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Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin discusses election year 2016, what went wrong in Houston, and fighting for transgender rights
By Karen Ocamb
December 23, 2015 :: 3:54 PM
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to get to do this,” Chad Griffin says as he sits for a bowl of chicken noodle soup and an hour-long interview at Greenblatt’s Deli on Sunset Boulevard during a recent trip home to Los Angeles. He’s had five hours sleep, having just arrived from the much warmer climates of Washington, D.C., and Texas. “I think so far I’ve been to 30-some-odd states” since starting his term as president of the Human Rights Campaign in the summer of 2012.
Griffin’s enthusiasm and the resources he can muster among HRC’s 1.5 million members and beyond could prove crucial heading into the 2016 election year. Even though a May 2015 Gallup poll found that 60% of respondents supported marriage equality, there has also been an unsettling backlash to LGBT progress, promulgated primarily by the anti-LGBT law firm Liberty Counsel, which seeks to leverage legal job, employment and accommodation discrimination through religious exemptions. Now the forces behind the victory in Houston, Texas—which denied protections for a number of minority groups by reframing the civil rights debate into an ugly fight over transgender people’s access to public bathrooms—are trying the same tactic in other states, including California.
To remedy the glaring dark hole in American fairness, HRC is putting an “incredible amount of effort” into passing the Equality Act. “Despite our progress, life is still really challenging for LGBTQ folks all over this country,” Griffin says. “That it is 2015, we have marriage equality in all 50 states—yet there are no explicit protections that prohibit someone from being fired or evicted from their home or denied a public space. That’s gotta change, and that is a huge priority.”
The Equality Act was introduced with more original co-sponsors in the House and Senate than any piece of legislation in HRC history, Griffin says, which makes him “optimistic” about its eventual chances at passage. Additionally, the coalition championing the legislation includes such civil rights heroes as John Lewis in the House, Cory Booker in the Senate and the late Julian Bond, as well as President Obama, women’s groups and such activists as National Urban League President Mark Morial.
“What scares people is sort of the unknown—what is it, what does that mean, what does that do? It very specifically simply adds gender identity and sexual orientation to existing protections, and there are some other areas that it touches on that are not in the Civil Rights Act,” says Griffin.
But the Equality Act has no real chance of passing in the current conservative Republican-dominated Congress, and though there are at least three LGBT-supportive Republicans HRC can usually rely on—Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has a trans son, and New York Rep. Richard Hanna, who is retiring—no Republicans have been courageous enough to publicly endorse the Equality Act, so far. Nonetheless, HRC will be watching the pronouncements—including by Democrats who are not yet on board.
“This has moved far faster than marriage in terms of members supporting it. Our job is to take those who aren’t yet with us and to get them,” Griffin says. However, “If you oppose the Equality Act, you don’t deserve the support of anyone, much less the Human Rights Campaign.”
Hanging like a pall over the Equality Act and all other LGBT legislation and progress is the 2016 election, which Griffin says is “one of the most important elections of our lifetime.” The current cadre of Republicans running for president, he says, “either fundamentally believe that it is the right thing to do to attack and denigrate LGBT people or they think politically it’s in their interest to do so. Both are outrageous.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, one of the more favored of the 13 Republican presidential candidates, has vowed to repeal all pro-equality executive orders issued by President Obama, if elected.
This election, Griffin says, is about “protecting the progress we have achieved,” electing a pro-equality House and Senate and electing a president who “will not only sign the bill but will help lead and get the bill passed.” He says HRC intends to spend considerable resources in educating voters that treating people with equality and dignity is a conservative value—and the politically right thing to do.
“Poll after poll shows that if you are against marriage equality, if you’re against common sense nondiscrimination protections, many of your constituents, including on the Republican side, won’t be with you,” Griffin says.
“I am a political nerd when it comes to these things, and I’m obsessed with the numbers,” he says. “In the last election, exit polls showed that more than five percent of the electorate in swing states identified as L, G or B—I don’t think either of the exit polls ask T—and that is an exit poll in a swing state where you walk outside and you tell a stranger that you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual. So my view is—worst case—we were five percent of the electorate.”
