Following the defeat at the ballot of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, the head of the nation’s largest LGBT group says among the lessons in the loss is the need for strong business community support and the importance of pushing back against anti-trans attacks.
The Washington Blade caught up with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss the loss in between the event launching the Transgender Equality Task Force and the congressional forum later in the day focused on violence against the transgender community.
“Without question, there has to be a more aggressive and a more effective response to the outrageous trans-phobic lies that our opponents in that campaign pushed forward, particularly in those two weeks.” Griffin said. “And I am confident that our side, that the movement won’t be caught off guard with that message next time.”
In the aftermath of the Election Day loss on the LGBT-inclusive ordinance, Griffin said internal research is ongoing on what’s to be learned. Many observers have blamed TV ads the other side aired raising fears about transgender people using the public restroom consistent with their gender identity.
HRC assisted in the effort with high-profile fundraising, bringing in endorsements from celebrities Sally Field and Michael Sam, and helped with the pro-LGBT campaign itself known as Houston Unites. Although the pro-LGBT side raised $3 million, dwarfing the $1 million by opponents, the ordinance went down at the ballot in a devastating loss for LGBT advocates by a 61-39 margin.
Although Griffin said research is ongoing, he acknowledged some lessons are immediately clear, such as the potential effects of transphobic ads. In future campaigns, Griffin said LGBT advocates should take station managers to task for airing TV ads seen as demonizing the transgender community.
“In politics, there are often two sides to a debate,” Griffin said. “There’s also right and wrong, and there’s lies, and there’s defamation of an entire population of people. And that’s what happened in Houston. And so, I am hopeful that in the go-forward we as a community, as an organization, local campaigns can be more aggressive with station mangers, quite frankly.”
Read the entire interview here:
Washington Blade: In the aftermath of the Houston defeat, are you satisfied with the efforts of the pro-LGBT side?
Chad Griffin: Well, look, any time — let me just start out by saying I’m very proud of the support we were able to give that campaign both in terms of resources in-kind, significant staff…so I’m very proud of that.
But any time you lose a campaign, I think the important thing is for the entire community to look at why we lost. I spent decades, as you know, even before coming into this job taking on campaigns. Any time you win one, typically you don’t look even at what you could have done better in a victory. When you lose, it’s important to always look at what could have been different.
And I think there are a lot of lessons learned out of Houston. I know we, many of the other funders, as well as some of the folks on the ground with Houston Unites and elsewhere are really looking at what lessons do we learn coming out of Houston and can we ensure we don’t repeat mistakes going forward. And I think some of them we know, and I think some of them are yet to be learned through research, looking at the voters and who moved and who didn’t move and why they moved.
Without question, there has to be a more aggressive and a more effective response to the outrageous transphobic lies that our opponents in that campaign pushed forward, particularly in those two weeks. And I am confident that our side, that the movement won’t be caught off-guard with that, with that message last time.
Many of the transphobic messages that you used to hear in this town really went away, quite frankly. As you know, through the ENDA battle, we didn’t hear those who opposed ENDA using transphobic, hateful lies, they used other reasons to oppose it and so, I do think now our opposition has created a campaign-in-a-box, and I think they’re going to shop those lies, that hateful rhetoric to other places all around the country, and our side has to do a much better job of aggressively responding and knocking down those arguments when they come up.
The second thing I want to say in terms of lessons learned that we know, we need more support in the business community. There was certainly some business support in Houston, but I do think that was a component that was not as front and center as we’ve had in many other battles around the country. I’d even compare it to the defensive battle we had in Arkansas, or Indiana…
… BBVA Compass really stepped up, United stepped up, a number of companies outside Houston stepped up. Dow stepped up, not only publicly in terms of announcing their support for it, but also contributed to it, as did United, as BBVA Compass. Then there were a lot of other companies that could have done more and should have.
And I just mentioned two of the lessons. I’m certain that there are others and a lot of looking at that and seeing not only how we go back and how we win in Houston — because at the end of the day, we won’t stop until we have the protections for all Houstonians — but I think also these lessons have to be transferred into the battles ahead: Both our defensive battles, because I do think our opponents are going to try to roll back where we’ve achieved success around the country, and I also think in our offensive battles, where there are places where we have the ability to get protections at the local or state level. I think that you will see at least some on the side of our opponents who will use some of the same hateful rhetoric and lies.
The last thing I’ll say, and then I’ll shut up and you can ask some more questions, but this is an important point that I think was missed: It is my view that many station managers in a lot of markets around the country would have never accepted those ads. That’s common in political campaigns. There are standards and practices in departments within each station where they look at ads and they go through a rigorous test.
And in politics, there’s often two sides to a debate. There’s also right and wrong, and there’s lies, and there’s defamation of an entire population of people. And that’s what happened in Houston. And so, I am hopeful that in the go-forward we as a community, as an organization, local campaigns can be more aggressive with station mangers, quite frankly.
Blade: You mentioned there needs to be a more effective response to the anti-trans attacks. What will that effective response look like?
Griffin: That’s the research that everyone is going through right now and sort of looking at, as you know, the protections in Houston as we successfully as a movement achieved in a number of other places were both protections in public places as well as workplace and a whole host of accommodations.
