CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte has seen a lot of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) over the last few years.
The organization, the largest LGBTQ rights advocacy lobbying group in the country, was active in helping to elect Charlotte City Council members who would pass a fully inclusive LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance, working alongside Equality North Carolina (ENC) and MeckPAC.
They were visible at Charlotte City Council meetings and press conferences when House Bill 2 (HB2) nullified all ordinances passed by cities and municipalities in the state, as well as requiring transgender individuals to use the bathrooms and restrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates in government-owned buildings.
They called on Charlotte City Council not to rescind the now-nullified ordinance after pressure from the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) to do so, in hopes of getting a repeal of HB2 in exchange. HRC president Chad Griffin thanked them at a meeting in May of last year for standing their ground after they removed the topic of economic impacts due to HB2 from their agenda.
At that same meeting, Charlotte City Councilmember Kenny Smith noted that Griffin did not reside in the state and questioned why Charlotte should listen to what those from Washington, D.C. think should be done in North Carolina.
City Council did succumb to the pressure eventually, rescinding the ordinance, but failing to get an HB2 repeal in response, leaving many in the LGBTQ community feeling let-down by their local and state governments, as well as by the organizations who saw large sums of money donated to their cause without any tangible victory.
Smith, who voted against the ordinance, has criticized HRC for holding a gala in North Carolina after calling for boycotts over HB2, labeling it “the height of hypocrisy.”
The gala has been held in Charlotte, N.C. for the past five years, previously being held in Raleigh, N.C.
While it may not be surprising to hear a Republican councilmember who voted against LGBTQ rights criticize HRC, he is far from the only dissenting voice.
Transgender activist and politician Janice Covington Allison is organizing a protest outside of this year’s fundraising gala in Charlotte, which takes place on Feb. 4 at Le Meridien hotel.
Allison, who is running for chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, says she believes the organization has done a better job lately of raising funds than of producing real results, particularly for the transgender community.
She believes the money they raised in the state would have been better spent for more local and grassroots organizations, such as MeckPAC.
MeckPAC has been vocal about their disappointment with the city for rescinding the ordinance and have called on the council to reinstate it, if only symbolically.
Both HRC and ENC released press statements shortly after the Charlotte City Council voted to rescind the ordinance, urging the NCGA to repeal HB2, but stopping short of criticizing the city’s choice to take the ordinance off the books.
This has led to questions concerning if and when both groups knew about the votes held on Dec. 19 and Dec. 21 to rescind the ordinance, first with a clause putting it back in place if the NCGA failed to repeal HB2 by the end of 2016, and then to repeal it without that provision.
Neither HRC nor ENC responded to questions concerning if they knew about the votes in advance. ENC also declined to comment to qnotes in time for the press deadline.
While a full repeal of HB2 would have meant cities could once again have passed their own non-discrimination ordinances, a fully-inclusive ordinance like the one Charlotte passed not invoking the upset of the NCGA, which could always pass another piece of legislation similar to HB2, seemed unlikely.
The GOP still has a supermajority in both the state House and Senate. The Republicans who have campaigned, and won, on defending HB2 as necessary for the protection of women and children would have to go back to their heavily Republican districts and explain why they would not only repeal it, but allow similar ordinances to go unchecked.
“The reason I’m holding a protest, a demonstration, is because…[individuals, musicians and others] have given money to Equality North Carolina, have given money to HRC, lots of money, big money, and they keep that money for themselves,” Allison said.
Meanwhile, she said, they hold press conferences and ask members of the transgender community to travel on their own dollar to appear with them, which they often do because of their belief in the fight for rights.
“They protest because of their beliefs. It’s not about money. And Equality North Carolina and HRC they have never once said to the local organizations, let’s share some of this money to help you guys out,” Allison added.
She noted that HRC president Chad Griffin makes over $400,000 a year.
Charity Navigator, an independent charity watchdog group, gives HRC an overall rating of 89.36, with criteria covering use of funds, accountability and transparency.
According to the organization’s 990 form posted to their website, in 2015 HRC brought in a total revenue of over $36,400,000.
