HRC Hasn't Always Defended LGBTQ People of Color — We're Changing That

by HRC Staff

As the Human Rights Campaign approaches its 40th year, we have much to be proud of, but we also have to engage in real self-reflection to strengthen this organization in the decades ahead.

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Four hundred years after the first African slaves were brought to the shores of North America, we still have a responsibility to confront — honestly and without qualification — the painful truth that the United States continues to oppress people of color on the basis of race. 

At this juncture in our history and in our ongoing struggle to realize America’s promise of equality and justice for all, we must confront this fact with unambiguous moral clarity and make intentional commitments to act as individuals, organizations and institutions. 

For me, this is deeply personal.

A few weeks ago, I became the first person of color to lead the Human Rights Campaign, the world’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for LGBTQ people. 

Stepping into this role, I feel an acute responsibility to ensure the Human Rights Campaign fully lives up to its mission by becoming the organization I wished had been there for me. 

Being Black, and Gay, in America

I was born in the United States, but at a very young age, my family moved to Liberia, a nation built by freed slaves from America seeking to build a future of their own. A few years later, my life was turned upside down by a violent coup that forced my family to flee.

Because my brother and I are American citizens, our family was fortunate to find refuge in the United States. Suddenly, I was a teenager growing up in Baltimore navigating a new reality.

For the first time, I was confronted with what it means to be Black in America, and therefore to be treated like an outsider. In fact, in those formative years of my life, I was the “other” in just about every room that I was in. 

At the same time, I was as a gay man beginning to understand my sexual orientation. When I finally came out to my parents, my father — who I so admired — told me that he wished I’d never been born. Over time, he came to accept that my sexual orientation was not something I could change. But for a crucial period in my life, I understood as so many others do too, the pain of being rejected by those you love the most. 

Racial Inequality Within the Movement

I know that many LGBTQ people have similar stories, or know someone who does. And that is why there must be space and room for everyone in this movement, including at the Human Rights Campaign.

The truth is that LGBTQ people of color have long been marginalized within our community — and by our organization. They have seen their contributions to our collective history diminished or forgotten, and their needs and priorities sidelined. While we have fought and won important battles on issues including marriage equality, we have historically failed to also engage in consistent and meaningful work to address the impact of racial inequality on LGBTQ people across all aspects of their lives — including on issues such as voter suppression, health and economic disparities, and violence. It is our responsibility to make that right and to demonstrate our commitment every day. 

Living up to our mission — to realize a world where LGBTQ people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community — requires that the Human Rights Campaign fully represent the diversity and breadth of the LGBTQ community through our staff, programs, values and priorities. 

There is no doubt that the Human Rights Campaign has come a long way, especially over the last few years. We've increased recruitment of LGBTQ people of color on staff, stepped up investments in our HBCU program, voting rights work, and other programs that specifically serve and engage communities of color. For example, in 2017, the Human Rights Campaign and the NAACP partnered to turn out Alabama voters to help elect Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate and defeat Roy Moore.

We've done big, bold things that have expanded rights for all LGBTQ people. But we simply cannot achieve full equality while LGBTQ people of color continue to be oppressed. We must lean into our responsibility to advocate for those within our community who are multiply marginalized and shut out by systems and institutions because they are people of color and LGBTQ. We must also address the ways racism shows up in our own community and confront it head-on.

Equality, Inclusion Must Address Race

This is why I believe that racial equity and inclusion cannot simply be a sliver of our work — it must be the core of our work. We must actively challenge systems, laws and policies that disproportionately disadvantage LGBTQ people of color. We must challenge leaders and individuals who target communities of color through hateful policies and rhetoric that threaten to undermine our fundamental rights. We must deepen our support of, and partnerships with, organizations leading the fight against racial oppression. Our staff and volunteer leadership must reflect the great diversity of the LGBTQ community. And we must all lean into the conversations that deepen our understanding about race, racism and implicit bias and how it impacts our communities and our institutions. 

We recently delivered a statement of principles on racial equity and inclusion to our boards, our volunteer leadership, and our staff in order to be clear about our goals and to guide our work. Today, I am sharing these commitments unequivocally and publicly — in part, to ensure that in the years to come, we will be held accountable, and that our organization put down the marker. 

As the Human Rights Campaign approaches its 40th year, we have much to be proud of. But we also have to engage in real self-reflection to strengthen this organization in the decades ahead. We owe it to our 3 million members and supporters fighting each day to build on our momentum for change. We owe it to young LGBTQ people of color yearning to see themselves in us and in our work.

And we owe it to ourselves, to our mission and to our organization to become stronger by coming together.