“That is 6 million voters,” Griffin continues. “We are not talking allies; we’re not talking families; we are only talking us. That’s 6 million voters. That’s larger than the margin of victory of every presidential election I think since 1984. Obama won by just over 5 million votes.”
Add in people “who love us,” and that’s an electorate that can’t be written off. But HRC is not leaving voter turnout up to chance, opening offices in key battleground states with full-time organizers. “We will invest heavily in turning out the LGBT vote and allies,” Griffin says.
HRC is also partnering with state coalitions in fighting the anti-trans “bathroom bills” springing up around the country. For decades the anti-LGBT forces had a “gay marriage harms children” message that proved to be a good fundraising tool. But, Griffin notes, “We started beating them at their own game. And I mean the big we—the movement, whether it’s national groups, state groups—the big we started beating them at their own game.”
The anti-LGBT forces lost their way but have since regrouped and are “clearly well-funded.” Now they intend to export their successful campaign in Houston. However, he says, there are lessons to be learned. First, though HRC, ACLU and the Gill Foundation spent a lot of time, money and resources to fight what was an unexpected battle in Houston, other national funders and leaders were not engaged. Second, with notable exceptions, the business community was largely absent—Griffin expects LGBT and ally employees of those companies will apply pressure the next time. And third, there was no aggressive response to the horrendous anti-trans ads, including challenges to TV stations about essentially putting hate speech on the air.
These ads “said ‘protect our children from these transgender people’ and then they identified them as men who dress up as women to go into restrooms to molest children,” Griffin snarls. “This should not have passed the standards and practices department of any television station. These were not fair political ads—they were lies. OK, fine, that happens in political campaigns. But these ads defamed an entire portion of the population in Houston, Texas.”
Griffin says that research is being conducted on what happened in Houston, what worked, what didn’t work and what messages might be effective elsewhere. He points to other efforts to fight back against anti-trans hatred and notes that any messaging needs to have effective trans spokespeople, parents of transgender children and third-party validators such as respected elected officials or law enforcement talking about why such initiatives make bad policy.
“Think about the harm that we don’t read about and that we don’t see of what that campaign did, in terms of how transgender Houstonians are treated day in and day out,” Griffin says.
For a second time, the anti-LGBT, Sacramento-based group Privacy for All tried to get a Houston-like “bathroom” on the California ballot. The first attempt to repeal the Student Success and Opportunity Act granting trans students access to sports and school facilities had Prop 8 mastermind Frank Schubert, Political Director for the National Organization for Marriage, as a political consultant—but still failed in Feb. 2014. The second attempt relied mostly on churches to gather petitions to put an initiative entitled “Limits on Use of Facilities in Government Buildings and Business” on the 2016 ballot. However, by the Dec. 21 deadline, Privacy For All failed to collect enough signatures to make the ballot.
“While we are extremely disappointed, we know that we gave this effort our best and ‘left it all on the field,’” says Privacy for All leader Karen England in an email to supporters. “Please be encouraged that throughout this we’ve educated many new churches on their role in the political arena, equipped churches to share this message with their members, registered new voters and educated the public on this issue. Though we didn’t reach our ultimate goal, much was accomplished. You can be proud of that. Finally, while none of us wants to think about another initiative drive, we assume that someday a measure like the PPPA will qualify for the ballot not just in California but in other states throughout the country.”
And in that, England may just be right.
In 2015, more than 115 anti-LGBT bills were introduced in 29 states, most of which were defeated. With the victory in Houston, as Griffin points out, anti-LGBT forces think they’ve found a new template for winning—turn everything, all non-discrimination legislation efforts, into a version of the “bathroom bill.”
In fact, this is an old anti-civil rights scare tactic appealing to when people—white women, in particular—are the most vulnerable and need “protection.” Fear of “the other” was the basis for the segregationist “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There is a reference to this in the movie 42, for instance, where a white (Jewish) teammate asks Jackie Robinson, who had just broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, why he didn’t shower with the other (white) players. When he enters the shower, some of his teammates express shock and disgust and leave.
