Less than a year after its public launch that included a profile story in the New York Times, the LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters is losing its top two leaders and appears nearly defunct.
Equality Matters President Richard Socarides, a former adviser to President Clinton, and Kerry Eleveld, a former Advocate magazine reporter, announced Tuesday they will leave the media watchdog group they helped to create.
“I remain committed to the success of the organization,” Socarides said in an interview with the Washington Blade on Monday, adding that he plans to return to practicing law in New York and will remain involved in LGBT advocacy. Eleveld is writing a book.
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Equality Matters promised to be the “communications war room for gay equality” pushing back against anti-gay messages in the media. However, the project may have become a reduced priority for its parent organization, Media Matters, founded by journalist David Brock.
Though initially able to recruit well-known players in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal fight, including Eleveld and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network’s communications director, Trevor Thomas, the “rapid response war room” project has lost most of its staff and is down to one dedicated employee, Carlos Maza.
“Virtually 100 percent of his time is spent on the Equality Matters side,” Socarides said of Maza, when asked which staffers are still employed there.
Socarides described the structure of Equality Matters today as an entity without its own core staff, whose resources come from the larger Media Matters organization.
“The entire way that the organization functions, intentionally, is to be able to call on” the rest of the Media Matters organization and staff as needed, according to Socarides. “It’s an organization that is fully integrated and embedded into Media Matters.”
In a December New York Times piece announcing the launch of the project, Brock said Equality Matters would “expose right-wing bigotry and homophobia wherever we find it.”
“We believe the big battle is full equality, which is gay marriage,” Brock told the Times back then.
Socarides struck a more modest tone this week.
“[People] have their own opinion about which role each of our organizations play,” Socarides said. “The focus will continue, much the same as it’s been. I expect this will be a bit of a transitional period, but I think that you will see a very strong and vibrant EqualityMatters.org.”
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Brock released a statement early Tuesday reflecting on the original purpose of Equality Matters.
“When we launched our Equality Matters initiative at the end of 2010, we were convinced that additional and focused resources in our core expertise areas — correcting conservative misinformation plus training and communications — could be put to use to help take advantage of a potentially historic and transformative moment in gay rights.”
Eleveld was originally named editor of the organization’s website, but her title changed several months ago to “senior fellow at Media Matters.” Thomas, who was the project’s initial director of programs, took on a role in external affairs for the Media Matters parent organization in the spring.
Thomas and Eleveld moved out of Equality Matters and “have worked at Media Matters for some time now,” according to Media Matters press secretary Jess Levin.
“The Media Matters team has all of our senior fellows on it, so [moving Eleveld to Media Matters] just made more sense, but her work appears on Equality Matters,” Levin told the Blade.
Eleveld and Socarides were outspoken in the first few months of Equality Matters’ existence, releasing a flurry of op-eds and press releases throughout the spring and pressuring President Obama to endorse same-sex marriage.
On June 20, Socarides appeared on CNN and criticized the president for avoiding coming out in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples, saying that “he should just get on with it.”
The CNN appearance prompted senior Obama adviser David Axelrod to defend Obama on MSNBC later that evening.
Days later, on July 6, Eleveld criticized Obama’s position on marriage in the DailyBeast. “I’m not looking for a savior, I’m seeking the guy we elected,” she wrote, arguing that the White House silence on marriage was setting the wrong tone in the debate and could cost marriage rights advocates important wins down the line.
Shortly after their high-profile criticisms of Obama, the group’s attention shifted to conservative targets such as the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, as well as the National Organization for Marriage and Fox News, fueling speculation that Brock was unhappy with the attacks on the Democratic administration.
Socarides denied that he and Eleveld clashed with Brock and others at Media Matters.
“It never happened,” Socarides said emphatically. “If you look at the kind of stuff that I said and that Kerry said over the year, it’s been fairly consistent.”
“I am very grateful to have Richard Socarides lead this initiative in its first year,” Brock said in a statement. “Having someone of his intellect, stature, and experience was a significant factor in our first year success. He will continue, I am sure, to have major impact in our fight for a progressive country and I will continue to rely on his advice and counsel.”
A Media Matters spokesperson said Eleveld was out of the country and unavailable for an interview. In a statement released Tuesday, she said, “I am grateful that I was given the chance to focus on in-depth reporting about serious issues affecting the LGBT community. … In the New Year, I look forward to working full time on a book about the past several years in LGBT history.”