The Human Rights Campaign announced in November 2013 a new global initiative, but Laura Belmonte and Tanya Domi raise questions about the priorities and expertise of America’s largest domestic LGBT organization to engage internationally
Last November, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) launched a new $3 million international campaign that has generated both cautious optimism and scathing criticism from those involved in the global struggle for LGBT equality. Both responses are well-founded and the bar is set high for HRC to distinguish itself in an arena long ago claimed by other advocates.
HRC’s announcement this week of a $100,000 contribution to support the Russian LGBT movement is a serious illustration of its commitment to this new venture into international affairs. Madonna, Ricky Martin, Dustin Lance Black and Gavin Newsome, the Lt. Governor of California, are among the 63 donors. The organization’s ability to raise substantial sums of money and to promote such efforts with celebrities situated front and center is one of HRC’s greatest strengths (see celebrity supporters).
HRC unquestionably has money (nearly $39 million in gross receipts in 2012), expertise and connections in U.S. politics and media that could prove invaluable in gaining attention for LGBT issues abroad. If HRC is willing to connect grass roots activists with public officials, corporate leaders, and media outlets that help them make their cases and to provide them with additional resources or training like their new global fellows program, kudos to them.
But that’s a big if.
With many more hurdles to overcome domestically, is going international now the right strategic move, or is this HRC hedging its bets and paying it forward to position the organization for a different kind of future, when ENDA, marriage equality and civil rights have been secured in a vast majority of states in America? Are the aims of Chad Griffin, who assumed the presidency of HRC in 2012, really different from those of his predecessor Joe Solmonese, whose seven- year tenure was punctuated by allegations that he raised a great deal of money, but pursued an agenda with little substance?
In its first move toward international engagement, right out of the starting blocks, HRC was taken to task for accepting funding for this initiative from Paul Singer, a venture capitalist who has profited from the economic distress of developing nations. Pointing out the devastating effects of poverty on LGBT people in impoverished nations, Wanja Muguongo, head of UHAI –the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative – told BuzzFeed, “You cannot hurt with one hand and say you’re helping with another. It is not money that should be used by anyone for LGBTI work any side of the world. It’s an insult.”
No matter how well-executed, the HRC initiative inevitably will generate suspicion among foreign activists. From Protestant missionary organizations to public health workers to modernization programs like the Alliance for Progress, there is a long history of U.S. humanitarian intervention that has veered into imperialism. While HRC may not see this initiative through such a lens, many of those abroad will.
As domestic activists of many years, we are familiar with the HRC mode of operation: From Maryland to Hawaii, HRC has been rightfully accused of “bigfooting” local activists, icing out those who are considered experts and running roughshod over people who have toiled away for years, often ignored with little or no support, only to be pushed aside when victory is at hand. HRC classically swoops in, grabs the reins of a struggle and claims another victory, but in the process causes hurt feelings and resentments that have plagued the organization for years.
A recent case illustrating our point occurred when HRC staff members excoriated a transgender activist who was holding a transgender freedom flag behind the rally stage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last March during Defense of Marriage Act oral arguments. The staff member repeatedly told the transgender activist that marriage equality was not a transgender issue. Although HRC eventually issued an apology, staff members who were managing the stage committed another faux pas by telling an undocumented LGBT activist who was scheduled to speak at the rally, to remain silent about his immigration status. Not willing to accept HRC’s heavy-handed treatment, United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project issued a video press release condemning HRC’s actions and demanded an apology.
If HRC is this insensitive with transgender and immigrant queers at home, how will they behave abroad, among people who likely speak different languages, have different values, different priorities, and their own ideas about how to advance LGBTI equality in their own countries?
How will they address the “Intersex” political identification which is excluded in America for all practical purposes, but commonly addressed in Europe and other regions of the world?
Indeed, HRC’s entry into international human rights advocacy is quite late and there are many international and national LGBTI groups who have been working for years on these issues, with tremendous experience and expertise. Among them include, Freedom House, The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the more recent and quite effective Council on Global Equality, which HRC financially supports.
International activists are raising concerns about whether HRC will remove more funding than it invests in the nations where they seek to advance LGBT equality. Given the tensions among HRC and state and local activists who have experienced this vacuum effect for years, such anxieties are understandable.
Look no further than the new “Love Conquers Hate” t-shirt campaign HRC is promoting as a means of helping LGBT activists in Russia. Jamie Lee Curtis and others sport the t-shirt in a gesture of solidarity. But one cannot actually buy the t-shirt whose proceeds benefit those working for LGBT equality in Russia without also giving a donation to HRC.
And more to the point, in the case of Russia, where xenophobia is alarmingly accentuated due to the onerous crackdown against the LGBT community by the Putin regime, love between same-sex partners can barely exist, let alone conquer hatred and violence. Such simplistic campaign slogans fall dreadfully short of addressing daily questions of life and death that now confront Russian gays.
It is precisely this type of celebrity-laden self-promotion and resource domination that sends HRC’s fiercest detractors into fits of sputtering rage and opens it up charges of exploitation (or dismissal for a lack of understanding about what is actually happening in Russia for the gay community).
HRC should play to their strengths and continue its financial support to the newly launched Russian Freedom Fund. They should assist groups like RUSA LGBT, Russians working from New York and even consider funding an asylum resettling project for those Russians who will no doubt be seeking a better life in America, but leave it this work to the groups who have worked on international LGBT human rights for decades.
For such reasons, we pose several questions about HRC’s global initiative.
Will HRC actually collaborate with other organizations with much deeper expertise in foreign relations, international human rights, and development? Will this initiative simply export U.S. hegemonic aims, including white privilege and classicism that has undercut many a domestic HRC program? Is HRC cognizant that this global campaign sends an implicit “Game’s over at Home” message to activists in 29 states still working for hate crimes law and protections against employment and housing discrimination? Isn’t it premature to declare victory and go searching for international battles before passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and marriage equality in all 50 states?
The fate of many literally risking their lives for LGBT equality abroad hinges on how HRC and all of us who want freedom for LGBTI people everywhere answer these questions.
Image: HRC Love Conquers Hate Russian T-Shirt via HRC
The original version of this article was published by The New Civil Rights Movement on December 21, 2013
Laura Belmonte is Professor of history at Oklahoma State University and serves on the national council for the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).