Freedom to Work and the New LGBT Advocacy Paradigm

This week I had the honor of being chosen chair of the national advisory board of Freedom to Work, the only national organization solely devoted to full and inclusive employment rights for the LGBT population. Working with president Tico Almeida, whom I've already been advising for the past few years, and two new hires, social media strategist Scott Wooledge and legislative director Christine Berle, we will be pushing for a Senate vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) this summer, as well as continuing to encourage the president to sign the long-promised federal contractor executive order. We now have 51 Democrats who've signed on as co-sponsors, more than the number who co-sponsored the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) and the the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The immediate challenge is bringing the last four Democrats on board, and then getting a minimum of six Republicans to create a filibuster-proof majority on the Senate floor. For me the greatest challenge will be helping to lobby the Republicans, but I sense that the tide is turning even on the conservative side, and that our efforts will prove sufficiently fruitful to make real progress this year.

A question some have asked me is why I joined a relatively new organization to accomplish this task. The answer illuminates some national trends. When the Obama administration began in 2009, LGBT activists had four major asks of the administration: an inclusive hate crimes law, an inclusive ENDA, repeal of DADT, and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) -- in that order. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in the spring of 2009, but after that, repeal of both DADT and DOMA jumped the queue over ENDA. There are several possible reasons for that, one being that the trans community is an integral part of ENDA but was structurally absent from the debates on DADT and DOMA, but I believe equally important was the fact that both DADT and DOMA repeal had the benefit of being the sole focus of their respective national organizations. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and Freedom to Marry were created and structured to focus on single issues, and they had the fortitude and freedom to push their issues to the exclusion of all others.

In contrast, major national organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) are multi-issue organizations. They, along with the state equality organizations, important players over the previous two decades, are LGBT organizations that have concentrated a great deal of energy on capacity and coalition building. Recently, those organizations have faced major challenges in adapting to changing circumstances, including political success and funding patterns that began to change with the Great Contraction. HRC has adapted by concentrating on marriage, including hiring as president Chad Griffin, who had founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the sole sponsor of the Prop 8 challenge led by Ted Olsen and David Boies. NGLTF continues to grow the annual Creating Change conference.

Other national organizations that are structured more like campaigns, or that serve either one particular community (e.g., the National Center for Transgender equality [NCTE], the Transgender Law Center [TLC], and the National Black Justice Coalition [NBJC]) or one particular cause (e.g., the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network [GLSEN], the Victory Fund, GLAAD, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders [SAGE], and SLDN), along with the legal organizations (e.g., Lambda Legal, the ACLU LGBT Project, the National Center for Lesbian Rights [NCLR], and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders [GLAD]) and the research organizations (e.g., the Williams Institute, the Movement Advancement Project [MAP], and the Center for American Progress [CAP]), have been increasingly effective and prospered as a result. This clearly seems to be the wave of the future, and the donor money flow is accelerating the trend.

The question is why, and it's an important one, both for the organizations and their members and adherents, and for the donors, who need to make prudent use of their limited funds to create change. I see the answer as primarily one of organizational flexibility and accountability. For multipurpose organizations, members and funders have varying priorities, which may very well shift with time. When the opportunity is ripe to push for one particular issue, those who support other issues will often serve as a brake on the organization's efforts. Or, pushing hard for one goal is at times seen as creating enemies and political problems for the organization's other goals, thereby intimidating the board and staff from pushing too hard.

For a single-issue organization, however, the mission is clear, the commitment focused and indisputable. Freedom to Work is concerned solely with LGBT employment issues; if pushing for a federal contractor executive order might impact progress on comprehensive immigration reform, that is of secondary concern. My experience on the state level mirrors this, as Gender Rights Maryland's mission is passing state and local anti-discrimination laws. Other valid and critical community concerns, such as improving employment prospects for trans persons, educating police and first responders, health care access, and documentation issues, are not part of the mission and hence also of secondary organizational concern. This sole focus may infuriate those primarily concerned with a broader agenda, as well as with capacity and community building, but it provides a more flexible and effective structure with which to manage the mission. It is a different and valid way of doing community business, one more suited to these times.