But while Houston may serve as a model for other anti-LGBT conservative locales, it may actually be more of an outlier. Not really discussed in many of the LGBT post-loss analysis is how the city was shocked by out Mayor Annise Parker’s going after preachers’ sermons to prove their anti-transgender animus in pushing repeal of the anti-discrimination law. The move was covered extensively by the media as an issue of the government versus religious liberty, with Parker fumbling in response.
Additionally, there are some forgotten lessons from the 2008 passage of Prop 8 here. Since Houston had twice elected Parker, who brought her spouse onstage to celebrate her victories, it appears that most in the LGBT community could not imagine voters stripping away an existing non-discrimination law, just as LGBT Californians couldn’t imagine voters in that very blue state taking away the California Supreme Court-ordered right for same sex couples to marry. The consequence was that many LGBT voters and allies who were not engaged by the campaign—including communities of color—ignored the warnings and stayed home. Conservatives and those who feared that the government might trample on their own religious freedoms, on the other hand, felt they had a stake in turning out to vote. Presumably the post-election research and analysis Griffin mentioned will shed some light on who turned out where and why.
Houston also suffered from a lack of resources to coordinate messaging, perhaps because there was insufficient time to mount a sophisticated campaign with the court announcing only months before the vote that it would be on the ballot, with no organizations’ budgeting for the unexpected fight. And because funders and others were campaign-weary after winning marriage equality. But the campaign appeared to run away from confronting the anti-trans bias head-on and instead chose a diffuse “soft” ad about how the repeal would strip away protections for veterans and the disabled.
It is worth noting that almost immediately after Houston, anti-LGBT forces tried the same thing in Dallas but the city council “voted unanimously to revise the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance to include gender identity and expression,” the Dallas Voice reported. A Republican state senator decried the vote and called for its repeal, which was dismissed by the mayor.
Because HRC is the big national organization that poured money and resources into the losing campaign, Griffin is taking a lot of heat for the Houston loss.
In an extensive deconstruction and criticism of HRC’s role in the Houston debacle, BuzzFeed News Reporter Dominic Holden wrote on Tuesday, Dec. 22, “voters repealed the law by a 22-percentage point chasm — despite the fact that Griffin and his allies were six and nine points ahead in two early polls. Houston Unites, the name of the central campaign, had raised about $4 million in total, outspending their opponents three to one.”
But polls are never really reliable in civil rights electoral battles. California is famous for “the Bradley Effect,” for instance, where popular longtime African American L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley was ahead in his race to become governor, but lost in the end because, it’s believed, voters were too embarrassed to tell a pollster their true feelings, lest they be deemed racist. Similarly, in 2008, the L.A. Times was the only poll that got it right regarding Prop 8—all other polls said the measure would not pass.
So what happened in Houston? Holden asks. He writes:
“Their defeat can be attributed primarily to one ubiquitous, bumper-sticker-ready slogan: “No men in women’s bathrooms.” Anti-LGBT activists ran that message with visceral TV and radio commercials that claimed Houston’s nondiscrimination law would lead to men sexually assaulting young girls in public restrooms. This attack has been raised by conservative opponents virtually everywhere laws like this have been debated in recent years.
The argument is based on an underlying premise that transgender women are actually dangerous men — a claim that has no factual foothold. It’s never been an issue in the 200 cities and 17 states with laws like these on the books. But it’s kryptonite to LGBT nondiscrimination laws.”
Citing a post-loss “wake up call” fundraising email from Griffin to HRC members and supporters in which the HRC president says, “this fight isn’t over” and “We will refuse to let something like this happen in your hometown,” Holden writes:
“But it’s not clear that HRC got the wake-up call. The organization — the top organization trying to pass and uphold LGBT nondiscrimination policies — is unwilling to say how it plans to address the bathroom attack, or even how its strategy will change in the wake of the Houston vote and other cities.”