HRC defended itself against claims it is not doing enough in the fight for LGBTQ rights, both locally and nationally.
This is not the first time Allison has protested the state gala, joining members of the transgender group TransCarolina in 2009, voicing their upset over HRC supporting an employment non-discrimination that left out the transgender community.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand how HRC continues to work closely with local advocates, pouring their hearts, souls and enormous resources into this fight to repeal HB2. As a transgender North Carolinian, I couldn’t be more proud of the work HRC is doing here,” said Tina White, an HRC board member from Asheville, N.C., and executive director of Blue Ridge Pride Center in a statement to qnotes. “They’ve partnered closely with Equality North Carolina and invested an enormous amount of time, resources, and money into the fight. The HRC and ENC TurnOUT campaign defeated the face of HB2, Pat McCrory, sending a powerful warning to lawmakers across the country who may be considering similar discriminatory legislation. There is no doubt in my mind that HRC is unyielding in its commitment to the fight not only until HB2 is gone, but until LGBTQ people across North Carolina have the same comprehensive and commonsense non-discrimination protections that exist in 19 states and more than 100 cities across the country.”
MeckPAC Chair Jamie Hildreth said he supports Allison and anyone else’s right to protest.
“If they can do it, they should do it,” Hildreth said. “Especially since they feel they have a legitimate concern against HRC and some of its past and current work within the transgender community. I don’t want to speak for the trans community, as someone who isn’t trans, but I definitely feel like MeckPAC has always been an open, inclusive organization that has invited everyone in.”
He points to their history of having transgender people on their board and making sure that any candidate they are endorsing is supportive of rights for that community as well.
HRC will be awarding the transgender community collectively as its Person of the Year at this year’s gala, naming 10 activists in particular as having stood out for their work.
One such activist, Lara Americo, has decided to decline her award.
“In my experience, the HRC does not center the voices of those who are most marginalized, trans people of color. Specifically black trans people,” Americo said. “The model that the HRC uses trans bodies and labor for free while the white CIS gay men profit. The trans community does not need a savior, they need the CIS community to move out of the way and make space for our voices.”
She added that she, like Allison, would like to see some of the funds they raise going more directly to the community.
“The profits from one HRC gala could bring an LGBT community center or homeless shelter to Charlotte,” she said.
Community member Paul Kelly, a friend of Allison’s, said he has cancelled his Federal Club (large donors) membership, which starts at $100 a month, over the concerns she is raising.
Community activist and local business owner Dianna Ward has also cancelled her Federal Club membership and will be skipping this year’s gala.
“While I attended the gala and participated on the ‘local’ steering committee in the past, the actions of the both the national and ‘local’ level HRC organizations in 2015 and 2016 continue to disappoint,” Ward said in a statement sent to qnotes.
She said her concern over what she sees as the organization’s problematic lack of diversity has been growing over the years.
She said that when she attended the HRC annual meeting in Washington, D.C., “it was clear that the HRC quest for diversity was just a façade. While in D.C., it was apparent that Chad Griffin’s immediate staff did not represent the LGBTQ community in all of its diversity.”
She added that her attempts to point out the underrepresentation of people of color and transgender individuals on the main and local boards have been ignored, while she sees more cisgender white men quickly ascend to positions of power within the organization.
One of the Person of the Year awardees who will be in attendance, Erica Lachowitz, said she believes HRC is doing their best for the community.
“I’m looking at it differently,” she said. “We didn’t win the war, but we won a battle that is so important. The fact that we’re even talking about trans issues, I mean really talking about them, not just lip service, where we had a non-discrimination ordinance passed, HB2, backlash against the state, recognition from Loretta Lynch.”
“Now, that didn’t just happen because of a collaborative effort done by organizations done on the ground here, that happened with HRC intervention, with a relationship with Equality North Carolina, we got who need on council to bring this to a vote,” Lachowitz added.
She added that the board “has changed over time,” becoming more inclusive, and that most of the upset seems to stem from old wounds.
“I am going to the gala because for the first time in my forty years I have felt legitimacy, and I know that they played a large factor in that legitimacy.”