Earlier this week, Democratic presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders exchanged words over Clinton’s recent endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood. In an interview with Rachel Maddow, Sanders claimed that while Clinton’s endorsements were indeed impressive, they could also be seen as stamps of approval from the traditional “political establishment.”
“I would love to have the endorsement of every progressive organization in America,” Sanders admitted. “[But] some of these groups are, in fact, a part of the establishment.”
Not long after the interview aired, Secretary Clinton and the HRC fired back at Sanders in an impassioned tweet questioning what exactly Sanders was getting at by insinuating that the two organizations were part of the problem.
The none-too-subtle shade of Sanders’s comments isn’t difficult to parse out.
From afar, the current climate of (conservative) political hostility toward Planned Parenthood might make it seem as if the organization was an unruly underdog crusading for women’s rights, but they’ve been fighting the good fight for the better part of a century.
Even with all of the progressive work that Planned Parenthood has done in the advancement of women’s health in the country, the organization is, ultimately, a long-standing power player in American politics. It stands to reason that Sanders, who has branded himself as an anti-establishment Democratic Socialist, might be critical of Planned Parenthood.
It stands to reason that Sanders, who has branded himself as an anti-establishment Democratic Socialist, might be critical of Planned Parenthood. That’s even more true of the Human Rights Campaign.
For all of the HRC’s insistence that it’s an inclusive LGBT civil rights advocate, the organization has a storied history of really only catering to the needs of affluent white men who just so happen to be gay (read: the establishment).
The Human Rights Campaign’s role in the modern LGBT rights movement has centered around advocacy for marriage equality and military service. Those critical of the HRC have felt as if the disproportionate amount of time and energy spent on those issues versus advocacy for things like equal housing and access to healthcare reflects the organization prioritizing the desires of the upper-middle class instead of the needs of working class queer people.
When Jerssay Arredondo, an undocumented immigrant and queer rights activist, was approached to speak at an HRC-organized rally against the Defense of Marriage Act, he initially planned on incorporating elements of his experiences as a queer man of color into his speech. When the HRC learned of this, they asked him to stay on-message and avoid speaking about his race or his struggles as an immigrant.
The HRC, Arrendondo said, was basically forcing him back into the closet.
In a piece for Mic, Maribel Hermosillo contrasts the more media-friendly issue of marriage equality with more complex social struggles queer people of color face that the HRC rarely comments on.
“Queer people of color experience issues not only with marriage equality but with poverty, homelessness, educational inequity, bullying, health care access, deportations, and now the “birth-assigned sex” bathrooms in Arizona,” Hemosillo explains. “During [a recent] rally in front of the White House, HRC asked folks in the audience to not wave their trans* flag because marriage equality isn’t a trans* issue.”
Until very recently, the HRC’s stance on trans issues have drawn a considerable amount of criticism from the trans community. Though trans-inclusion in the larger queer community has become more prevalent in recent years, there was a time in which the HRC is said to have actively distanced itself from trans issues as a means of strengthening its fight for marriage equality.
“[In 2007] the HRC announced that they would neither support nor oppose the non-inclusive version of ENDA being promoted in Congress by then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.,)” columnist Rebecca Juro wrote for the Huffington Post. “It was political hairsplitting of the first order, and it confirmed for many trans people and allies the poor reputation that HRC still suffers in our community today, as an organization focused chiefly on the needs and interests of the very wealthy, the very white and the very assimilationist.”
Each year, the HRC puts out a corporate Equality Index that ranks companies based on how dedicated to LGBT equality they reportedly are. Despite the HRC’s claims that the Equality Index lists businesses that LGBT people should want to support, its metrics have left some sorely wanting.
“They put out this guide in which they rate corporations supposedly on their human rights record, when all they’re looking at is things like domestic partner benefits, or how many gay people they have in management,” radical queer-rights activist Kate Raphael explained to Truth Out. “That’s not a human rights record, that’s a very narrowly constructed gay rights record that affects a very small number of people.”
The single-issue homogeneity of the HRC’s political priorities has also been reflected in its staff. Last year, the HRC commissioned a report from the Pipeline Project that took a look at the diversity of the organization’s sizable staff. The Pipeline Project found that the HRC suffered from “major diversity problems” that engendered a culture of sexism while mostly amplifying the voices of white men.
“Exclusion was broad-based and hit all identity groups within HRC,” the Pipeline Project concluded. “A judgmental working environment, particularly concerning women and feminine-identified individuals, was highlighted in survey responses.”
In addition to larger, systemic issues within the HRC, the Pipeline Project also reported that many current trans HRC employees experienced day-to-day micro-aggressions like repeated mis-gendering, a dearth of gender-neutral bathrooms, and overhearing transphobic slurs on a regular basis.
To its credit, the HRC insisted that it was actively looking into steps that it could take to solve its diversity problem, but the fact of the matter is that this problem neither popped up over night, nor would be be solved as quickly. Rather than implementing solutions immediately, the HRC essentially announced what everyone else knew to be true and asked for praise for doing so.
Hillary Clinton is right to hold up the HRC’s endorsement as proof that she might be the DNC’s logical pick when it comes to choosing a winning candidate. But she’s also wrong to completely dismiss Sanders’s critique.
The Human Rights Campaign’s power and visibility have every bit to do with the fact that their lobbying, leadership, and agenda setting have been led by well-off white men. The HRC may be fighting for the rights of a social minority, but they’re nothing if not part of the establishment.