Men arrive at Margaret Cho concerts wearing homemade “Ass Master” T-shirts—tributes to the comedienne’s riff on her immigrant mother puzzling over the gay porn at the family’s Castro Street newsstand. Cho’s comedy includes a reenactment of being fisted by a short, butch dyke at an S&M club.
So it’s not like Human Rights Campaign (HRC) executive director Cheryl Jacques didn’t know what she was in for when she asked the woman gay men and lesbians have adopted as their own Lenny Bruce to headline what turned out to be its somewhat misnamed Unity 2004 Celebration on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.
Perhaps Jacques got her advice from the folks who tapped Amiri Baraka to be poet laureate of New Jersey—they were probably expecting rhyming couplets about trees à la Joyce Kilmer. When Baraka got booted by Garden State lawmakers last year, he’d at least scribbled his way to the pink slip. Cho got disinvited before speaking a word. And then Jacques pretended the decision had been a queer coalition of the willing maneuver rather than a coup d’état.
All the rules changed, at least for Democrats, after Whoopi Goldberg beat the Bushes at a recent fundraiser for Candidate John Kerry, and became a new kind of losing proposition for Slim Fast. Goldberg was unrepentant, but luckily for HRC, Cho took a different path.
“Although I don’t believe it was the right decision, I am not angry with the HRC for withdrawing their invitation for me to perform,” she wrote on her blog. “I will continue to support them, for we must remain united.”
For someone fired from a volunteer job for being too good at it, Cho has been terribly gracious. Others in the community have not, including Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), who withdrew his group’s co-sponsorship for Unity 2004.
This is not the first time that Foreman left his boot prints all over an HRC press release. In fact, his and Jacques’ public positions have often been at odds since they took the helms of their organizations—Foreman in May 2003 and Jacques in January 2004.
(Full disclosure: during the past year I freelanced twice as a copyeditor for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, the think tank funded by the NGLTF, working for its director, Sean Cahill.)
Just last month, while the rainbow flag flew half-mast over HRC’s offices and Jacques mourned the passing of Ronald Reagan, Foreman accused the freshly dead president of criminal negligence leading to the AIDS deaths of tens of thousands on the op-ed page of the Daily News.
The Task Force has needled HRC about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, one of the two major bills HRC is promoting before Congress, refusing to endorse it because it isn’t transgender inclusive. NGLTF will soon pull its support for the hate crimes bill for which HRC has fought hard for the same reason, according to Task Force spokesperson Sherri Lunn.
And in May, Foreman accused Jacques of grandstanding about the Federal Marriage Amendment in order to snatch victory from the jaws of victory because the amendment likely lacked the votes to pass even back then. “Cynically you could say that [HRC is] pushing the panic button so that when they do defeat the amendment the job will have looked all the more difficult,” Foreman told Gay City News at the time.
The real emergencies, Foreman noted, were the state amendments popping up like prairie dogs. Those struggles are shouldered primarily not by HRC, but by the Task Force and small, statewide lobbies. They are less sexy—and attract much less money—because they are so much less likely to produce successes.
Jacques is in the unenviable position of playing Realpolitik inside the Beltway—luxuriating in political purity is simply not affordable. She runs a lobby, and if a kind word about a dead enemy means one more vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment, well, that’s hardly the skeeviest trick Washington types play. Civil rights crises are also fundraising opportunities—but HRC has many competitors who play that game, too. For Jacques, who has to do battle with the likes of Karl Rove and his ilk, nixing Margaret Cho must have seemed like a no-brainer—and, since HRC was footing most of the bill for the event, her decision to make.
“We want to defeat George W. Bush in November,” explained Steven Fisher, HRC’s communications director. “Do we want to give political fodder to the right wing? Margaret Cho could have been a distraction to John Kerry’s message.”
But really, Jacques did not want a pussy joke by Cho to distract from HRC’s message: that it’s an upstanding outfit even a moderate Republican opposed to same-sex marriage might do business with. Jacques knows that John Kerry can take care of himself; that Cho poses no threat to him or the Democratic Party. Even without Cho and her vagina monologues, the Republicans will gay bash John Kerry between now and November. She just doesn’t want HRC’s fingerprints at the crime scene.
