Chad Griffin has an image in mind as he prepares for his role to become the new president of the Human Rights Campaign: young LGBT Americans who lie awake in bed at night worrying about their future.
Griffin, a Los Angeles-based activist who has a long career in progressive advocacy and roots on both the East and West Coast, said growing up in a small town in Arkansas he identified as that young person who couldn’t acknowledge or be open about who he was.
“Some people know me as a guy who lives in L.A. and used to live in Washington, but my entire childhood was in Arkansas, and it’s where my entire family lives today,” Griffin said.
Griffin said his motivation over the next few years at HRC will be to impact the lives of “that young kid, the young student, who lives in Fresno or Bakersfield or Arkansas, or Washington, D.C., for that matter.”
“The fact that every single night, where we all have very lucky lives and live in places where we’re accepted, there are thousands, if not millions, of kids who go to bed every night staring at the ceiling — something that so many of us all did — not being able to go to sleep out of fear of waking up the next day and facing that next day,” Griffin said.
Griffin spoke with the Washington Blade over the phone from Dulles Airport as he awaited his flight back to Los Angeles. He was on his way to attend on Saturday Dustin Lance Black’s play ‘8,’ which is about the enactment of Proposition 8 in California.
The new HRC president, who’s set to take on his role in June, comes to the organization after having started and served as board president for the American Foundation for Equal Rights. The group, founded in 2009, is responsible for the ongoing litigation against California’s marriage ban.
During the interview, Griffin was hesitant to talk about specific policies he’d like to pursue, noting Joe Solmonese is still running HRC, but said he wants to continue the positive change the LGBT community has seen over the past few years.
“It means changes in the workplaces, changes at the state and local level, and, obviously, it means significant policy changes at the federal level,” Griffin said. “So much has been accomplished over the past several years, but we’re not finished. And that kid is still waking up staring at the ceiling because he or she lives in a country where their government directly and intentionally discriminates against them.”
Griffin said his sense of urgency will be his top challenge at the helm of HRC, saying, “If in fact patience is a virtue, it’s a virtue I do not possess. I voice frustration consistently at the pace at which we make progress.”
“If you were to talk to anyone who knows me, I think that they would describe first and foremost my lack of patience and how self-critical I am when I can’t achieve what we need to achieve,” Griffin said.
When he comes to HRC in June, the race for the White House will be well underway, as well as the race for control of Congress. The LGBT community will see measures on marriage in Minnesota and Maine, and possibly Washington State and Maryland. (The anti-gay ballot measure in North Carolina is set for a vote in May prior to when Griffin will take over HRC.)
Griffin said he has a background as a political strategist and is used to working behind-the-scenes, developing campaign plans and executing them.
“If you’re going to win the war, you’ve got to fight the battle on every single front,” Griffin said. “So that’s at the federal level. It’s on the state and local level. With any campaign, with limited resources, you have to be smart about your investments and about your plan, but I am not one who believes we should forego any avenues of victory.”
The incoming HRC president also comes into the role as many critics contend HRC has been too cozy with the Obama administration and too afraid to criticize Democratic lawmakers.
Griffin said observers should look to his previous work to discover that he’s “not one who’s shy about disagreeing with friends and colleagues” when he believes they’re wrong.
“I have a long record in that and think that’s the best way to judge how I will act,” Griffin said. “I’m not one who is thought to be shy or easily intimidated, and you typically will always know what I’m thinking and how I feel.”
Asked about criticism that HRC caters too much to more affluent members of the LGBT community by hosting black-tie dinners while others in the community feel left behind, Griffin said the organization’s outreach will be inclusive.
“LGBT people comes in all ages, all religions, all political affiliations, all colors,” Griffin said. “They are all part of the inclusion strategy and they are my motivation.”
Griffin said he’s on board with two major asks for President Obama from the LGBT community: an endorsement of same-sex marriage and an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies.
“I fundamentally believe that not only the president but our members of Congress and all of our leaders should support marriage equality, and we should do everything in our power to get them to that position,” Griffin said.
Griffin called the proposed directive for federal contractors “something that should happen, and should happen as quickly as possible,” but said it’s only the first step and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is necessary.
“It’s so frustrating that we’re in a country where we still don’t have an inclusive ENDA,” Griffin said. “That is something that has to remain a priority, but I would think that the executive order that has been discussed and proposed and pushed forward is a good step and should happen.”
As Griffin takes on his new role, he said the work at AFER against Proposition 8 will continue. The only change, he said, will be that he’s stepping down as board president, although he’ll continue to serve on the board. Griffin said there are no plans to absorb AFER into HRC.