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December 16, 2004

AN EXCHANGE WITH ANDREW TOBIAS: ON THE HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN, LARRY KRAMER, GAY STRATEGY, AND SOCIAL SECURITY

When the Village Voice last night posted this week's cover story--a lengthy interview with Larry Kramer about the current state of gay activism, headlined "You Can Never Not Fight Back!", I thought it was important enough to send around to my personal e-mail list. Among the many "thankyou"s I received for calling attention to Larry's significant remarks, there was one negative complaint: from Andrew Tobias, the enormously popular financial writer, the Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, and a member of the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign.

I first met Andy in the early '70s, around the just-launched gay literary magazine Christopher Street--Andy had just pseudonymously (under the pen name John Reid) published his witty and moving memoir of his discovery that he was gay, "The Best Little Boy in the World," which achieved deserved critical and popular success. He has a talented pen, has written any number of best-selling books on money--and was clever enough to take his own financial advice and multiply his earnings as if they were the loaves and the fishes. Most people who'd accumulated the kind of dough Andy has would be content to relax into privatism and enjoy life's sybaritic pleasures. Andy, however, has devoted a lot of time and energy (as well as money) to gay causes. He has also raised tens of millions of gay dollars for the Democrats.

Andy took exception to Larry Kramer's criticisms of the Human Rights Campaign in the Voice interview. The gay community has been abuzz with debate and recriminations ever since a December 8 article in the New York Times on the HRC's new "go-slow strategy." The Times had reported on an HRC board meeting which had adopted a new approach, "with less emphasis on legalizing same-sex marriages and more on strengthening personal relationships.

"The leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, at a meeting last weekend in Las Vegas, concluded that the group must bow to political reality and moderate its message and its goals. One official said the group would consider supporting President Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security partly in exchange for the right of gay partners to receive benefits under the program." So said the Times.

In Larry Kramer's interview with my excellent former Voice colleague Lisa Solomon, he said, of HRC:  " I never saw an organization exist so long, raise so much money, and do so little. Their annual budget is $25 million! I think they get a lot of money from rich people in the heartland. I want to ask those people: What are you getting for it? This election is a real slap in the face to HRC and their complete ineptitude. And now they want to make deals!"

There then occurred the following exchange:

"Solomon: With that possibility on the back burner, what do you make of HRC's willingness to consider supporting Bush's plans to privatize Social Security?

"Kramer: Can you believe it? I can't see why people think Social Security needs to be repaired. Read Paul Krugman! Social Security is not broke. Why are they trying to fix it? It seems to be another Bush con to line the pockets of the rich...HRC exists without any community oversight. They're not elected. We have no input into what they do. And they go and convince Congress that they represent the gay world."

This is what particularly annoyed Andy Tobias, as our exchange of e-mails below indicates:

"Doug, this is really unfortunate.  The reports Larry's responding to were just wrong.  That's rare for the NY Times, but it does happen. HRC never *said* it was for working a deal to privatize social security, etc. (privatizing SS, as I've written many times, is a terrible idea).  Nor the  other stuff my friend Larry is railing against HRC for.  When you can, please try not to make our allies into villains.  Can't we attack our enemies instead?  They are so much worse!
Best,
Andy

"My dear Andy,
Forgive me, but I didn't need the Times to tell me what's wrong with the elitists at HRC. They wasted tens of millions of dollars in self serving and self-promoting ads this year instead of putting that money into the only thing that matters in the middle of the ongoing anti-gay backlash: organizing at the state and local level, from which HRC has been painfully absent 'lo these many years.

"I've been writing critically of HRC's politics and collusion-ism consistently over the years, as I find them not only capitulationist but repugnantly so. I wrote precisely that in the L.A. Weekly a few weeks ago.

"Don't you remember, Andy, how, in 2000, when Al Gore was whoring for Big Pharma and blocked getting generic AIDS meds to the Third World (and South Africa in particular), the geniuses at HRC--instead of criticizing Gore--attacked the ActUp/HealthGap demonstrators who were calling him on it? That was positively shameful. Don't you remember all the Republicans HRC has endorsed, from D'Amato right through to today (some 19 or 20 in this last election cycle)?

"The institutionalized opportunism of the fundraising-driven nest-featherers at HRC, who have consistently been prepared to sell out parts of the lbgt community (like the trannies), represents a conservative trend in the gay community that I have and will oppose with the same vigor I fight the right-wing Democrats and their overpaid consultants now in control of the party.

"Then there is the fact that the HRC's various ad campaigns paint a false image of the gay community--if you believed the HRC's ads, we're all upper-middle-class, white, highly religious, seeking nothing more than the right to reproduce carbon copies of the hetero nuclear family. Most gays are not well off, huge numbers are not white (but HRC ignores them because they don't write checks), and the image the HRC presents of us contributes to the demonization of those who choose not to squeeze the oh-so-human complexities of their nature into the hetero couple model (and I say that as someone whose partnership of 13 years could only be ended by my beloved Herve's death from AIDS).

"I do not believe, as you suggest, that burying these debates of substance and strategy is in the interest of the gay community---on the contrary, we need more of them. If you feel that the answer to the severe crisis we face is turning the leadership of the strategy for the gay community over to a gaggle of lobbyists for Corporate America--like HRC's two new co-directors--, well, I'm sorry, brother, but I do not, and will continue to say so. (I remark in passing that the Kerry campaign did just that in this last campaign, and, if you've noticed, it didn't do him any good--the lobbyist/consultants blew it completely.)

