Queer Voices

Chad Griffin, Human Rights Campaign President, Talks Obama, Chick-Fil-A And Gay Marriage


“This is the most exciting opportunity I’ve ever had in my life,” Chad Griffin, the new president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said with a beaming smile about his job leading the largest LGBT group in the country. In his first national LGBT media interview since taking the helm in mid-June, Griffin discussed his passion for helping young people overcome homophobia, HRC’s focus on marriage initiatives in four key states, and his goal to have HRC more involved with state and local groups. (Scroll down to listen to the interview)

In his first days on the job, Griffin said, he launched a survey of 10,000 LGBT youth across the U.S., and traveled the country to meet with community leaders beyond Washington. He also launched HRC's Healthcare Equality Index, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, an initiative to work with hospitals across the country to ensure LGBT people are treated fairly. HRC will soon announce that veterans hospitals will be participating as well, Griffin said.

Griffin also responded to criticisms, ranging from the still-tense relationship HRC has with other groups to HRC’s having seemed invisible in the Chick-fil-A controversy. And he discussed how HRC is engaging with the Obama administration, most notably regarding the White House’s refusal to sign an executive order to ban workplace discrimination among federal contractors, something that has baffled many, particularly since the president came out for marriage equality.

“We’re now at over 50 percent of Americans supporting marriage equality,” Griffin said, appearing on my radio program on SiriusXM last Thursday. “To be able to come back [to Washington] and lead this organization at this critical time, to make a real difference in lives of people in this country, is a real privilege and an honor.”

Griffin last lived in Washington in the 90s, when he was part of the Clinton White House’s communications team. The Arkansas native (from Hope, the same town as Clinton), moved from DC to Los Angeles and co-founded a political and communications strategy firm. And after the passage of Proposition 8, which banned marriage for gays and lesbians in California in 2008, he co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights, with actor and director Rob Reiner and his wife, Michele; producer Bruce Cohen; and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. That organization broke from conventional wisdom and made history, bringing in the legal team of Ted Olson and David Boies, who took Prop 8 to federal court, where it was ruled unconstitutional, a decision that was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. (The case has been appealed by Prop 8 supporters to the Supreme Court, which will make known on Sept. 24 whether it will accept the challenge or let the ruling stand, in which case marriage for gays and lesbians in California would resume.)

“I was that young person living in Arkansas as a kid, feeling isolated, not knowing that I knew a single other gay person,” Griffin said of his motivation in his work and his focus on the plight of young people, which he’d also like to be a major focus of HRC. “I was impacted, whether in my home, my church, the schools, or the streets of my community. We have to improve the lives of those young people, not just from a political perspective, but where they live and where they work, day in and day out.”

Griffin takes the helm at HRC after years in which the group was often criticized by grass roots activists for being too subservient to the Obama administration and to Democrats in Congress, and for not working well with other LGBT groups. Former President Joe Solmonese was criticized for urging a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2008 (breaking with most other national LGBT groups) when it did not include transgender protections, something he'd previously vowed he would not do. Responding to critics at other groups, big and small, who say the culture at HRC hasn’t yet changed, charging that the group takes credit for work other groups are focused on or doesn’t seem to promote the work of other groups, Griffin said:

“There’s no question we can always do better when it comes to partnerships. It’s something I’ve committed myself to. What we as a movement have to be able to do better is our ability to work together and coordinate. [HRC] can always do better and we can always improve. We’ve developed great partnerships in the states [around the marriage ballot initiatives].”

