The Human Rights Campaign

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The Human Rights Campaign, known as the Human Rights Campaign Fund until 1995, is the largest lesbian and gay rights organization in the nation, with over one hundred staff and more than 500,000 members in 2003. It was founded in the summer of 1980 as the first national lesbian and gay political action committee, with the aims of supporting LGB-friendly candidates and gaining congressional sponsors for a national lesbian and gay rights civil rights bill. Within twenty years HRC had enlarged its mission to include lobbying Congress and grassroots organizing and had absorbed other groups and programs. At times the organization has been at the center of controversy within the LGB movement because of its lingering image of elitism, and also because of its accomodationist strategy of working within the American political system in traditional ways.

Origins: 1980–1983

By 1980 the United States was experiencing a resurgent conservative movement that attempted to curtail the perceived excesses of the previous two decades in the form of minority civil rights and affirmative action policies; a revitalized women's movement; campus unrest and antiwar protest centered on U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia; and the rapid rise of a visible and organized gay and lesbian movement. The establishment of organizations like the Moral Majority (founded in 1979) signaled the rise of the New Right, as did the landslide 1980 presidential election of Republican Ronald Reagan and the concurrent defeat of key Senate Democrats. Conservatives now challenged, sometimes successfully, ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation passed in several localities during the blossoming of LGB activism and culture in the 1970s. The murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978—and the light sentence given their assassin—further galvanized LGB people toward fighting homophobia.

In the context of these events, Minnesota gay activist Steve Endean became convinced of the need for civil rights protection on the national rather than the state or local levels. He had founded the first lesbian and gay rights political group in his state and been its first lobbyist for that cause. In the mid-1970s he worked toward the adoption of both Twin Cities' LGB rights ordinances and lobbied for a statewide bill, passed in 1993. Moving to Washington, D.C., in 1978 to direct the Gay Rights National Lobby (GRNL), he joined with Jim Foster, Larry Bye, and James Hormel in the planning of the Human Rights Campaign Fund and became its first director, serving from 1980 to 1983.

To achieve its ultimate goal of federal legislation, the HRC established the nation's first LGB fundraising network and cosponsored the landmark study, "Does Support for Gay Rights Spell Political Suicide?" In 1980 HRC made its first contribution to a congressional candidate (who won reelection) and in 1982 sponsored the movement's largest fundraising event yet, a dinner at New York City's Waldorf Astoria, featuring as speaker former Vice President Walter Mondale. The following year, conflicts with other activists led to Endean's resignation from both GRNL and HRC and the latter hired Vic Basile to be executive director, a post he held until 1989.

Expansion of Activities

Under Executive Directors Basile (1983–1989) and Tim McFeeley (1989–1995), HRC broadened its activities and sought to build coalitions, especially with the feminist and African American movements. By the end of 1985, HRC had merged with GRNL, hiring its own lobbyists in the following years. A Field Division for grassroots organizing was added after Endean returned to HRC in 1987 with his constituent mailgram project, the Fairness Fund (renamed Speak Out). In the same year the tax-exempt HRC Foundation was created. The movement's second national March on Washington (11 October 1987) provided an opportunity for HRC to hold the LGB political movement's largest fundraiser yet in the nation's capital. At the end of its first decade, HRC had expanded its lobbying and advocacy activities, made the original political action committee a separate branch, added the Young Leaders Internship Program, and become the first lesbian and gay organization ever to testify at Republican Party platform committee hearings (1988). It also had gained a reputation as an elitist organization—dominated by conservative (and often closeted) wealthy white men—due in part to fundraising through black-tie dinners sponsored by members of HRC called the Insiders Group (later known as the Federal Club). The fifth annual New York City Dinner (1986), however, became memorable when speaker Coretta Scott King declared her "solidarity with the gay and lesbian community."