Aside from the propriety of announcing strategy to the opposition in advance of a fight, there is another unique issue at hand. HRC is blamed if they don’t visibly step in and win and blamed if they don’t. But of particular importance is how HRC works with local organizations so they don’t show up as bullies and take over from on-the-ground groups who presumably know the territory and the sensitivities of the local or regional electorate better.
Griffin came in late to the Prop 8 fight in 2008 but is familiar with the inherent tension between national and state and local groups in terms of who’s running the show and equality and respect at the table.
“I spent time in the environmental world and the children’s advocacy world before this. The moment that there is infighting in the movement, in between organizations, all we’re doing is helping our opponents. And we have to all be good partners. It’s on all of us. It’s on all of us as leaders of state groups and national groups to work together,” he said. “I think that we are stronger in partnership.”
At the beginning of any campaign, the partners need to ask who’s bringing what to the table, Griffin says. “Everyone needs resources. Then some are looking to do religion organizing, some are doing business organizing. Everyone has their piece and no one of us can do it alone. There are too many battles and one of us have enough resources to fight these things alone.”
In Houston, Griffin says, more partners were needed—especially from the business community, which was “largely absent” in this fight, with some important exceptions such as Delta Airlines. “But in terms of the larger business community, there was little-to-no investment of resources or time or public support and that was unique and something that is unlike what we’ve seen, even in Arkansas. Even in Arkansas we got the CEO of Wal-Mart to stand up.” He is especially proud of the work HRC is doing in the South, including with help from Alabama-born Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.
Griffin fully expects that “a lot of employees who work for those companies are now asking why weren’t we there, why weren’t you there? These were our fundamental rights that were at stake and why weren’t you there? So I think just employee pressure is gonna help next round.”
But that raises another point that is not often addressed publicly. Are the majority of LGBT registered voters supportive enough of the transgender community to turn out to vote? Assuming turnout was an issue in 2000 when California faced its first anti-gay marriage initiative, Prop 22, and most of the LGBT community didn’t even realize marriage was a right they should have in the first place. Similarly, the No on Prop 8 campaign failed to hold on to the very significant women’s vote, a large portion of which sung to “Yes” after the final campaign ad.
Griffin says thinking that splits the “T” from LGBT is “outrageous,” noting an online petition that called for such a separation. “The moment I saw that I was horrified,” he says. “I was disgusted and I was offended and I said so. I immediately responded—as did Sarah Kate [Ellis, GLAAD’s President & CEO]—we both responded on the actual petition itself. What was tremendous about it is it went nowhere, you saw very few people sign it. In fact, you saw counter petitions.”
In fact, Griffin says, “I think this movement is more unified than we have ever been. We are ever growing, we are ever improving, and there will never be a separation in the L, the G, the B, the T and the Q. We are all in locked arms in terms of that’s how we win. Our opponents would love to divide us but we win by being united.”
Americans have “evolved” on the issue of transgender rights, he says. “As everyday folks are coming to know transgender Americans, then all of a sudden, they realize we’re all the same, we’re all human beings, we all just want equality and dignity. We’re born this way—how God made us, whether you’re T, L, G or B. And I often talk about it and switch around the letters when I use it.”
Which raises the issue of trans people appearing in political ads. As Californians will recall, there was a great hue and cry about the No on 8 campaign failing to put real gay people in their ads, though several grassroots activists, such as Robin Tyler, produced their own same sex ads for You Tube consumption.
Failing to have aggressive ads were part of the problem in Houston.
“We know to win you need two tracks,” says Griffin, who used to do political ads for his consulting business with partner Kristina Schake. “You need the positive messaging, talking about what this does, and then you need the counter. And the campaign’s counter was simply not strong enough, effective enough or well enough resourced.”
The opposition’s scare tactic ads “said protect our children from these transgender people and then they identified them as men who dress up as women to go in a restroom to molest children,” Griffin says. “Our side, the movement as a whole, all of us, have to have a better, more aggressive and well-resourced response to that. I think there’s universal agreement about that.”
