The Past Is Prescient In his new book, HRC's first executive director, Vic Basile, writes about what we can learn from the history of the organization and the fight for LGBTQ+ equality

Few people know the early history of the Human Rights Campaign as well as Vic Basile — because he lived it.

Basile was the first executive director of the organization, then known as the Human Rights Campaign Fund. He has been an activist in the LGBTQ+ rights movement for more than four decades, and was instrumental in changing hearts and minds in support of equality at a time when the animus and discrimination toward the community pervaded almost every corner of our country.

Perhaps most significantly, Basile expanded the initial goal of the organization — to elect pro-equality candidates to office — to include fighting for our rights in Washington as the AIDS crisis heightened in the early ’80s. He led HRC’s massive lobbying effort to pass legislation mandating federal funding for AIDS treatment, education and research during a time when President Ronald Reagan wouldn’t even say the word “AIDS.”

In his upcoming book, Bending Toward Justice, Basile shares behind-the-scenes details about those early days of HRC and the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in the ’80s and ’90s, including his leadership in establishing cornerstone HRC programs that are still critically important today.

The book, slated for release on October 1, is not a victory lap. Rather, it comes as the LGBTQ+ community is experiencing a moment of crisis in this country. As legislative assaults on LGBTQ+ people are growing at an unprecedented speed and scale — and as a new campaign of extremism being waged by the far right seeks to malign and slander millions of us — many LGBTQ+ people are living in an environment of renewed hostility and fear. For younger generations of LGBTQ+ Americans especially, this is a new and understandably scary environment.

I believe that in order for us to chart a new path forward for LGBTQ+ people, we first must understand where we’ve been — not only celebrating the victories and the strategies that served us, but also recognizing and reconciling with our own failures as a movement to ensure that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past.

Vic Basile, in an interview this summer at his home in Washington, D.C.

Excerpts from the conversation with Basile continue below.

Equality: Your book chronicles threats to the fight for LGBTQ+ equality over the years, including Anita Bryant and the so-called “Moral Majority.” What lessons were learned from that era that can be helpful as we navigate this current moment of crisis for our community?

Basile: I come from a street activist background, and I learned that what is most efficient and effective is good old-fashioned lobbying that’s supported by constituent pressure. By that, I mean those cards and letters and phone calls and visits really do make a big difference. And finally, money, and lots of it. Campaigns cost a lot of money, and politicians remember who gave it to them.

All my experience with lobbying tells me that there’s very little that’s more powerful than a member of Congress hearing from constituents. And when it’s a lot of constituents, they listen!

Equality: Can you talk more about how the growing AIDS crisis shifted the initial goals of HRC, which helped result in the historic federal funding that was secured for AIDS research?

Basile: Initially, we were focused on the original lesbian and gay civil rights bill that was introduced by Congresswoman Bella Abzug in 1974. And then came AIDS, which began killing mostly gay men by the thousands. The government did virtually nothing in response to that.

So we had to learn how to take care of our own. So we created organizations to provide healthcare, food and education to help stop transmission. That’s when HRC’s shifted from civil rights to AIDS. Because we were seeking money from Congress for research, treatment and education.

  • HRC Boardmember Edie Cofrin, staff Cathy Nelson, and former Executive Director Vic Basile at the Donor Reception in Chicago
  • Rep. Barney Frank, Vic Basile and others
  • Vic Basile with former HRC President Elizabeth Birch
  • Tim McFeeley with New York Post headline "slain because he was gay"
  • Tim McFeeley and marchers with banner: you can't ban us

I think it’s worth noting that Ronald Reagan never said the word “AIDS” in public until 1985, and that was in response to a reporter’s question. His administration never proposed funding in any significant level until 1987.

If I can make an analogy to COVID, for the government to just turn its back on people with AIDS, and to take that long to support any kind of research, is in my mind almost criminal. Because the government was all over COVID when it first broke into the mainstream, and spent an awful lot of money in developing a vaccine. There’s still no vaccine for AIDS today.