Responding to AIDS

Once HRC absorbed GRNL in 1985, it turned much of its attention to AIDS-related legislation, forming the AIDS Campaign Trust. (GRNL had begun lobbying for federal funding of AIDS research, education, and prevention in 1983.) Among its more notable efforts in the late 1980s

were the Fund's central role, in 1987 and 1988, in increasing the movement's visibility at both major political parties' presidential nominating conventions and successfully lobbying for the passage of several bills, including the Civil Rights Restoration Act (1988), the Fair Housing Amendments Act, and larger AIDS appropriations. Under Executive Director Tim McFeeley, HRC joined other LGB rights and AIDS groups in organizing National AIDS Lobby Days and in pressuring Congress to pass health-related legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) (which included people with AIDS and HIV) and the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency (CARE) Act (1990). HRC continued to devote significant energy in the 1990s not only to AIDS but also to women's health and reproductive rights, having already adopted an official pro-choice position on abortion.

Changes in Washington

The 1992 election of President Bill Clinton brought hope to LGB rights groups. Clinton, the first presidential candidate endorsed by the HRC, had included LGB people in his campaign of inclusiveness and in 1993 was the first president to meet with heads of LGB organizations, including McFeeley, in the Oval Office. In light of

Clinton's promise to end discrimination in the military—openly LGB people were barred from serving—HRC began Operation Lift the Ban, pouring energy into polling, lobbying, peaceful protest, and constituent pres sure on Congress. (HRC members sent over seventy thousand messages to Washington opposing the ban.) Government resistance to changing the policy became the focus of the third March on Washington in April 1993 and spawned coordinated efforts between HRC and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Despite the efforts of LGB rights organizations, in September Congress passed an uneasy compromise, soon labeled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." In the wake of this defeat, the passage of Colorado's anti-LGB Amendment 2 in 1992, and public attacks from other activists charging ineffectiveness, HRC conducted an internal review that resulted in a new Plan of Action for 1994. Two issues, hate crimes and job discrimination, became key projects of the organization as it changed leadership in 1995.

New Faces for HRC

When Elizabeth Birch became executive director in 1995, HRC already had entered a new phase that aimed at professionalizing the organization while changing its image. At the same time, it retained Endean's original goal of national LGB civil rights protection but changed its strategy from obtaining sponsors for a national bill (first introduced in Congress in 1974, and again in 1980 and 1991) to supporting piecemeal legislation accomplishing the same protections.

Among the first changes were adoption of a new name ("Fund" was omitted) and a bold, simple logo (a yellow-against-blue equal sign). Birch and the new board sought to alter HRC's lingering Champagne Fund image by emphasizing the diversity of its staff, membership, and activities, and initiating outreach to transgendered people. The other main goal was modernization in terms of hiring professionals in their fields, going online, and adopting corporate-style marketing techniques. HRC made increasing use of celebrities, particularly in its magazine ads and National Coming Out Day (directed by Candace Gingrich, it was adopted as a Project of the HRC Foundation in 1993); spokespeople have included Amanda Bearse, Chastity Bono, and Ellen DeGeneres's mother, Betty.

The usual mix of legislative victory and defeat characterized the 1990s and HRC continued to be at the center of controversy both inside and outside the movement. It laid significant groundwork in 1994 for the introduction in Congress of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA, defeated 1996) by launching the Documenting Discrimination Project while obtaining written pledges from a majority of Congress not to discriminate in their offices on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1997 President Clinton addressed the HRC at its first National Dinner and Awards; the same year his nomination of openly-gay James Hormel—a HRC co-founder and Foundation board member—as ambassador to Luxembourg embroiled both in a struggle with homo-phobic elements in the Senate. Over the next two years HRC drew fire from other activists, first for endorsing the anti-choice New York Republican senator Alfonse D'Amato in his reelection bid, then for its involvement in Millennium March in the year 2000, proposed without consultation among a variety of movement activists. During and since those events, HRC has been more successful in responding to the "Ex-gay" movement's ad campaigns, continuing its ongoing fight against workplace discrimination, and expanding its outreach and programs.


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DeBold, Kathleen, ed. Out for Office: Campaigning in the Gay Nineties. Washington, D.C.: Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, 1994.

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Vicky Eaklor

see alsoanti-discrimination law and policy; boycotts; electoral politics; employment law and policy; family law and policy; federal law and policy; hate crimes law and policy; health and health care law and policy; military law and policy; national gay and lesbian task force (ngltf).

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