Slick imaging

Slick imaging – reinvention of gay rights groups

J. Jennings Moss

Having outgrown their grassroots beginnings, high-profile gay groups have reinvented themselves, emerging as corporations – and targets of criticism

Where they once sat on a bare floor talking about social revolution, they now are more likely to sit behind a desk and discuss business partnerships or total quality management. Where they once took to the streets to insist that someone – anyone – listen to their demand for gay rights, they now have sophisticated media strategies to funnel their messages to a more accepting public. Where they once could be described as radical, they now can be called corporate.

This is what gay activism was in 1996 – less like a social cause and more like big business. More and more gay rights groups are transforming themselves into corporations and perfecting their logos to stamp on T-shirts and caps (all for sale, of course). They’re looking not only for leaders with an activist spirit but also for lawyers and MBAs to make sure their multimillion-dollar budgets aren’t squandered and continue to grow.

“By definition, our nonprofits are always corporations,” says Lord Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, which has the biggest budget of any gay rights group in the nation. “They just haven’t run that way in the past. But size has required them to act like corporations, as has the increased sophistication of the donor base.”

Yet as the groups are acting more grown-up – the center, after all, was 25 years old in 1996 – something is getting lost. Call it purpose. Call it passion. Call it soul. At least, that’s what several men and women who witnessed the birth of the movement and have played roles ever since feel.

“If you want to build a successful organization, what model do you look to?” asks Betty Berzon, a psychotherapist and author who was involved in the founding of the center in 1971. “As it’s evolved, the model is corporate America. Corporate America is not about building for change. It’s about the profit motive and, quite literally, protecting the status quo, which is the opposite of building for change.”

The center is far from the only group experiencing this quandary. The Human Rights Campaign started off with a simple mission – to give money to gay-friendly candidates. Now it’s the most recognized gay rights group in the country and has its hands in federal and state politics. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation got its start in New York in 1985 as a response to the way the New York press covered AIDS. Eleven years later it’s a national organization involved with newspapers, magazines, television, movies, and the Internet.

All three of the groups have their defenders, people who believe that growth leads to greater visibility, more influence, and a better chance to change mainstream America. The detractors come in different flavors. Some have pointed criticisms of the individuals who lead the organizations. Others fear that bigger isn’t always better, that somewhere along the line the original mission of the groups has been lost. And a few fear the organizations have lost touch with average gays and lesbians. “We’re getting the kind of leadership and organization… we want and deserve,” says Martin Duberman, a prominent gay historian. But, he adds, “there’s a cost to pay for that always.”

HRC

No gay organization was as vilified or praised in 1996 as was the Human Rights Campaign. But that’s to be expected when you’ve got the highest profile in the word of gay politics – a word that’s becoming more diverse. One test for the HRC is whether it can navigate through the gay left and gay right while keeping its donors, if not completely happy, at least willing to keep their checkbooks open.

As it tried to deal with these changing times, the 16-year-old organization went through its own metamorphosis: A year ago it stopped being known as the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a name change intended to show that it does more than just give money to pro-gay candidates. Then it brought on a collection of prominent gays and lesbians, such as Candace Gingrich and actors Dan Butler and Amanda Bearse, to act as celebrity spokespeople.

“There’s no question I have used a Silicon Valley tool kit here,” says Elizabeth Birch, the former Apple Computer litigator who became the HRC’s executive director two years ago. The budget for Birch’s revamped organization has swelled from $5.7 million annually when she took over in January 1995 to $9.5 million in the current fiscal year. HRC officials place their membership at about 175,000, although some critics suggest these figures are exaggerated and may be half that amount. Birch says about 50% of its budget comes from the basic membership, 25% from its high-donor Federal Club, and the final quarter from black-tie dinners it holds around the country.

Having been at the helm through a major growth spurt, Birch is not the kind of person to second-guess the decisions she and the HRC make, nor does she offer any apologies for her management style. “Our cause is too important to not be concerned with results. There is too much at stake for us not to be setting goals and then going about achieving them,” she says.

But it’s the goals the HRC chooses that have gotten it into the most trouble. When the HRC gave an early endorsement to President Clinton, some said the group lost whatever leverage k would have had with the Administration. When the HRC said fighting for gay marriage was not a top issue, some vehemently disagreed. When the HRC picked and chose which candidates to back for Congress, it angered those who supported other candidates.