"And while HRC may not have taken a formal position for a sell-out on SS, you must think I'm naive not to know the sort of chatter that comes out of the mouths of this incestuous band of lobbyists masquerading as gay leaders. It's reflective of a troubling mindset on the part of of these condo-head capitulators. I talk to people in D.C. all the time, it's part of what I do as a journalist, and so don't mistake the lack of an HRC press release or resolution for an absence of consideration of this sort of sell-out--which is, by the way, the opposite of the coalition-building by the gay and AIDS communities I've written about as imperative for years (and while we're on the subject, I have precisely the same criticisms of the dreadful nest-featherers at AIDS ACTION--Don't you remember how even our friend Jamie Fox--hardly a revolutionary firebrand--couldn't stomach their board's single-issue, namby-pamby, accomodationist politics and quit as AA's director after only a couple of weeks? I chronicled this in POZ at the time...)

And, as long as we're mentioning AIDS, it has disappeared from HRC's agenda 'lo these many years, as has the defense of science-based sex education that is the only hope our young have of surviving. Gay youth are becoming infected with HIV at an alarmingly increasing rate because of the failure of our institutions, like HRC, to fight for their right to know how to protect themselves, and--unlike gay institutions in many other countries--because these organizationshave failed to lead the education of our gay young about sex.

"The HRC crowd  is positively AFRAID of talking about S-E-X in any form--it might hurt their fundraising and annoy a few of those Republicans whose complacence they're trying to buy with PAC money. HRC doesn't defend people being persecuted for sexual acts, doesn't deal with issues of police brutality against those folks, ignores the transgendered, ignores AIDS, and betrays the gay young with its silence. HRC has basically been ignoring the young and the need to organize them  (the age-old gay fear of being accused of pedophilia, especially in the current climate of hysteria around that issue, is palpable in the HRC's Victorian sensibilities, and explains its silences where sex-ed and the young are concerned--as does the fact that few gay youth are check-writers, either...).

"Our national gay and AIDS institutions have consistently underestimated the nature of the hydra-headed crises we face, and adopted wrong-headed strategies dictated by the imperatives of collecting money, while ignoring the fundamental basis of gay political power and gay self-defense--organizing our own communities at the local level (many of whose members still don't vote, and many of whom still need educating--didn't you notice that, even after Bush's gay-baiting, he still got a quarter of the gay vote?)

"To suggest, as you clearly do, that we should only criticize our enemies and that we should stifle all critical thought and debate within our communities, is the dangerously wrong way to go, my dear Andy, so I hope you will pardon me for disagreeing quite animatedly with your reproof.
Warm personal regards,
Doug"

To which Tobias replied:

"Thanks, Doug.  As an HRC board member who attended the meeting Larry was  referring to when he was appalled re Social Security, I know HRC did not come out  for privatizing it.  So attacking HRC for taking this position seemed wrong to  me. 

"I may be oversensitive about it, because Social Security and investments  are one of the few things I think I know something about, and I am passionate  about not privatizing it, and letting people know why that is the wrong way  to go.
Best, Andy"

"Brother Andy,
I notice you do not deny that the idea of making some alliances on the basis of a so-called "compromise" about the partial privatization of Social Security has been discussed by some of the Grand Pooh-bahs of the HRC (which is what the Times reported), only that no formal position was taken. That's cute, but I happen to know for a fact that it has been discussed, based on my own reporting, and not just on that of the Times. And that it could even be discussed reflects the mentality of too many on the board, other than your good self. I'm delighted you are passionate in opposing such notions--you should, in that case, have a word with Nancy Pelosi, who recently proposed to the White House (on television) a summit on Social Security with "no preconditions" in which "everything would be on the table" -- and that includes privatization of Social Security. The Democratic Party will not be rebuilt on the basis of Republican Lite economics or indications of willingness to even discuss selling out on SS or other matters.
As ever,
Doug"

I should add that the money-driven, organizing-hostile mentality at HRC is hardly new. As an example, OutletRadio's Christian Grantham's always informative blog recently published the following revealing anecdote, from the days when Christian worked for HRC:

"I'll never forget a debriefing I had in 1998 with the directors of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay and lesbian civil rights group. The debriefing followed a successful national fundraising dinner in Washington, D.C. coinciding with a national voter mobilization conference I coordinated for HRC....

"I pointed out that Cathy's use of HRC's national structure through local steering committees was too focused on the fundraising dinner building up to the weekend and didn't equally sell the importance of mobilizing the gay and lesbian vote through the weekend's conference. I expressed that I hoped the national structure can be used just as much to achieve HRC's equally important task of mobilizing the gay and lesbian vote.

"That's when Elizabeth Birch [who ran HRC at the time] chimed in, 'There's also such a thing as flying your kite in the wind.' That got a couple of light-hearted laughs as Elizabeth explained in her own way how the bills are paid..." There's more. To read it, click here.

And you might want to read the open letter denouncing the HRC's new compromise-oriented position issued by the some 50 national and state gay and lesbian organizations and leaders, including the National Gay Task Force.

P.S. on Social Security: This morning's edition of MSNBC's "First Read" reports that: "At a 12:30 pm news conference today at the National Press Club, leaders of the AFL-CIO, NAACP, NOW, Campaign for America's Future, the Alliance for Retired Americans, and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities will announce a grassroots campaign against Bush's plan for Social Security." The absence of HRC in coalitions like this reflects its tunnel vision (even though aging gays would be just as undermined by SS privatizationn as aging heteros) and contributes to our community's lack of solid allies. First Read also has the details on the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which shows "Democrats with a 15-point edge over Republicans on dealing with Social Security -- though that edge has narrowed from 20 points in January 2004.  Asked whether Bush has a mandate to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, 51% say Bush does not have a mandate, while 35% say he does."

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Comments

" Al Gore was whoring for Big Pharma"? ......was he really? where is the real hard evidence? I really think the so called "evidence" above is flimsy....:)

Posted by: Marco Ginnelli | Dec 27, 2008 6:06:42 PM

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