An Open Letter to lgbt activists From Carmen Vazquez
The Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) decision to endorse Al D'Amato, more than any other in their history as a "mainstream" organization, signals far more than the "focused and pragmatic" willingness to compromise ascribed them by the New York Times (Week in Review, Sunday, October 25.)
There is a considerable number of progressive, left of center activists in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement who are focused, pragmatic and willing to compromise when necessary. We do not, however, feel compelled to erase bottom line principles long held by this movement for the sake of courting right wing favor in Congress. HRC's endorsement of a pro-life candidate who has effectively denied millions of American women the right to choose what to do with our own bodies is not pragmatic. It is wrong. Their endorsement of a man who has repeatedly embarrassed the office of the Senate with his racism and anti-Semitism (mocking Judge Lance Ito's ethnicity, the more recent attempt to use the Holocaust as a campaign smearing device against Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish) is not simple pragmatism. It is complete capitulation to the right wing of this country. It is an outrageous slap at grassroots activists in New York State who have had to endure eighteen years of the Junior Senator's arrogance and contempt as he orchestrated the rise to power of right wing conservatives who despise us and have blocked anti- discrimination and hate crimes legislation in New York State for years.
And, we should have expected no less. For years, HRC has had very little concern for what the vast majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists think, feel or aspire to politically. Their alleged focus and willingness to compromise has netted us very little. Despite a thirteen million dollar a year budget, there is not a single major legislative victory they can claim. Both the campaign for military service and the campaign against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) failed miserably. The near passage of the Employment Non Discrimination Act in the Senate was nothing more than cover for cowardly votes on DOMA in the Senate and House from our alleged "friends" in Congress. The decision to stage a Rally in Washington in the year 2000 was made with virtually no input from grassroots activists across the country. I have yet to hear HRC denounce an anti-choice vote in Congress, nor have they been particularly focused or pragmatic when votes to severely restrict welfare and other benefits for the poor were being debated in the House or Senate.
Not "gay issues"? Go tell that to the thousands of poor queers for whom cuts in general assistance guarantees they will not be getting the anti viral drugs that might prolong their lives or that they will be moving from low income housing to the streets. Tell it to the thousands of lesbians every year who want to choose to have children but can't afford alternative insemination or who live in States that prohibit lesbians and gay men from adopting children or even keeping the children they gave birth to.
Yes, there has been a rift in this movement for a very long time but it is simplistic and insulting to ascribe that rift to a difference between "pragmatists" and "rock throwers." The rift is between those who view access to power as an end in and of itself and those of us for whom political power is a means to the attainment of social and economic justice for the many and not the few. It is a rift between those who want to be "normal" at any cost and those of us who believe that sexual liberation (and therefore reproductive rights) is a central and inviolate tenet of our struggle for liberation. A lesbian & gay mainstream organization strategically positioned to attain "civil rights" (someday) and to act as power brokers for those among their ranks who assimilate and accommodate themselves to the prevailing social norms and economic system has no use for sex radicals or transsexuals or gender deviant people of any kind. It also has little use for activists committed to the realization of social and economic justice.
We, in turn, should have little use for the people who position themselves as friends of the homophobic, hate mongering, racially bigoted Junior Senator from New York or his Party. Call HRC. Cancel your membership. Vote for Chuck Schumer if you live in New York. If you live elsewhere, call and remind HRC that advocacy organizations who have the arrogance to ignore local leadership and grassroots activists run the risk of becoming ineffectual, irrelevant and cash poor.
Join people working to organize progressive responses to HRC and the brutal death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. Join people working to elect progressive and liberal candidates to office.
Maybe HRC's poorly conceived endorsement of Al D'Amato and our rage over Matt Shepard's death will prove useful after all. Maybe it will compel us to take back our movement. I can only hope.
Brooklyn, New York
An Open Response to Carmen Vazquez
By Elizabeth Birch, Executive Director Human Rights Campaign
November 13, 1998
Carmen Vazquez's recent commentary (distributed on the internet) is not only destructive, it is irresponsible. It is beneath her. It is beneath all of us. (The NY Gay and Lesbian Community Center has apparently disassociated itself from her comments, and that says it all). Her words, and words like them, remind me of what maggots do in a barrel of rice. When they finish consuming the rice, they begin to consume each other. This is the last thing our community needs now, or ever.
Her words might feel good to those seeking short-term rage therapy, but they accomplish little for the long term. Vazquez, like many others, was enraged over a single decision of HRC in the New York Senate race. In that sentiment, I am sympathetic. It was a difficult and painful decision for this institution, but one rooted in a fair and evenhanded application of our PAC criteria and process, a process that has overwhelmingly benefited Democrats for years. It is legitimate to call for the re-examination of our approach; it is ridiculous to condemn an entire institution's work over a single decision. Vazquez cavalierly ignores the vast body of day to day work of the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. She also irresponsibly feeds the most pleasurable pastime of the extreme right: observing the self-inflicted wounds that only serve to divide us.
