Op/Ed: HRC and the Illusion of a Grassroots Movement

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They return every summer. As I walk through my Chicago neighbourhood, Human Rights Campaign interns descend on me like flies on honey, with the familiar HRC blue and yellow logo on their clipboards and the same question as the year before: “Do you have a minute for equal rights?” 

Every year, I want to respond, “No, I don’t. And I clobber kittens in my free time. And I don’t recycle.”

Instead, I tell them, “Not for HRC, and here’s why.” I launch into a series of critiques of an organization that is both loved and loathed, depending on whom you talk to.

Those for whom a mainstream gay agenda focused on marriage seems like a mark of maturity will praise it for its single-minded zeal and lobbying efforts. The rest of us cite the many problems with HRC: its infamous transphobia, its support of the Bush administration’s desire to privatize social security, its censorship of people it deems too messy and untidy.

In response, the interns tend to quietly edge away from me with mumbled thanks. 

But I know they’ll always have listeners –perhaps in droves this year — given the conspicuous success of their Supreme Court campaign: As the Court began hearing arguments around gay marriage, HRC posted a red and pink version of its logo.

The re-crafted symbol went viral on Facebook and was spread everywhere even by straight people who had no idea of the symbol’s organizational origins. There was, predictably a backlash as well – amongst the anti-HRC memes that cropped up in response was this version, the sign adopted by a group I helped co-found with Ryan Conrad, Against Equality. Visual Aids’ Tedd Kerr listed the various kinds of projects, as well as the history of AIDS images before memes.

The recent red logo campaign makes the project of “equality” look like something unquestionable and self-explanatory, and imbues a very wealthy organization with an aura of grassroots authenticity. After all, who could be against equality?

But what does the equal sign represent? Who, exactly, is equal to whom? In a country where even healthcare is inaccessible to most, marriage is an effort that only benefits people who already have benefits to share in the first place.

The US v. Windsor case rests upon the fact that Edith Windsor had to pay $363,053 as taxes on her partner’s estate. While this is indeed a large sum, the equal sign and all the accompanying rhetoric about how the case is just about love and fairness allows us to forget that Windsor, who disingenuously refers to her and her late partner as “mildly affluent,” inherited an estate of over $3.5 million. In other words, she was asked to pay 10% of a massive estate, on which she can live quite comfortably for the rest of her life.

In my work and activism around gay marriage, I often run into poor or middle-class gays and lesbians who insist that such taxes would cause them from falling into poverty after their partners’ deaths. In fact, their meager estates would be unaffected and their partners’ deaths would have less to deal with their poverty than the fact that they are already poor or struggling to begin with.

But marriage, as represented by the giant equal sign, is seen as the silver bullet, despite the fact that gay marriage will help make rich gays and lesbians a lot richer and leave the rest of us behind. When millions of people turned their profiles red in support of HRC and “equality,” they used grassroots energy to help further the interests of a wealthy elite. In that alone lies the genius of HRC.

And in that delusion lies our undoing.

** Yasmin Nair lives in Uptown, Chicago, with a cat, and does not recycle. You can find her work here: http://yasminnair.net/.

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