“We shouldn’t be basing our decisions on speculations on what the right might do,” countered Foreman. “This was a private event, not a Kerry event or a [Democratic National Committee] event. Margaret Cho is one of us, and an incredible supporter of our community. The more people who can hear her, the better.”
HRC’s role is a vital one, and it has seen its power—and its coffers—grow over the years. That the Federal Marriage Amendment was not only defeated soundly, but became a divisive embarrassment to the Republican Party, was widely credited to HRC efforts. Those victories are not won easily or cheaply. Or, apparently, by playing nicely with others.
“We have to look at results,” Fisher added. “The Republican leadership’s attempt to divide the American people backfired,” he noted proudly. And the Cho-job his group prophylactically silenced? “We are the center of a storm,” he added “We were told it would be an incendiary performance. Fox News could have been there.”
Fox did indeed tell its viewers Cho had been fired—by the Democratic Party, proving once again that the only fodder it needs is between its propagandists’ ears.
By playing to its opponents, HRC alienates great swaths of our community. And its “ends justify the means” stance rings hollow, particularly in New York, where speaking one’s mind is a birthright.
Jacques, a career politician who spent much of that career in the closet, sometimes seems tone deaf to the counterpoint of lesbian and gay political harmony. The community wants HRC victories, but cares very much how those victories are achieved, and caving in to the enemy or stepping over the body of an ally leaves its constituents’ ears ringing.
Even before Foreman and Jacques, there was dynamic tension between their two organizations (the set-to over the 2000 Millenium March on Washington comes to mind), reflecting their different agendas, different competencies, and different tactics—and the community is richer for it.
“A monolithic approach would be a disservice to the movement,” observed Foreman.
“There’s a lot more we’re united about than we’re divided about,” added Fisher. “We have different strategies, but we share the same goals.”
Foreman concurred, continuing, “The Task Force’s vision has been to push hard, push on a variety of issues, and to push the envelope. We can provide the forward motion for insider organizations to accomplish much more than they could ordinarily. Our movement needs this kind of push and pull to move us along.”
Foreman noted that his staff and Jacques’ work together closely and cordially on a daily basis. Which does not at all explain why, then, HRC political director Winnie Stachelberg would pretend the decision to replace Cho was made “with all of HRC’s coalition partners in the event.”
“There’s a difference between being informed and being part of a decision-making process,” responded Foreman. “We were not asked to be part of the decision-making process.”
Also contradicting Stachelberg were spokespersons from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; and the National Center for Transgender Equality, who told similar stories and disagreed with HRC’s decision (though those groups remained event co-sponsors). Spokespeople for the Gay and Lesbian Against Defamation and Mass Equality said their groups were also not involved in the decision on Cho. The National Coalition for LGBT Health’s spokesperson said he never expected HRC to include him in the decision.
Dave Noble, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said his organization had been asked for input on the decision, which he said it disagreed with but understood. A spokesperson for The Victory Fund said his group had been consulted, and thought HRC’s decision was appropriate.
Even Stachelberg admitted that no one at HRC ever spoke to NGLTF about nixing Cho. Noble, who was delegated that task, allowed he may have contributed to any resulting “misunderstanding.” Meanwhile, at the big event Monday, Jacques was still telling the Boston Phoenix that axing Cho had been a “unanimous decision among the coalition.”
Such heavy-handed tactics, and its recent strategies around Reagan’s death, transgender rights, and the FMA, only reinforce perceptions of HRC as arrogant, mercenary, and out of touch—perceptions it can so ill-afford precisely because it is our most powerful and richest organization. At a time our community is the object of a presidential jihad, HRC needs our entire community on board with it more than ever, so it can continue to convert the vast potential energy the community has helped it store into an even greater force for gay good.
Thankfully, the fracas over the Notorious C.H.O. will fade soon enough. Whatever Cho might have said on Monday, it couldn’t possibly match the real filth in Washington, which mainly comes out of the mouths of politicians and journalists. Hopefully, that’s the smut on which HRC will be focusing.
Andrew Miller may be reached at [email protected].