Our opponents’ attempt to run — and by the way, this has happened historically throughout other civil rights movements — the opponents run to a place where they’re obsessed with bathrooms, and they always have been. Look at the civil rights movement of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. What did they always use? What was the symbolism that they often used, right? It was restrooms.
So, I do think there are ways to better affirmatively state what we all might see as the obvious: It is today illegal to enter any restroom and commit a crime. And I think that this is language that needs to be better elevated because folks in Houston were left thinking, truthfully thinking, that this law was therefore going to make that legal. It might seem obvious to most all of us that that is obviously illegal.
I also think another piece of this is these protections have existed for decades all around the country, including years in Texas cities. You can’t find a single example that would back up our opponents claims. And so, I think there are a lot of tactics like that that we will need to execute in campaigns in the future.
There are two ways to look at this…there’s knocking down a message in the context of a campaign, where you have a tiny window of tine, you have limited resources, and there is changing folks’ views over time in a public awareness campaign. And those two things aren’t always the same, but we need to be doing both.
Blade: Why didn’t those messages that it’s illegal to go to a bathroom to do something inappropriate or there are similar ordinances in other cities come forward during the Houston campaign?
Griffin: I obviously wasn’t the one making the decisions, so I think there are others you should ask this to. I would assume that there was a resource question. Those messages, when you’re going on TV in a 30-second ad, you can only do so much, so for a campaign and a campaign manager, you make decisions in terms of resource, and, as you know, this was a campaign that was thrust upon all of us very last minute. And there was a rush to raise money, which we and other put a lot of money into.
HRC and ACLU and Gill and host of folks put a lot of money into this, but there wasn’t the time that you typically have in a campaign, where you have a runway to raise money so that you can ensure you have two tracks of ads, you have your positive message and you have your response message. I would presume those on the ground would tell you we didn’t have the luxury of resources, there was not the ability to run two tracks of ads and a decision was made, for I think sound reasons. We can look back at it and, I think, say what would we have done differently and perhaps would have switched to just a responsive message.
I would defer to the folks who were on the ground at the time, but I think it’s important that we do take a pause and really look at what would have worked, not just rely on all our instincts, but tested research on what would have worked to hold the voters that we had.
The other flip-side of this that not a lot of folks are talking about is turnout. Our opponents were able to use this to turn out [voters]. And I think the most of what happened post-Proposition 8, which, as you know, was my entree into this movement in many ways, was that many of the folks who were on our side didn’t think there was a chance in the world that would pass in the state of California. And in many ways, Prop 8 should have woke up, I think, sleeping giants all around the state of California and around the country. And I think that’s a similar situation that we’re in with regard to Houston.
I do think next time, folks, this will be more front of mind for progressives, for our allies in particular, who maybe didn’t see it a priority to vote this time.
Blade: Do you deny there was a lack outreach to the Spanish-speaking and black communities in the Houston campaign?
Griffin: I’d really defer to the campaign to answer that question. … I’ve seen some of what you’ve seen. I think a general answer is we can always do better as a community in the outreach. I know we at HRC made a real priority in particular, with the NAACP partnership there. And we helped to fund the ad of the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that was on television. And I do know there was a lot of grassroots focus, but I wouldn’t be the best person. I would really defer to the campaign manager or some of the field team folks on the ground.
But I can tell you for a fact, just looking at the campaign results, we have to do better with every single one of the target communities, right? You can’t look at any one community in particular and say, “You know, that’s the reason for the loss.” This was a loss that was significant, was widespread and we as a movement have to do better across the board in these campaigns in the future. And I think that, as I said earlier, there are a lot of lessons coming out of Houston, among them [ones] I just mentioned, and we must all collectively and in coalition do better next time.
Blade: Does the Human Rights Campaign share responsibility for that loss?
Griffin: It’s funny. You look at campaigns all across the country, right? Every time you win one, it’s always just celebration and there’s never a question on what we could have done better. You’re supposed to ask those even when you win. We haven’t had a lot of losses in the last five years. This was a devastating loss. It was devastating in particular for those on the ground in Houston who needs these protections most of all, including the most vulnerable of our communities.
But I will reiterate: I am proud of our support for that campaign. I am proud of the resources that we poured into the that campaign. We just have to, as a community, and in coalition look next time at how we can better execute these campaigns when our opponents are coming at us in the way that they are.
So, I think any time there is a loss, everyone has to come together and not point fingers, but everyone who was there, we all need to learn our lessons and figure out what we need to do better next time. And then we need to ask the question, who wasn’t there? Who wasn’t with us? Who wasn’t helping to fund the efforts? And those are the communities we need to a better job of reaching out to.
And I mentioned one of them. We need business community more at the table in the future. And so, what’s important is that we ask ourselves collectively how can we do better next time, and I’ve given you where there are examples.
Blade: One last question: Is the defeat of the ordinance a setback for passing the Equality Act at the federal level?
Griffin: No. It underscores the urgency with which we need the Equality Act. One’s fundamental civil rights and civil rights protections should never be put up to a vote of the people. That’s not the promise of this country. Unfortunately, because we don’t have the Equality Act and we don’t have these protections at the federal level, we’re left to fight these battles at the local and state level, which we will continue to do as we build momentum to get the Equality Act passed.
But I think it underscores the need and the importance to get the Equality Act passed and to get it passed sooner rather than later.