Regarding the marriage ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, Washington State and Minnesota, and HRC’s recent additional funding of $1 million to marriage equality efforts in those states:

“I see putting money into these efforts as an investment. And we want to know there’s a return on our investments. And in these cases, return on the investment means that we have the ability to win on Election Day. Some people were frustrated that I didn’t act fast enough, that on day one I couldn’t write these checks and make these increased contributions. But I felt it was my responsibility to our members and our supporters, for me to be able to do the due diligence with these states, with the campaign managers, understand their campaign plans, spend time with our staff who are on the ground in those states and then visit them myself. And I just came back from both Washington [State] and Maine. In Washington, for instance, I met with both the campaign leadership and the campaign management, but also with the field team, the folks who are going to be out on the ground organizing, in all the cities, and all the counties.And I spent a few weeks doing that before we made that investment. And I will continue to do that as we continue to make investments in the future.”

On his relationship with the Obama White House:

“I think I’m best positioned to talk about how I will lead the organization, and as you talk about, a willingness to pressure our friends. I have never been accused of being shy. I support this president and am on the national finance committee [for the Obama campaign], however, when he was not yet supporting marriage equality, I was pushing him, privately and publicly. When Vice President Biden came out and supported marriage equality and there were some who tried to bat them down, I was very forceful in my opinions about what that meant. Where there are times of disagreement with our friends, I think it’s important to push friends. That is something I have done and will continue to do.”

Regarding President Obama’s refusal to sign an executive order, at this time, banning discrimination for LGBT people among federal contractors:

“First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge the accomplishments [of this presidency on LGBT issues.] We do have to celebrated our accomplishments -- for a brief moment. The executive order should happen and should happen sooner rather than later. I have personally pushed them, and HRC has been part of the coalition encouraging the White House to do that. I have seen statements, publicly, that they have said they’re not going to do that any time soon. My hope is that we will get the executive order signed, and get [a trans-] inclusive-ENDA passed [by Congress] and signed. You have to push where we have relationships and push our friends. And then there’s public pressure. We as a movement have to continue to put pressure on it until we get it.”

On the Chick-fil-A media firestorm, about which many viewed Griffin and HRC as not very visible, with Griffin last quoted in the media on the issues weeks ago and appearing on no television programs discussing it:

“I appreciate hearing your thoughts on that. It’s something, actually, we have spent a significant amount of time on. It’s something we communicated with our more than a million members on. My view on these types of things is exactly what it was coming out of the Prop 8 campaign. What happened with the Prop 8 campaign [regarding] those who were funding our opposition, the world needed to know it, so consumers could make an educated decision on whether they went to this hotel or whether they went to this restaurant. So my view, as it relates to Chick-fil-A, and what I think is really important -- and I’m not sure we were fully successful in this, and I think we could do more on this subject -- it’s not just [Chick-fil-A president Don Cathy’s] views on marriage equality. But he, in particular, takes his customers’ money and in turn supports organizations, including those that advertise to parents that they can convert their LGBT children into straight youth. And that has horrendous consequences and, quite frankly, tragic consequences. I certainly spent a significant amount of time, as did the staff, on Chick-fil-A, and you make the point that perhaps I could have, should have, spent more time on it.”

On his only giving interviews to two mainstream media outlets -- the AP and the Washington Post Style section -- since he took over in June, while his communications director was telling LGBT media there wouldn’t be interviews granted until September:

“First of all, I think it’s important to note, the Associated Press in Arkansas came as part of the event launch. Again, I’m going to come back to: I’m only two months on the job. I will be more available. I’m thrilled to be here today and talking to you today and I intend to do this a lot more.”

About outing and his role as one of the executive producers of the film "Outrage," which revealed the homosexuality of various antigay Republican politicians:

“My views have always been clear on that subject. First of all, I think I should once again repeat, I actually don’t support outing. But I oppose hypocrisy. And if someone is a gay elected official, and hiding it and is closeted, and denies it publicly, while at the same time walks on the floor of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives and repeatedly votes against LGBT people, votes against hate crimes [laws], votes against ENDA, for his or own political gain -- that to me is outrageous and that should be called out. Hypocrisy is not something that should be stood for in this country, particularly when it’s hurting young people in the way those votes hurt young people.”

Listen to the interview with Griffin here:

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