Heroes and Soul
The cost of ENDA in terms of Integrity, Trust, and Leadership

Written 11/5/2007

A month has passed since my resignation from the Board of the Human Rights Campaign over the organization’s tepid stance on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). I've had to make some very difficult decisions in recent years, and I'll admit that this was certainly one of them.  It felt like making a decision that killed another committed relationship - somehow that never gets easier.  It was one of those decisions that causes a significant amount of deep introspection and self-examination. The good news is that self-examination is usually a healthy process. Often provoked by some kind of significant event that forces you to question and to perhaps reassess, these efforts provide opportunities to validate and move forward with renewed confidence, or to change.

Over these last few weeks I have become more and more comfortable not only with my actions in response to this situation but with how I did it, when I did it, and most importantly - why I did it. All are equally important, and when I consider what I perceive to be my character in the context of recent events I’m proud I was able to do what needed to be done. There are times in life when each of us will be called upon to prove that we believe the things we say we do.  It's like being a friend - it's easy to do when you're not asked to do anything.  The real proof comes when it's tested.

HRC has become a convenient villain in recent years and I have defended them with trust and vigor.  I don’t believe that they caused what has happened, although they have certainly made things worse by things they’ve done (or haven’t done). They're convenient protagonists in this sordid story and they've somehow steered themselves into a position where even if they win they lose.  In my opinion, so much of this could have been avoided if it had been handled differently from the very beginning. But it wasn’t. Other agendas got in the way.  So, here we are.

If I could articulate all the thinking and reasoning I’ve been doing over these past few weeks into a single word that word would be “Soul”. Some would argue that a discussion of ENDA is a political discussion, or a tactical discussion, or a workplace discussion. Certainly, in some context or another all will apply. But the underlying question being asked, and the thing we’re being forced to consider, is whether or not the larger GLBT community has a soul. And, if it does, does that soul have a voice?

I believe with ever fiber of my being that it does. I believe our community is looking first and foremost to leaders who will care, who will understand the day-to-day challenges so many of us face, and who will hold themselves to the high moral standards embodied by the word “Equality”. It is looking for organizations and people to be their voice, to stand in solidarity, to show leadership and courage. In short – it is looking for heroes it can believe in. My greatest source of disappointment for HRC, as I articulated to the rest of the board, is that I truly felt we had an opportunity to make statement that our soul was more important than our politics. The decision that was made proved otherwise.

I find it sad, almost infuriating, that people who speak on behalf of the moral nature of this dilemma are somehow made to apologize for that.  I recently read remarks made by HRC Board Member Vic Basil while accepting Equality Maryland’s Pioneer for Equality Award last week. I’m proud to say that Vic is a much respected friend. He has provided passion and leadership in GLBT efforts for well over 30 years and his efforts made much of what is currently happening even possible. It is no coincidence that he was the first Executive Director for HRC (1983-1989) and his continued influence and his ongoing presence there cannot be understated.

That’s what makes his statements so telling because when I hear him say them I hear the collective leadership of HRC talking. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the same person on the HRC payroll who writes speeches for Joe Solmonese wrote these remarks, too. And, although I respect his motives I couldn’t disagree more with the logic.

I will not comment on his entire speech. It is available here for those who want to read it. However, some of his comments are so core to the issue at hand that they need to be shared:

“It does our community an enormous disservice that so many of our leaders have allowed the debate about ENDA to devolve into a great moral crusade. It is not.”

This is, in fact, the crux of my dilemma with the organization. He indicates that he does not believe that the strategy decisions over ENDA are moral decisions. I’d argue right back that these decisions are, first and foremost, moral ones. The fact that it is so obvious to me and to so many in our community, and that HRC can’t or won’t see that, tells me that someone is dangerously out of touch here.

“This is not a debate about leaving anyone behind, as many would have us believe. Framing the debate in such inflammatory terms only serves to divide us. We cannot and will not stop our struggle for equality until all of the GLBT community is protected."

This is, in fact, exactly that. It is a debate about one group getting rights by following a fatally flawed, short-sighted, divisive strategy while finding a way to justify that others will not. The rest is simply justification, rhetoric, promises, spin, and excuses.  HRC is not alone in this Barney Frank.  Nancy Pelosi.  Weak-kneed Dem "leaders".  We voted them into power for this?  You've got to be kidding...

To believe any of this involves at least some level of trust. The thing that the skippers of the Incremental-Gain Train need to accept and respect is that many of us (me included) have little or no trust right now - in HRC motives, in Dem leadership, in politics in general.  It's a sad day when you learn that Santa isn't real, that the tooth fairy is really your parents, and that wishes really don't always come true. The thing most damaged by all of this is integrity -so much of what has happened seems so callous and so calculatingly cold.  Perhaps that's what passes for politics these days.

“...political victories come in small, incremental steps. Does that make it right? Absolutely not! It is appalling that any group should have to win its rights one small step at a time. The concept is deeply offensive to our sense of fairness and justice. It is, however, how politics work. If we want to win, we are going to have to accept the concept of incremental progress, frustrating though it may be. "

I disagree and I find it patronizing that people like Barney Frank feel a need to sell this kind of thinking, especially when it comes to a piece of legislation that nobody believes has a prayer of passing. What's more important: symbolic victories or a commitment to community?

“Those who believe that the best way to reach this important goal is to educate Congress and the public ought not to be vilified as trans-phobic.”

I couldn't let this end without providing something I can agree with.

The problem that nobody seems to want to acknowledge is that the urgency that currently propels these promises will wane, as will the commitments.  We've heard it before.  Shortly after the HRC Board made a policy statement in 2004 to only support trans-inclusive ENDA HRC Legislative Director Chris Labonte talked about next steps, saying, “We have to do the education that discrimination affects the entire community and hope to hold on to the sponsors."  Based on recent events, we can see where those efforts have gotten us. (read the details of the 2004 vote here). 

In fact, HRC Executive Director Cheryl Jacques wrote an entire Op/Ed piece for the Washington Blade shortly after the vote explaining why supporting ONLY a fully-inclusive ENDA made sense: "“Passing ENDA without gender identity and expression is like passing a copyright law that covers books and television shows but doesn’t cover digital music or videos. That’s why we’re supporting a modernized and comprehensive bill that gives full protection to all of our community.” (read the entire Op/Ed piece here).  She finishes by saying, "This is a moment of great pride not only for HRC but for our entire community. In speeches around the country, I’ve said that we’re living in the best of times and the worst of times: historic victories and unprecedented challenges."  - where has that commitment gone?

Why do I share all this tonight?  I’m told that ENDA will be offered for a vote before the end of the week – maybe as early as tomorrow. I’ll be totally honest and say that there will be no joy no matter what happens. If it passes I’ll be one of those feeling left behind. If it fails I’ll take no joy in that, either. But that’s the lesser of two evils and what I hope will happen. I hope the soul of the community speaks louder than the politicking that seems to pass itself off as leadership these days. And I hope that we come back and do it right next time.

The thing our community needs more than anything right now is leadership it can believe in.  It needs heroes of moral character, integrity, and vision.  It needs people and organizations willing to stand up and say, "NO!  People are more important than politics!"  Instead, we've got people somehow arguing that an empty victory is still somehow a victory.  Thankfully, this entire experience has identified some heroes and I expect those stars to rise.  And, it has shown the true colors of others, as well. 

There are times in life when we’re forced to prove the things we things we say we believe. Equality. Community. Soul. These are things we say we believe. Now’s the time to show the courage, the leadership, and the patience to prove it.