The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is the largest LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group and non-profit organization in the country. Even if the HRC's name doesn’t ring a bell, its logo—a yellow equals sign on a blue background—probably does. Whether online, on car bumpers, or on Nalgene water bottles, the logo seems to appear everywhere nowadays. It’s become synonymous with images of waving rainbow flags and Kim Davis looking grumpy.
So what’s the issue?
Unfortunately, the HRC has a history of discrimination and underrepresentation with questionable motives and financial backings.
For a start, let’s look at their annual 'Corporate Equality Index,' in which they score Fortune 500 companies on their workplace environment and inclusion policies for LGBTQ+ employees.
Sounds like a good idea, right? Holding big corporate accountable for any discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity is necessary. But the index is based primarily on survey responses filled out by chief executives on behalf of their companies. This is to say that one person, who has an obvious public image incentive to present his or her company as LGBTQ+ friendly, is given a survey whose responses are not checked or validated by any sort of workplace investigative process.
Executives can embellish a company’s workplace culture and policies to get a nice stamp of approval from the HRC. Unless an employee goes directly to the HRC with a grievance or a complaint is released publicly, the HRC is stuck with the survey as its source of insight into the workplace. As an additional measure, the HRC tracks Securities and Exchange Commission filings to note connections between a company’s significant shareholders and anti-LGBT organizations or activities, but according to the HRC, “such connections are footnoted in this report, but do not necessarily change a business’s rating.” Why not?
While on the topic of financial connections, let’s look at some of the HRC’s 'Platinum' Corporate Sponsors. All ten (Accenture, American Airlines, Apple, Coca-Cola, Diageo, Microsoft, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Nationwide, Northrop Grumman, and Target) were given 100 percent ratings by the HRC. These companies could very well be as LGBTQ+ inclusive as they are rated. However, I think it’s important to note this as a potential conflict of interest and a mutually-beneficial relationship. The HRC gets large sums of money from these corporations and the corporations get to brand themselves as progressive and culturally-aware to a market where gayness is becoming increasingly fashionable, and as a result, commodified.
Not only that but the HRC's name is misleading for an organization that focuses on LGBTQ+ rights in the United States as it fails to address international human rights abuses, sometimes giving companies with histories of human rights abuses both domestically and abroad 100 percent ratings. For example, Nestlé has a history of privatizing water sources in underdeveloped countries and selling it back to the local people at hugely marked-up prices. Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin have lucrative contracts with the U.S Department of Defense to develop drones that continue to kill civilians in the Middle East. Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle both have histories of sweatshop and child labor violations. Tech companies like Apple have a history of questionable working conditions in their factories. So, while it’s important that these companies are pushing for equality domestically, the progressive social image distracts from their transgressions elsewhere.
The HRC, especially as an advocate for a marginalized group, has a responsibility to condemn these abuses against populations that, like the queer community, face disenfranchisement and domination.
But the HRC isn’t ignorant of criticisms of this type. For over a decade, the HRC has been accused of ignoring the less 'mainstream' members of the queer community. And by mainstream, I mean gay, cisgendered, white, affluent, white men. At an HRC rally in front of the White House in 2013, a representative from the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project was asked not to share his prepared speech by HRC officials. At the same rally, HRC officials also asked for rally members to stop waving their trans flags. This particular incident is consistent with the HRC’s history of “dropping the T” when it becomes politically challenging. Many members of the queer community read these transgressions as failures to acknowledge the intersection of other bases for discrimination – such as race, socioeconomic status, masculinity, sex, and documented status – with non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities.
A recent report on the HRC’s office culture by the Pipeline Project— an organization dedicated to increasing the diversity among the LGBTQ+’s rights, service and advocacy sector—is particularly damning. In the report, which was leaked to BuzzFeed before HRC leadership released it to its staff, survey respondents spoke out against misogyny, masculinism, transphobia, and superficial attempts at diversification within the organization. One respondent called the HRC a “white gay man’s club.” Another contended that trans staff members “frequently feel tokenized” and that the corporate guidelines on dress codes feature only male and female codes of appropriate dress. Finally, though the HRC purportedly serves all members of the queer community and claims to reflect that in its diversity statistics, people of color are disproportionately represented in “staff support” positions, and severely underrepresented in leadership positions. How can an organization possibly advocate for a goal of societal equality and enfranchisement when their own work environment fails at just that?
So, the next time the HRC endorses a corporation, a piece of legislation, or a candidate, be particularly wary and ask whose interests they really have at heart. Is it really those of the communities who remain at-risk and disenfranchised?
Spencer Campbell PO '19 is an intended history major from New Rochelle, New York. He enjoys hiking, queer politics, and Frank Ocean.