LGBTQ Rights Groups Privately Feud Over Strategy

National LGBTQ rights groups are laser-focused on passing the Equality Act. But GLAAD is also trying to build support for passing an LGBTQ constitutional amendment and it's pissing off those groups. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
National LGBTQ rights groups are laser-focused on passing the Equality Act. But GLAAD is also trying to build support for passing an LGBTQ constitutional amendment and it's pissing off those groups. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON ― The leaders of major LGBTQ rights groups are privately warning another national organization to stop pushing for an LGBTQ constitutional amendment ahead of the 2020 elections, saying the strategy is ill-informed and “a serious risk” to the work they are already doing in states and at the federal level.

“While we certainly believe that the challenges facing the LGBTQ community require bold action, we also believe that advancing an amendment campaign is a harmful approach to our community,” reads an Aug. 17 letter to GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, signed by executives at five LGBTQ and progressive advocacy groups. GLAAD is an LGBTQ media advocacy group.

“As some of us discussed in a recent conversation with you, we have both process and substance concerns,” the letter continues. “GLAAD’s campaign has lacked meaningful engagement with the broader movement representing the LGBTQ community ― particularly state and national organizations that would be responsible for doing the work to pass such an amendment ― and presents a serious risk to the community’s work at the state and federal level.”

It concludes, “We ask that GLAAD not launch or cease engagement on this campaign to talk with us and key stakeholders about the campaign.”

The letter, obtained by HuffPost, is signed by James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union; JoDee Winterhof of the Human Rights Campaign; Rea Carey of the National LGBTQ Task Force; Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality; and Laura Durso of the Center for American Progress.

Here’s a copy of the two-page letter:

It’s unusual that prominent LGBTQ rights groups would team up to chide one of their own, even if privately. But it’s not surprising why they are upset: they’re all focusing their resources and advocacy on passing the Equality Act, a sweeping bill in Congress that would amend civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.

GLAAD supports that bill too, but it is also trying to get people buzzing about the idea of amending the Constitution to include explicit protections for LGBTQ people, women, people of color and people with disabilities. It’s not a GLAAD campaign, per se; the organization is a partner in the ERA Coalition, which includes a number of progressive groups advocating for a fully inclusive Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

But GLAAD is certainly active in the cause. Ellis wrote a June 2018 op-ed in The Advocate urging LGBTQ groups to focus on passing a fully inclusive Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The New York Times ran a June 2019 profile of Ellis centered on her efforts to build support for a constitutional amendment. Last month, GLAAD put out a tip sheet on the amendment for journalists covering the 2020 election.

There just appears to be a fundamental disagreement in strategy between the groups. GLAAD sees merit in advocating for a moonshot. The Human Rights Campaign and other national LGBTQ groups think that’s a waste of time and want everyone putting their resources toward a shared, more realistic goal.

In the meantime, the Trump administration is plowing ahead with its assault on LGBTQ rights. Most recently, the Justice Department argued in federal court that people should be able to be fired from their jobs for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

In a lengthy statement to HuffPost, GLAAD defended its role in the ERA Coalition and emphasized it isn’t prioritizing an inclusive ERA over the Equality Act. Interestingly, the group says it “does not have plans for public pushes around the inclusive ERA.”

GLAAD fully embraces the Equality Act and is also willing to consider any option that protects LGBTQ people from the rampant discrimination that exists, especially at a time when the Supreme Court and federal court system are growing more anti-LGBTQ by the day. The expanded Equal Rights Amendment would provide explicit protections in the U.S. Constitution for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities. GLAAD became the first major LGBTQ organization to formally support this intersectional approach to equality, one that cannot be taken away or debated. GLAAD recognizes that the vision is bold and other progressive experts are evaluating a future legislative roadmap.

Receiving this letter was surprising given that GLAAD requested to speak with the organizations on the letter about the inclusive ERA multiple times over the last year and since we learned more about it. Given today’s divisive cultural and political landscape, GLAAD does not have plans for public pushes around the inclusive ERA. For more than a year, GLAAD has been conducting proper due diligence including meetings with progressive leaders, policy experts, and elected officials who are interested in continuing to explore the inclusive ERA.

We see validity in a number of points in the letter and look forward to continuing dialogue with those on the letter as well as other social justice leaders about ways to stand united against the growing discrimination that marginalized communities face today.

GLAAD spokesman Rich Ferraro said the organization has been reaching out to the LGBTQ rights groups on the letter since June 2018 to talk about the importance of pushing for an inclusive ERA, but almost all of its outreach attempts went unanswered.

Ellis responded to the groups’ latest letter on Monday and requested that they all talk immediately. “We, as leaders of the LGBTQ movement, need to urgently discuss how to best address the growing visibility of an inclusive Equal Rights Amendment,” reads an excerpt of her letter.

But the groups denied Ellis’ request for a Monday night call because she wanted other progressive groups in the ERA Coalition to participate in the call. “We wanted to bring other voices from the progressive world that are not LGBTQ groups,” said Ferraro.

To be sure, it is incredibly difficult to amend the Constitution, and for LGBTQ advocacy groups with limited budgets and bandwidth, it’s not the most pragmatic goal. Both chambers of Congress have to pass a resolution with a two-thirds majority vote, and the resolution must be ratified by three-fourths of the states (38) either through a state legislature or a state constitutional convention.

The process can also be “harmful,” say the LGBTQ groups on the letter, because constitutional conventions open the door to groups hostile to civil rights to propose other amendments.

“Any effort to amend the U.S. Constitution would require significant diversion of resources, funds and energy at a time when our community is facing immediate and dangerous attacks at all levels of government,” they said. “Additionally, it would provide a convenient ‘out’ for those members of congress and state legislatures who would like to avoid supporting the Equality Act.”

Ferraro responded that “no one” is calling for a constitutional convention and “it has never been a part of any discussion that GLAAD has been part of.”

One LGBTQ rights advocate, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said the letter to GLAAD was the culmination of many months of frustration with the organization for ignoring LGBTQ rights groups’ requests to drop its push for a constitutional amendment and get on the same page with them.

“Multiple groups had repeatedly expressed concern but GLAAD continued to move forward,” said this advocate, “so groups across the movement decided to outline those concerns in writing.”

HuffPost reached out to all of the letter’s signatories for comment. Only one, Winterhof, the senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, responded. She made it pretty clear that her organization isn’t interested in focusing on a constitutional amendment.

“We are supportive of bold and achievable strategies to advance full federal equality now, not into the future, which is why we are laser focused on passing the Equality Act,” Winterhof said. “Today, in many states, LGBTQ people could be fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes and refused lifesaving services simply because of who they are. This is wrong and demands urgent action. The Equality Act is that solution and is supported by more than 200 businesses, overwhelming majorities of Americans and the bipartisan majority in the U.S. House of Representatives that recently passed this critical bill.”

She added, “That is why the LGBTQ movement, along with the broader civil rights community, is committed to working with a Senate that is pro-equality and president who is pro-equality to pass this legislation as soon as possible.”

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