Last week many of my friends changed their profile pictures on Facebook. I did too. With the Supreme Court’s hearing of two cases related to marriage equality, Facebook went red in support of the end of DOMA and Prop 8.
My profile picture was red. But, it wasn’t the red equal sign. And as I watched friends from high school, college, and the church world change theirs to the red equal sign, I felt deeply conflicted.
I certainly support marriage equality. My wife and I married last fall, so DOMA directly affects us. But I don’t support the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that was behind the red equal signs. Most who changed their profile pictures didn’t know that they were advertising for any particular organization. They just thought that they were supporting equality, which is indeed noble. But the reality is that with every change of a profile picture to the red equal sign, HRC, an organization that many LGBTQ people have trouble supporting, was getting free advertising. And with it, the impression that the HRC somehow spoke for all LGBT people was spread.
Back in the 1990’s the rainbow flag, a general, inclusive symbol of LGBTQ equality not owned by any one organization, gradually gave way to a new symbol: a blue square with a yellow equal sign in the middle. The Human Rights Campaign created this new symbol and would only distribute it through their own channels (often after donations). Some LGBT bookstores tried to copy the logo to sell in their own stores, and were swiftly rebuffed.
And so, the HRC became the purveyors of the equal sign. And if you go to an HRC Action Center, like the one that now occupies Harvey Milk’s old store in San Francisco, you can buy anything from a t-shirt to a frisbee to a dog bowl (generally made in a place with poor labor practices) with an equal sign plastered on the side. So, you pay to advertise for the HRC. Meanwhile, the HRC uses the money to pay executive staff and get buildings like this: http://www.hrc.org/the-hrc-story/our-building
But more importantly, many in the community have long had reservations about HRC’s actions. Trans advocates in particular have had trouble with the HRC’s mixed messages on trans inclusion, especially around ENDA. (Google “HRC” and “trans” for more.) People of color have also leveled valid concerns, as have undocumented persons. After a rally to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, LGBT veterans complained about their treatment by the HRC. And, the HRC dinner in honor of Goldman Sachs last year showed a tone-deafness about the real economic crisis that rubbed many the wrong way.
The end of my own support for HRC came in 2011. I first encountered HRC as a Congressional intern in 1994, back when they were called the “Human Rights Campaign Fund”. Through the years I tried to remain supportive knowing that no organization is perfect. I had a few HRC shirts and I even bought my parents a membership a few years back.
But in the summer of 2011 I went to Albany, New York for a week to watch what was happening with the marriage equality bill. HRC was there too. And I was less than impressed. Doubtless much was happening behind the scenes, but what I saw on the surface convinced me that my money would be better spent in other places. There were many great volunteers working with HRC, and I’m not saying anything negative about any of them. But I just didn’t see any real leadership from the paid staff.
They didn’t know how to use the volunteers that they had. They didn’t know how to use the clergy and others who came to advocate for marriage equality. They didn’t work well with the grassroots groups who had done a lot of the prep work needed to push for a vote (and they talked down to them at points). And they asked those who were protesting in favor of marriage equality to sound less “angry”.
(When I wrote my reflections about this down and posted it online, I received a testy email from an HRC senior staff member. I also received an email from a staffer in the NY Legislature who said it was spot on and that the HRC had almost botched the vote, in part because they didn’t use some of the resources that were offered to them. When a few activists decided not to take orders from the HRC anymore, “went rogue” and started to visit legislators on their own they had actually managed to change more minds than the HRC.)
After that, I just decided to support other organizations. It’s like the old saying: When someone shows you who they are, believe them. It’s not that I hate the HRC. I just refuse to advertise for them any longer since so many I care about have been hurt or offended by their policies. Now I support groups like the Trevor Project and organizations that are closer to home and capable of doing local good.
So, when I see those red equal signs, knowing that most who are posting them don’t realize that they are posting something created by HRC, I just want to tell people what they are supporting. If they still want to use them, that is by all means their right. But, they should first know what that symbol brings up for some of us who are LGBTQ. Because part of being a responsible part of the movement, LGBTQ and ally alike, is listening to the voices at the margins, and deciding with whom you will stand.
(Just a note…here’s the latest concern. It’s worth noting that HRC originally denied this happened: http://www.towleroad.com/2013/04/quiphrc.html )