Gay former conservative strategist and author David Brock, who changed sides in 2002 to become a champion of LGBT equality and progressive causes, announced the founding this week of a new initiative aimed at exposing “right-wing bigotry and homophobia wherever we find it.”
Brock said the new entity, Equality Matters, would be an arm of the progressive-leaning media watchdog group he founded in 2004 called Media Matters.
A statement released Monday says New York gay attorney and former Clinton administration official Richard Socarides would serve as president of Equality Matters. Lesbian journalist and Washington correspondent for The Advocate, Kerry Eleveld, was named editor of the project’s website, EqualityMatters.org, which organizers say will provide “news, opinion, and messaging” on LGBT-related issues in the media.
“Despite huge progress in gay rights in recent years, exemplified by the historic vote [on Dec. 18] finally striking down the ban on gay men and women from serving in the military, we are now living through a period of ferocious fundamentalism in the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” Brock said.
“Traditional conservatives and the Tea Party movement are united only in their contempt for equal rights for all Americans and a desire to return America to a 19th century idyll,” he said. “Equality Matters will not allow these latter-day ‘clerics’ to gain serious recognition by the media nor influence the policies that affect the lives of every American.”
A source familiar with Media Matters said the group and an affiliated entity, Media Matters Action network, raised about $23 million in 2010 in cash contributions and “long term commitments for 2011 and 2012.”
The New York Times reported that much of Media Matters’ funding comes from large contributions by wealthy liberal donors, including gay philanthropists.
The Blade source, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said the two entities yielded between $13 million and $14 in revenue this year. The 2010 figure disclosed by the source represents a significant boost in Media Matters’ revenue of $6.7 million in 2009 and $8.09 million raised in 2008, according to reports the group filed with the IRS in 2008 and 2009.
Socarides told the Blade Tuesday that Equality Matters would not have a separate budget and instead would operate under the Media Matters budget. He said Equality Matters, which would be based in the same offices as Media Matters at 455 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., would operate initially with a six-person staff, including him and Eleveld.
“We will draw on the Media Matters staff extensively,” he said. “And there are just under 100 people who work there. So we’ll have six people dedicated to just this and then parts of 95 others.”
According to Socarides, Equality Matters will not be involved in direct lobbying and won’t make campaign contributions – unlike existing LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.
“Much like Media Matters already does on a broad range of issues, we will do news and information media monitoring,” he said. “And we’ll be a rapid response to any homophobic misinformation in the media or in political discourse. So part of our mission is to respond rapidly with smart and accurate information when the right wing – be it in media or politics – puts out misinformation.”
At least two activists involved with national LGBT groups said the launching of Equality Matters would likely trigger speculation among LGBT movement insiders about whether Brock and Socarides were seeking to step into the realm of other national LGBT groups that came under some criticism in the past year.
Expectations were high in January 2009 for significant progress on LGBT-related legislation as President Obama entered the White House and Democrats were in control of Congress, the two activists said. Although Congress passed an important hate crimes law last year with protections for LGBT people and last week repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” all other important bills remain stalled in committee. Among them is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which calls for banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The feeling among some of us is the established groups could have done more and could have put more pressure on the Democrats to do more,” said one of the activists.
But others, including gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), considered one of the leading advocates for LGBT rights in Congress, have said there were not enough LGBT-supportive votes in Congress to advance the other bills. Frank has said it is up to LGBT advocates to do the lobbying and advocacy work in the sections of the country, especially the so-called “red states,” where members of Congress oppose LGBT equality and won’t vote for pro-gay bills.
Socarides said he sees Equality Matters as a new force that will work with the existing groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which also specializes in media-related initiatives.
One gay activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned whether Equality Matters would be replicating the work of existing groups.
“Media Matters is fantastic at pushing back at conservative disinformation, and if they’re ramping up that function in the gay space, God bless,” the activist said. “But if they’re doing policy advocacy, plenty of people with vastly more substantive experience than Socarides are doing that pretty well, as the passage of DADT suggests. It’s not clear this isn’t a completely redundant vanity project, but I guess we’ll see.”
GLAAD, which has a budget of $7.95 million and a 48-member staff located in New York and Los Angeles, focuses on the positive portrayal of LGBT people in the media and in entertainment, according to its president, Jarrett Barrios.
“GLAAD fights defamation in the media from major outlets to small markets around the country,” Barrios said. “Some of GLAAD’s most visible work is in Hollywood, but much of our work is with journalists and news organizations to ensure accurate and responsible coverage of LGBT peoples’ lives and the issues that affect them.”
He said that unlike Equality Matters’ stated objective, GLAAD steers clear of addressing specific political and policy-making issues.
“I think our effort will be complimentary rather than overlapping with GLAAD,” said Socarides. “And in fact one of our core missions at Media Matters and at Equality Matters is to help other progressive and LGBT rights organizations fulfill their own missions.”
Now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been addressed legislatively, Socarides said Equality Matters plans to devote much of its resources to promoting same-sex marriage equality, both on the national and state level. He said the group would jump into the media fray as ballot measures seeking to ban same-sex marriage surface in the states.
He said Equality Matters would also push to advance legislation stalled in Congress to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage under federal law as a union only between a man and a woman and bars all federal programs – including Social Security benefits – for same-sex married couples.
“Despite our best efforts over the years to stiffen the spines of progressives in the face of unrelenting smears from the Republican attack machine, fearful progressives continue to cede the political field to right-wingers who are waging war against core American values,” Brock said in a statement. “We need to do more. Our new communication war room for gay equality, Equality Matters, will expose right-wing bigotry and homophobia wherever we find it, show that the real political vulnerability on these issues belongs to the GOP, provide desperately needed ballast in the media, and trigger progressive passion – so that our political leaders act on their convictions and fight for them,” he said.