Equality: You write about the power and possibilities that grew when LGBTQ+ people came together in shared spaces (at meetings, in protest, at fundraising dinners) in the early days of HRC. How were these gatherings instrumental in the growth of HRC and in galvanizing the community?

Basile: All of those are important because they create a sense of community and inclusion and empowerment.

As an example, I’m reminded of a story about Vivian Shapiro, who attended the first HRC dinner at the Waldorf in New York in 1982. When she and her then-partner arrived at the Waldorf Astoria in a cab, it was raining outside, and they saw pickets out there. And Vivian naively turned to her partner and said, “Look, something important must be going on at the Waldorf tonight!”

She didn't realize who they were picketing until she got inside the ballroom and was told by somebody else that anti-LGBTQ+ activists were picketing her and all of the other guests at the dinner. And that’s when she said, “For the first time, I felt like I was on the inside and those schmucks were outside in the rain.” Vivian went on to become co-chair of the board.

Equality: You are credited with helping to put HRC on the map in Washington — in Congress, in the White House and beyond — and signaling that HRC was an organization that warranted attention and respect. Can you talk about why that was central to your strategy for the organization, and why it continues to be important to this day?

Basile: We were a despised and reviled group by most of the country, and we knew that needed to shift. We needed attention and respect because they are essential steps to achieving equality. Another important step is to be out and visible. It’s why National Coming Out Day was created in 1988. And those steps are especially important today as we are again being victimized.

Equality: Tell us about your work to develop different opportunities for engagement for HRC members and supporters and how this became an important part of growing the organization.

Basile: We tried to create opportunities for as many people as possible to become engaged with HRC. From lobbying to constituent pressure to just giving money. The more people who were involved, the stronger we became.

I write about Steven Endean quite a bit in the book. He was founder of the organization. He, perhaps, came up with the most inventive way of engaging people, through a program called “Speak Out.” And “Speak Out” was a precursor to email, when individuals could send overnight letters called mailgrams to their member of Congress on a specific issue. He and his army of volunteers, each wearing a t-shirt that read “Speak Out” on the front and “Cheap and Easy” on the back, and they would go to every LGBTQ+ event that they could find to sign people up for the program. Those folks would authorize him to send three letters in their name to their member of Congress on an issue that had not yet been identified for $10, which I think is pretty remarkable. It was a very successful way of influencing Congress and engaging people with the Human Rights Campaign.

Equality: When you left HRC as executive director in 1989, you passed the torch to Tim McFeeley, who lobbied alongside allies in the disability rights movement for the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which included a provision for protecting people with HIV & AIDS from employment and other forms of discrimination. In what ways did that crucial coalition work lay the groundwork for future coalition efforts?

Basile: It created openings for a host of other advocacy organizations, most of whom were part of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The disability community had been working on ADA for years, and nobody would have blamed them, I don’t think, for abandoning people with HIV & AIDS to get the bill passed. But they didn’t. Instead, they said they would walk away from the bill if people with HIV & AIDS were not included. And that created quite a connection with the disability community, and opportunities to coalesce with a multitude of other organizations, both to gain support from those organizations, and to support issues that were important to the other organizations. It made everything stronger.

Equality: If you could have done anything differently during your time at HRC, what would it have been?

Basile: That’s pretty easy, I think. I would have brought more diverse voices to the table, because I think that would have made us stronger as an organization.

Equality: What lessons do you think LGBTQ+ movement leaders can learn from your book as they lead the next generation toward equality?

Basile: The primary lesson I hope people takeaway is that mainstream politics work. As I mentioned earlier, that old-fashioned lobbying, buttressed by constituent pressure and money, especially in today’s climate of hate and discrimination, are important. And it’s important to remember that we have been down this road before — it’s taught us how to fight and to win. Today, we need to be even more focused, and smarter, and organized to beat back the onslaught that is on us today.

You can preorder Bending Toward Justice by Vic Basile here.