“They’re in a very difficult position,” says Mark Merante, a Boston lawyer and cochairman of the Bay State Gay and Lesbian Democrats. In Massachusetts everyone seemed put off by something the HRC did. In other states critics argue that the HRC has become too concerned with its own existence and that Birch is too interested in her own profile. But in Birch’s eyes the HRC has had a successful year operating in a national political climate. “We’re at the table now,” she says. “We have a different kind of accountability because we’ve been let into the courtyard if not the castle.”

GLAAD

In 1985 a group of eight men living in New York City formed a group to act as watchdog and educator of the city’s newspapers and TV news programs. Their first meeting drew 500 people. Their first political act – they threw rags at the entrance of the building that houses the New York Post-attracted about 1,000 protesters.

This was the beginning of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Over the years other independent chapters of GLAAD sprung up in other big cities. But when the New York and Los Angeles boards merged in January 1995, other chapters followed suit, forming a national organization – a move that has led to strife.

“GLAAD national has said there’s only one opinion that the community can have and that they’re the ones to give it,” says Al Kielwasser, a former San Francisco GLAAD cochairman who has severed his ties with the organization. The man at the center of the criticism is William Waybourn, the founder and former executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. GLAAD’s new national board contracted with Window, Waybourn’s public relations firm, to run the organization, with Waybourn serving as managing director. Under Waybourn the organization continues to protest stereotypical and derogatory media images of gays – but the group has also branched into developing corporate partnerships with Absolut vodka as well as American Airlines and is looking to forge other alliances.

Waybourn says he’s not worried that by taking corporate dollars he’ll be asked to tame GLAAD’s approach at some point: “I don’t care where the money comes from. If we see a problem, we’re going to respond to it.” For fiscal 1997, GLAAD has a $2-million budget and a membership base of 35,000, Waybourn says.

“Given how well-organized the extreme right wing is, the resources they have, I think it’s important that corporate resources be given to grassroots groups,” says Donald Suggs, a former GLAAD staffer and one of Waybourn’s biggest critics. “What bothers me is when the movement then adopts a corporate strategy or approach.”

But Arnie Kantrowitz, a college professor and one of the two GLAAD founders who is still alive, says he’s impressed with the new GLAAD. “There’s a kind of romance to the notion that we should stay as angry young street people, but times are changing, and this country is changing,” Kantrowitz says. “I wouldn’t feel so great [about GLAAD] if they were still a bunch of street kids.”

Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center

Inside the walls of the four-story former IRS building in Hollywood, the center looks more like a college student union. There’s a computer lab, a legal center, an AIDS testing and treatment facility, mental-health counseling offices, and a youth shelter.

Keeping it all running and making sure that the money keeps coming in is a business – a big business. “We may have 240 employees and a $19-million budget and growing, but we’re still the biggest grassroots organization in our [Los Angeles] community,” says Lord Jean, a lesbian activist and lawyer who was a senior administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Association before the center’s board tapped her to be its executive director four years ago.

“Personally, I find it a constant difficulty,” Jean says of finding the balance between running a multimillion-dollar organization and keeping an activist spirit. Reaching out to large corporate or individual donors without compromising the center’s mission is part of that battle. “When I’m silent in the face of racism or sexism from a donor, it challenges my ethics,” she says. “But I think it’s more important to get money to help a poor lesbian mother get health care than it is for me to have a political discussion with some obnoxious corporate executive.”

But critics fear that the center’s money needs will eventually compromise its integrity. “Success in America is about money and power,” Berzon says, adding that she sees the Gay and Lesbian Center more as a corporation than as a service provider. “What is missing is the leadership that would motivate ordinary gays and lesbians who right now don’t participate at all. They’re more concerned about their internal power base.”

Jean acknowledges that there’s a danger as gay and lesbian organizations grow ever larger and seek people to lead them. There once was a time when gay groups sought out grassroots activists as their leaders, but with budgets like the center’s, they can’t afford to take the chance of hiring a passionate leader who has no management experience.

“The gay movement has become the gay industry,” says Jeanne Cordova, publisher of the Community Yellow Pages and someone who has watched the center grow for years. “We’ve lost some of the ‘push the envelope’ edge. I don’t think that’s good because we haven’t really obtained equal rights.”

Whatever the opinions of what this trend means – whether acting like a corporation is a good or bad thing – one conclusion is clear: There’s no turning back. “There is nothing wrong with having well-financed and powerful organizations,” says David Mixner, a Los Angeles-based business and political consultant who once had close ties to the Clinton White House. “We should not be afraid of power.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group