Griffin points out that one of the most effect ads the No on Prop 8 campaign put up was the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Conner simply and effectively slapping down the Prop 8 argument. Any campaign on any issue designed to change voter’s minds needs non-partisan third party validators.
Though Griffin didn’t mention this—he played no role in deciding ads—the Houston campaign apparently had a law enforcement official who said that what the anti-trans forces said was wrong but they failed to use the ad extensively.
The other aspect that was not pursued, Griffin says, which could become an important piece of a push-back strategy, is the fact that the horrendous ads the anti-trans forces used “should not have passed the Standards and Practices department of any television station,” Griffin says. “These were not fair political ads, they were lies. Okay fine, that happens in political campaigns. But these ads defamed an entire portion of the population in Houston, Texas.”
This is not incidental if put to the station managers properly. For instance, during the federal Prop 8 trial, the No on 8 campaign was found to have run ads that were intentionally based on animus, which is one of the reasons the judge ruled against them. Using this as legal precedent, complaints could be brought to the Federal Communications Commission against the station alleging harm or potential harm if the ads are proven to be lies based in animus and are still broadcast. Any complaint that could jeopardize a broadcast license and get publicity that could turn off viewers would be taken seriously.
Another possible political strategy is to hold accountable and apply pressure on the prestigious American Association of Political Consultants to update their Code of Ethics to include sexual orientation and gender identity for 2016. In 2009, the AAPC honored Frank Schubert and his then-partner Jeff Flint for successfully passing Prop 8.
Right now, the code reads:
Meanwhile, Griffin says he is keeping his promise to the transgender community, which includes several public awareness efforts.
“Going back to what Harvey Milk taught us long ago, the most important thing we can do is to come out and be visible— come out at home, come out at school, come out at church, come out in your community. That’s what changed hearts and minds and that’s how we win,” he says
For instance, HRC has launched a trans campaign with trans kids and their parents and Jazz Jennings is serving as an HRC youth ambassador.
“Jazz is amazing,” he says. “We’ve all got to work to increase the visibility of transgender Americans.”
Jazz wound up being at the center of a seriously teachable moment recently when 600 people turned out in a small Wisconsin community to listen to a reading of I Am Jazz at a local library after an elementary school canceled a planned reading when Liberty Counsel threatened a lawsuit.
“My book can help, I think, but I know from my own experience that it is adults like my parents and (school principal) Johnson who can make sure that transgender children are treated fairly at school and given the same opportunities to succeed in life,” Jazz wrote in an op-ed. “Growing up transgender can be a challenging experience, and we need our parents, schools, and friends to stand by us so we can breathe easily. We want the same thing — to be who we are and feel safe and supported in this world.”
HRC is also on the ground in Jackson, Mississippi, fighting a “bathroom bill” there, with the help of transgender activist Blossom Brown, the first openly trans person to graduate from nursing school in Mississippi who was featured in an HRC-sponsored 30 second ad.
Another component in helping win hearts and minds is the role the entertainment industry is playing, elevating the stories of transgender people through TV shows like Transparent and I Am Cait, and films such as the newly released Tangerine, which is based in L.A., features two African American trans women, and already has Oscar buzz.
“This is just the start,” says Griffin. “We need more and more of that. It’s always good when people with profiles come out because it just means more people pay attention. But it’s also important the storytelling side of this community to tell the story of the real life experiences of transgender Americans.”
While Griffin is excited to be leading HRC at this moment in history, he is also open to criticism and being held accountable.
“I mean what I say. Hold me accountable and judge me on what I’ve done since [his apology and promise to the trans community]. Look at how not just I have acted but this organization has acted,” Griffin says. “We have made some considerable progress since then. We got a bill [the Equality Act] introduced in Congress that was inclusive and has support out of the box.”
This story is an expanded version of a story appearing in this issue of Frontiers Magazine.
Here’s Blossom Brown at the HRC Gala in October:
And here’s HRC’s video featuring moms talking about their elementary school-age trans kids: