Phil Reese

The good side of Gay Inc.

Filed By Phil Reese | September 07, 2010 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: fundraising, Gay Inc, organizations, political campaigns

Say what you will about Gay Inc, I still send my dollars down to DC every year without fail. Should I be happy with the return on investment that I get out of my pet causes? Certainly not. logos.jpg

With the exception of Lambda Legal which has made some tremendous gains in the court system, the organizations I give most often to--HRC, The Task Force and Victory Fund--have struggled to bring about solid gains on the Federal Level. Besides the passage and signing of the Federal Hate Crimes bill, we've yet to see a sweeping piece of legislation that will improve the lives of LGBTQ folks around the nation--not just in the cosmopolitan super-leftie coastal states, but in the middle of Bumblehopsburgh Alabama.

Let me be clear that we should be vocal in demanding more action from our national organizations. Even if it is the way of things, never be content and complacent about the slow rate of progress. The only thing slowing progress is the conflicting agendas of people, and that can always be overcome.

However, I'm glad Gay Inc exists. Here's why.

Defeating invisibility

The groups we call Gay Inc, namely the Task Force, HRC, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, Stonewall Democrats, LCR, GLSEN, GLAD, PFLAG, GetEQUAL, NYAC, GMHC, NCLR, NCTE, SLDN, SU, Freedom to Marry, Victory Fund and Equality Federation, have to promote themselves to maintain membership rolls to pay the bills. This is a good thing.

Increasingly, we've seen the leadership from these groups pop up in the media commenting on controversies and promoting their work. Ladies and gentlemen, this may very well be the most important work that these organizations do. We know that visibility is the key component to changing hearts and minds. People fear that which they don't understand. People don't understand things that are taboo, not talked about, never mention and aren't given exposure.

Though Gay Inc, may not always be talking from a script that you endorse, you can bet they're making inroads for you. The more visibility in the media that these organizations create, the more living rooms our issues enter, the more dinner table conversations happen and the more the public is moved on our issues.

This media exposure must come from prepped, media-trained members of the 'Gay Inc' elite, and not Joe Schmoe from the corner of Halstead and Belmont. Do you remember what happened when CNN went to "The Abbey" in West Hollywood to get reactions to Judge Walker's decision? We're better off having sober, suit-wearing folk speaking on our behalf with the right facts, than, say, drunk Phil Reese at a bar before he's had the chance to peruse Chris Geidner's analysis of the case, or Kate Kendall's column.

Akin to visibility is access, especially in DC. Now a lot of hubbub is made about the issue of organizations like HRC choosing access over swift success, and while the anger may be righteous, working to increase access to the halls of Congress and create inroads in the government are not bad goals. Gay Inc has the name recognition to set up meetings with big players to discuss moving forward. We don't necessarily see a lot of fruit from these meetings every time, but you can bet there's a benefit to having them.

If any Phil Reese off the street tried to get Chuck Schumer into a room with a bunch of other gay activists, that letter would go a long time at the bottom of a pile with no response (not even canned) before it was finally laughed at and thrown out. By building a reputation and a brand, Gay Inc also builds the attention of our legislators and our policy makers.

Gay Inc is a home for budding young activists

Face it. 90% of the folks reading this blog--as much as they curse the org most of the time--have some sort of equal sign decal somewhere on their stuff. Whether it's the bumper sticker on your car, or an old t-shirt from Pride long ago, the symbol is likely one of the first you identified with when coming out.

Most of us don't come out straight into activism and zealous participation. In fact, when the lion's share of us came out, the last thing we cared about was gay politics. It was sex, a social life and safety. For the vast majority of folks just stepping through the doors of openness and freedom, the nitty gritty politics that we discuss on this site have absolutely no appeal. Surely, most of the language we use on this site would be foreign to these folks. Enter your entry level activism at Gay Inc.

Gay Inc makes activism palatable for many budding young queers. Yes, it's true, most of what the previously mentioned Gay Inc-ers offer to new members in terms of "activism" activity amounts to little more than fundraising; just the act of joining HRC could be a big deal for someone who grew up in a conservative family in a conservative Midwestern town and just risked everything by coming out.

There is a model of identity formation that applies to 'coming out' called The Cass Model. The fifth stage of the Cass model is often nicknamed by us non-professionals as the "Pride Stage." This is when you have accepted your identity, you've embraced it, and now you want to start showing off your shiny new personal awareness to your friends, family and co-workers. Often picking up an "equal sign" mug and a Task Force mouse pad, and telling your peers that you're hosting a fundraising dinner for a Victory Fund endorsed candidate at your home can be the opening door to a much greater embrace of the community down the line.

Often the advocacy opportunities presented in joining these organizations is incomplete as one becomes more aware of the political complexity and nuance facing our community in our journey toward acceptance and equality, however, coming out and getting a little involved in Gay Inc is a healthy step in the right direction. After all, like many other activists my first taste of advocacy was with HRC. I eventually became a member of the Michigan Steering Committee, where I set up and led the first in-district lobbying visit ever with Dave Camp, a man notoriously avoiding our issues for decades, and who famously told two gay friends of mine who lived in his district "I don't have any gay people in my district."

By the end of that meeting, Dave Camp was well aware of the gay people in his district.

Building bridges/creating power

Folks often complain that gays and lesbians don't do enough to reach out to other movements to help them out, but this is simply not true. Look at any Progressive organization and you're going to find the top salary spots littered with queer folks. Your canvassers, the people with the leather to the street are often very very much dominated by queer people. These folks aren't there representing our issues, however. The fact that they're LGBT rarely comes up.

Gay Inc, however has always done a fairly impressive job of building those coalitions and partnerships with mutual goals and successes. The Task Force is famous for partnering with organizations outside of what we generally limit to our movement, and help bring awareness to many causes. Likewise, HRC often spends much of their resources at election time helping get elected good solid Progressives, gay or straight.

Gay Inc groups have partnered with environmental groups, women's rights groups, and most notably with health care reform groups during the contentious health care reform debates.

These partnerships not only assist us in building alliances with partners who can help us push our own agenda forward, but when we help improve the lives of others, and right wrongs, all of us benefit.

Create great gay jobs

I was having lunch in DC on Sunday with a friend who happens to work for that organization that shall remain nameless. He couldn't stop gushing about all of the cool projects they are working on there, and the good work they're doing this election cycle to help get Progressives into office. He's very proud of what he does and proud of what his employer does. Sure, we don't see eye-to-eye on everything that comes out of that big building on Rhode Island, but I had to concur, he is definitely working hard at a job that he loves doing the work he believes in. I can't say I wasn't a little jealous.

As a blogger, I don't get paid for this. At all. You know, you can say it's noble, I'm an advocate and an activist giving of my time... yeah yeah yeah. It's freaking difficult! I can barely find five minutes to write or take an action in a day. Especially when so many folks are pulling me in so many different directions anymore. There's so much to do, and just no time to do it.

If I could quit my job and make this work my full time job every single day, I would do it in a heart-beat. Imagine what more I could get done if LGBT advocacy was all I had to do?

The fact that Gay Inc finds work for budding, idealistic young activists is amazing. Throughout my life, I've known dozens of folks working at all levels at HRC, the Task Force and statewide organizations in Illinois and Michigan. As much crap as we bloggers give to Gay Inc-ers about what we perceive and assume is haughtiness, snobbery and nasty attitudes at the big DC orgs, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Save for a very strong exception, everyone I've ever met that works for 'Gay Inc' at all levels are really awesome folks who clock into work excited every single day ready to get to work fighting for what they believe in. I think it would be difficult to work at the Task Force or NCLR and get blasted all the time like an enemy of the community, when the opposite is actually true.

I am a big supporter of giving jobs to as many members of our community as possible, especially if those jobs are in the movement.

The power of positive vs. plunging pessimism

Finally, I appreciate what Gay Inc brings to the table because they are able to maintain a language of positivity while the gay media pedals pessimism. I mean, not always. Much of the time some of the best and most important conversations happening in our community are taking place on pages at Pam's House Blend or Box Turtle Bulletin, and of course Bilerico. However, let's face it. Our job as bloggers is to give Gay Inc a hard time.

As gay media struggles with a new paradigm, its up to bloggers to keep the heat on Gay Inc. However, sometimes we beat that dead horse beyond recognition. See, gory. We bloggers are dark, aren't we!

Gay Inc reminds us to have hope. "You gotta give 'em hope," as Harvey said. Bloggers are the canaries in the mine. We blow the whistle when we smell smoke. This can be exhausting for readers. If every time you open your MacBook, all you read is bad news, eventually you're not going to want to read the news. Gay Inc is eternally optimistic. Sure, its to a fault at times--but thank God we still got a cheerleader in the game when all hope seems lost. It keeps me going. It keeps us going.

Room for growth

OK, Phil, you love Big Brother, we get it.

Well, not all is well in Pleasantville. Areas of improvement I have already identified for 'Gay Inc' are the need to be more realistic, and along those lines, what's needed even more is openness and honesty. Though a lot of the strategy of Gay Inc must go on behind closed doors--I do understand this--its foolish of Gay Inc to constantly expect gay media to just trust 'em when they say "Don't worry, we got this. All will be revealed soon enough." We all know that when the big-wigs predict that big win, that big victory, we almost always fall short.

Lately, I've been quite impressed with HRC's powerful language and aggression toward Target. We need our big orgs to be a bit more pushy, a bit more edgy, a bit more frank. This will go a long way to building trust in the community, which is wary of the work of these big kahunas--all fundraising and little or no result.

Speaking of fundraising, I think one of the number one ways that these organizations can build better relationships with the community is by giving their membership more to do than just fundraise. Does HRC and Victory Fund do a hell of a lot more important work than just raise money? You bet. How do we know that though? Most of the good work HRC does, it pays its staff to do. When HRC is putting feet on the ground during election time, helping get more Progressives elected, its doing so with paid employees. HRC and all of Gay Inc ought to reevaluate its relationship with its membership, and leverage their members more for their people power than for their wallets.

Especially now, in these economic times, its hard for any of us to give like we did in 2004. We really need to see more opportunities to contribute that cost us far more in time and talent than in dollars and cents.

At the end of the day, Gay Inc is a necessity--whether you think that it's a necessary good or necessary evil. The shortcomings in our orgs are vast, but in the end, they are set up to accomplish much. Let's make sure they feel compelled to create those successes now.

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Come on. First I would not lump GetEqual in with Gay Inc. They are practicing a much different brand of activism than any of the other groups and unlike the others you named not raking in huge salaries or building big new shiny headquarters.
As for HRC they have been the lapdogs for the Democratic Party. When have they forcefully come out against the inaction of the Democrats in power. They are allowing things like ENDA and UAFA not getting passed, and DOMA and DADT not being repealed. And as for the "forceful" response to Target. First they didn't say anything until they saw the community was angry. Then they tried to do a good old fashioned shakedown to line their own pockets. Any way to make a buck. Even after this it took them a long time to take Target off their list of stores to buy from. I don't see anything strong about their response mixed with a little self serving for good measure.

My biggest problem with Gay Inc is their lack of transparency in deciding their agenda. While I agree that 'respectable', well informed activists who have access to those in power are necessary, I think that Gay Inc needs to be FAR more accountable to the constituency they claim to represent.

WHY did HRC decide (on OUR behalf) that challenging Prop 8 in court was a bad idea (only to flip when the case was won?) Who made that decision and on what basis? The Stonewall Demmocrats in Wyoming claimed to be 'blindsided' by the court case taken by that young gay couple against Wyoming's ban on marriage equality. But what had THEY been doing to challenge Wyoming's ban. Well nothing it seems? When Target gave a donation to the bigotted Tom Emmer, why did HRC not issue an immediate condemnation?

If they are meant to represent US, then I expect them to do that. Their lack of accountability and transparency leads many people to assume that they are working solely in their own interests.

They may be well intentioned but many people assume (perhaps correctly) that they are so fond of their access to those in power that they are failing in representing us properly, for fear that they may lose their 'special status'?

Equality is not negotiable. Gay Inc needs to learn that lesson FAST. The internet means that they cannot hide their failures, and every time they settle for 2nd best, or refuse to condemn discrimination, they further damage their already compromised reputations

Let's face it, 'gay inc' isn't about queer people in general, it is about upperclass, cis white gay men (and to a lesser extent, upperclass, cis white lesbians). Many of these groups demonstrate failure after failure in respect to the rights and dignity of trans people, bi people, poor people, and people of colour. These groups only support a narrow group of people that already have other forms of massive social privilege. All I hear from gay inc are pathetic crys of 'but we're rich white cis people like you! Obviously we deserve some crumbs. And don't worry, we don't like the same people you don't like, excepting us, of course."

I think any attempt to justify the existence of Gay, Inc, should really go into the orgs individually. They each have different purposes and serve different parts of the community - they're not all doing the same thing for the same folks. Just compare donor lists.

Either way, I do like how your lumped GetEQUAL in with the others. They're taking donations, they're funded by rich folks, they have a board and they have (very well) paid staff. They're a nonprofit corporation. That doesn't make them evil, no, but it makes them part of Gay, Inc.

Good Point. I'd say the same for AFER, who are conspicuously absent...

The biggest problem with HRC and some of the other Gay, Inc. orgs is that they're run by wealthy elites who really have neither the comprehension nor the interest in what life is like for those of us who aren't in their elite circles.

Indeed, HRC is the model here. It's hard to take seriously any org that limits decision-making power not to the best and most effective activists, but instead solely to those with the deepest pockets, the uber-wealthy. In short, they play the same kind of craven, self-serving political games as the Democratic Party does, so it's not really very surprising that the community reacts to them in the same way.

