trans flagOn the day the constitutionality of Prop 8 was being argued before the the Supreme Court, a rally organized by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Family Equality Council, GetEQUAL, Marriage Equality USA, and the New Organizing Institute was underway. The rally was almost in every way successful in how the event demonstrated unanimity of LGBT community organizations and members standing behind marriage equality.


There was an incident involving a trans person standing near the rally’s podium because the trans person was holding a transgender pride flag. An HRC staffer was reported to have asked the trans person three times to move away from the podium: the HRC representative reportedly told the trans person that the rally organizers wanted only American flags on or near the podium. The trans person was allegedly told by the staffer that marriage equality wasn’t a trans issue.

The next day the incident went viral on social media as the HRC having again shown distain for trans people and community. The HRC then put out a statement regarding the incident which included this paragraph:

“It is a not true to suggest that any person or organization was told their flag was less important than another – this did not occur and no HRC staff member would ever tolerate such behavior. To be clear, it is the position of the Human Rights Campaign that marriage is an issue that affects everyone in the LGBT community.”

Jerame Davis summed up the details of the incident well in the Bilerico piece “My View: HRC & the Trans Flag Incident” from a knowledgeable position than I can, so I’ll defer to his summary of the incident. Davis, however, believed the statement from the HRC was incredulous in its assertations.

And, Dana Beyer in my mind hits the nail on the head in her Huffington Post, Gay Voices piece “Time for a Rapprochement Between the Trans Community and HRC” when she says “What continues to be a problem is the cold war that is ongoing between the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the trans community.” Returning to the détente that had been in place prior to this incident seems untenable in the long term considering that the HRC considers itself an LGBT civil rights organization.

One long term problem for the “superpower” HRC is that the organization has a horrible reputation with the trans subcommunity of the LGBT community. In 2007, three years after the HRC publicly stated that it wouldn’t support any form of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that did not include antidiscrimination protections for gender identity, later supported a version of ENDA that did not include those antidiscrimination protections. There are other incidents that feed into the “HRC is not trans friendly” narrative, but the ENDA narrative alone is for many in community to be enough of an incident to not trust the organization.

One visible aspect of that problem is that the organization doesn’t have good optics on trans people and issues. They have the right rhetoric for most part on trans people and issues, but it appears to many that their rhetoric isn’t reflected in their staffing, and it’s not reflected in how the HRC allocates their significant resources.

Dana Beyer suggested in her piece that the HRC could actively seek to hold meetings with trans community members for input on how to end the cold war. So with a variant on that idea in mind, here are some ideas I’d like to publicly submit that could be discussed in those meetings as ways they could move past détente.

  1. Hire more transgender staffers. The HRC and the HRC Foundation together have well over 100 staffers, but since Allyson Robinson left to become the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, the organization now has zero trans staffers. The HRC needs some trans specific affirmative action. Specifically, the organization could hire a trans staffer for their policy setting department to make sure there is always trusted trans input available for their policy decisions. Additionally, the organization could hire a field organizer that specifically could be dispatched for trans specific legislation. (Their current regional field organizers, I’ve been told by some in the know, aren’t experts on trans legislation and are utilized mostly for field organizing related to marriage equality legislation, initiatives, and referendums.) Lastly, they could add trans people to their department management to demonstrate to the LGBT and business communities that there are transgender people can be eminently capable leaders.
  2. Update their healthcare policy to include all transition surgeries. Currently, San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon, Multnomah County, Oregon, and a number of Fortune 500 companies have publically more progressive healthcare policies for transitioning trans staffers than the HRC does.
  3. Devote more resources to transgender issues. Significantly more HRC resources are devoted to marriage equality than basic civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and since basic civil rights protections based on gender identity are the number one issue for most trans community members, devoting more resources would sent a strong message to trans community members.

The HRC can do more than they have to build credibility among trans people, as well as to trans intra- and extra-community allies, so incidents such as this one regarding the transgender pride flag incident doesn’t resonate as negatively in the way this incident did.

The question in my mind is whether that credibility that the HRC currently doesn’t have on trans people and issues is important enough to the organization that they take decisive action.

In my mind, the organization needs to take action to improve their reputation — not only with the trans subcommunity of the LGBT community, but with the broader LGBT community and its allies that care deeply about full equality for all in LGBT community. It seems the best way to move past the détente — détente that leaves the cold war between the HRC and the trans subcommunity of the LGBT community subject to again turning into as hot a war as it was back in 2007 — is for the HRC to embrace a different way of doing business.

Photo by torbakhopper released under Creative Commons License

Autumn Sandeen

Autumn Sandeen