Here are the facts. The criteria and process employed by HRC political action committee is typical of most national PACs. The key measure is votes in the core mission area. HRC's core mission is focused on gay and lesbian civil rights and AIDS/HIV issues. HRC administers the largest gay and lesbian PAC in the nation, although the PAC is less than 10% of HRC's overall budget and work. In the 1998 election cycle alone, HRC invested $1,024,000 in congressional candidates, including $817,271 in democratic candidates, $82,500 in republican candidates, $2,500 to independents and the balance in party committees. Out of the 195 HRC-backed candidates in 1998, 179 were democrats. HRC also provided staff, youth college graduates, expertise and GOTV programs in races across the nation. We are pleased that 90% of our candidates won in this cycle.
HRC is also on record as a pro-choice and pro-affirmative action organization. This year, 97% of our candidates are pro choice and HRC sits on the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the oldest civil rights body in the nation. LCCR consists of 187 progressive organizations. We are often called upon to assist on key senate confirmations or issues of interest to LCCR members. We participate actively in that body and regularly dispatch our lobby team to provide assistance whenever necessary.
HRC, through its PAC, has a long and proud history of being one of the largest investors in women and people of color congressional candidates. The black, hispanic and women's congressional caucuses can attest to this record. Such coalition work explains why many civil rights leaders and organizations have worked shoulder to shoulder with us over the years. Many had trouble with the D'Amato decision but value the totality of the relationship. We will continue on a positive path with all of them.
In addition to the PAC, HRC runs a lobbying and field operation. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation also does extensive work on behalf of our community.
The HRC PAC is and always has been a legislative tool, designed to enhance our ability to deliver results on Capitol Hill. My tenure has taken place during the most profound congressional conservative sweep in 40 years. The widespread view among pundits after the 1994 election was that gay and lesbian Americans and people with HIV/AIDS would be delivered severe blows in the 104th Congress, and beyond. It has been tough each day. Indeed, just as I began as Executive Director at HRC, the Republican leadership announced deep cuts to AIDS funding. HRC was the organization that commissioned a nationwide bipartisan study that helped to demonstrate to lawmakers that every demographic category in the nation (even southern, white, Republican, Christian men) wanted AIDS funding be increased, or at a minimum, left alone. Suddenly, in the early months of that Congress, the cuts were reversed, and funding was actually increased.
HRC has long understood that a bipartisan strategy has and will be necessary (even if the Democrats take control of either or both houses) to advance gay and lesbian civil rights, provide continued care and research for people with AIDS/HIV and a myriad of other issues that affect our daily lives. HRC has been on the front lines of these issues for years.
Whether one agrees with every tool or approach employed by HRC, it is hard to dispute the record. We have defeated every antigay and anti-AIDS initiative in the past four years, except the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and federal funding for needle exchange. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act rendered our normally effective lobby team into mere farmers with rakes and stones, as DOMA rolled over us like an M-1 tank. The second issue, needle exchange, broke our hearts because we knew such programs could prevent the further spread of HIV and save lives. We had worked tirelessly to ensure that federal funding would be available to foster needle exchange programs in local communities. It was a bitter defeat because the science (and Secretary Shalala) supported such programs.
We have made a variety of advances as well, and a strong partnership with the Clinton Administration has been essential to success. We have not always agreed, but we have always worked hard together at every opportunity. A bipartisan strategy has not always been valued by every sector of our community, but it is a strategy well understood and embraced by many.
It is probably worth stating the obvious. The Republicans actually are in power of both houses of Congress and have been since 1994. No piece of civil rights legislation or other vital legislation has ever been advanced without the active participation of both parties. That is not to say Majority Leader Trent Lott has not been utterly irresponsible and harmful in his comments. He has. But it is unfair and politically stupid to hold every member of a party guilty for the sins of its leaders. It has been at our peril that we have not worked more effectively and aggressively with good men and women in both parties.
I served with Carmen Vazquez on the NGLTF Board of Directors for years. I am not aware of any work she has done in the U.S. Congress. If she has concrete suggestions for how to do things better, we welcome them. Pulling out the missile launcher and firing away is not a solution. It is a distraction.
I, for one, have grown tired of the misrepresentations and mindless attacks from a handful of people in our community over the past several months. I understand all rage related to the D'Amato decision as I know this was difficult for many. But HRC has been used inappropriately and unfairly as a whipping post for those who cannot or will not work to bring the community to higher and more common ground. One example is the so-called Ad Hoc Committee for An Open Process which has been brokering in misinformation regarding a 2000 march on Washington for months. The participation of one organization like HRC, among many, in an event such as a march on the nation's capitol should not be the basis for open civil war.
We have an enormous amount of work to counter our real opposition each day. Obviously, I believe HRC is making a vital contribution to the advancement of our rights, or I would not have invested my passion and life force in this organization. I also believe and acknowledge that there are thousands of other individuals and organizations on this journey making essential contributions each day. I ask Carmen to reconsider her words and her approach; take aim at someone who is actually out to hurt you.