When you're charging fifty grand a year just to have a voice in the org's agenda it's just not credible to claim you represent the interests of the entire community, and history has borne that reality out quite clearly.

Becca if you dont like it dont fund it stop complaining and start your own org or would you prefer to sit back and throw rocks?

You apparently don't know Becky very well. She doesn't give money to useless organization, like HRC. She has actually been chased down by HRC people, for the purpose of causing physical harm. And she has been on the front lines doing a hell of a lot more then throwing rocks. What have you done for us lately? If all you can only say, "I gave money to so-an-so," that don't count as getting off of your armchair and helping. Money is only a tiny part of helping. What other parts have you done? For Becky, a lot.

I don't want to say that Gay Inc. doesn't do any important work, there are I'm sure laudable things. But to be honest, Gay Inc. will always represent the interests/methods/discourse of the privileged. It does NOT work or help all of us, in fact far from it. When your political outlook is confined to trying to incorporate (some) queers into the already establish order, you do nothing to change the authority/legitimacy of the system or the people who still bear the brunt of its violence. These organizations have little or no critique at all of capitalism, corporations, etc. {not to mention our fucked up "democracy"} Instead, they want to let us know the best gay-friendliest corporations! [E.g. corporations HRC highlights as great companies to work for include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, Shell Oil, Chevron, Monsanto ... MONSANTO! The list reads like a who's-who of killing, exploiting and polluting non-white people and the Global South. Or Pharmaceutical companies that get rich off of patents and intellectual property rights to the detriment of public health. Or financial institutions that run the global capitalist machine.] So while, Gay Inc may occasionally work with "environmental groups, women groups" etc., they have quite a limited view of what justice means. Justice is not "just us." Gay Inc. will never bring about the liberation of folks, just the privilege of some. And it's always sad to me when people think Gay Inc. is enough. Gay Inc. will never be enough. To quote Audre Lorde, "the master's tool will never dismantle the master's house." We need radical queer change that challenges and dismantles kyriarchy, imagining new futures that are free of systems of oppression. Gay Inc will be left behind in the dustbin of history.
{Also I agree with Alex Blaze about separating the groups up, because most of my comment is directed towards HRC, but applies to various degrees to the other orgs}

Good job, Phil. Thanks for saying something that needed to be said - and saying it very well (though I also agree with many of the points made in the comments above).

Phil, you are on it. This makes so much sense

beachcomberT | September 8, 2010 9:51 AM

Some excellent points made by both sides. What it boils down to is keeping close track of your favorite Gay Inc. organization -- not just mindlessly contributing money. Right now I'm wondering why HRC is pressuring Target for a $150K donation, and still giving Target a 100 percent A-OK rating on its corporate approval list. Smacks of rank hypocrisy. Meanwhile, my spirits are lifted every time I get a Lambda Legal newsletter -- they are doing great work nationally and in my own swampland of Florida. And I applaud the Task Force for at long last paying some attention to Social Security discrimination, which deprives gay couples of millions every year.

I think we need to do the "math," Phil.

Gay Inc. consumes more than $100 million a year. We DO NOT get any recognizable return on that investment. To simply credit some "media attention" as evidence that Gay Inc. is effective misses the point: they DO NOT have a strategy to win, they have strategies to survive.

Many people recognize that the non-profit sector becomes consumed with raising enough money to continue their existence, but they are NEVER held accountable.

HRC has spent $500 million in the last 30 years. They did that without any real strategy or plan - and THAT is why they have NO results.

At some point we need to recognize how ineffective Gay Inc. is and really question the waste of $100 million a year. That money could be put to much better use, especially if tied to a real, sustainable strategy to actually WIN, not simply survive.

"Though Gay Inc, may not always be talking from a script that you endorse, you can bet they're making inroads for you. The more visibility in the media that these organizations create, the more living rooms our issues enter, the more dinner table conversations happen and the more the public is moved on our issues."

I agree with you. Conversations and awareness are what shift the perceptions of those that hold us back. I know these conversations aren't generating an immediate response but they are changing the minds on some social conservatives. In time (more times), I believe we will begin to see this and LGBT equality will come to fruition.

This posting and many of the comments here demonstrate our biggest problem: low expectations.

Lambda does some great work. But, the rest of Gay Inc., is a huge waste of money. They don't even have a strategy.

If all we expect from our $100 million a year is some 'awareness," we aren't very anxious to achieve full equality.

We need to hold Gay Inc. accountable. We need to be able to verify some results or progress. We can't. Maybe we'll wake up after the mid-terms. Maybe then we'll realize how much time, energy and money we've wasted with the LGBT-Advocacy industry.