t need to. Not to that crowd anyway. The young women were attracted to HRC not for the meager salary, but because they thought HRC could make a difference. And because there weren’t many alternatives. Increasingly they are speaking up.

It would be nice if we saw them as an integral part of HRC not as a token appendage. Especially since this report seems to betray an inner fight for the soul of HRC and maybe the soul of the entire LGBT movement, which has never done a good job supporting our entire community. Now, as the marriage equality fight winds down, we should seize the opportunity to renew ourselves and reconsider diversity as more than a pleasing balance of skin tones and genitalia, or even a question of abstract fairness.

Diversity is an asset. A pool of perspectives, imagination, and experience. And if we are to solve our most intransigent problems, or even identify or articulate them, we need more than usual suspects on the job. Not just at HRC. But in any queer organization that wants to be fresh, relevant, and effective.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota.