How one activist group tracks the Democrats’ 30-year assault on America, and how conservatives can learn from their enemies
In Democrats’ America, language means one thing until government makes it mean something else. On the late afternoon of January 20, 2021, Joe Biden arrived at the White House, paused on the North Portico to hear a rendition of “Hail to the Chief,” went into the Oval Office, and signed an executive order “combating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity” that changed the definition of gender in American life. Five weeks and one day later, the Democratic majority and three Republicans in the House of Representatives picked up the ball Biden had fielded on Day One. They passed the Equality Act, which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to define “sex” to include “gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms or characteristics, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.” It also made this definition enforceable in “exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings or displays” and shut out religious exemptions.
These mandates marked radical shifts. The Equality Act alone, which died in the Senate, mandated that any group or facility which defined sex as biologically rooted—be it a sports club locker room, women’s homeless shelter, hospital run by the Catholic church, or competitive athletics team—made itself potentially vulnerable to legal action.
Religious, Republican, and feminist advocates opposed to the Act pointed out that this liability wasn’t hypothetical. States which had adopted this rule had seen it occur, with Catholic hospitals defending themselves in lawsuits for refusing to perform “gender affirmation” surgery in California and a women’s shelter being investigated by Alaska’s Equal Rights Commission for refusing to house a biological male. They also argued that Biden’s executive order giving many of the Equality Act’s provisions the force of law “will likely prohibit female-only student athletics and sex-segregation in intimate spaces such as domestic violence shelters and prisons.” And they pointed out that Biden’s executive order and his support of the Equality Act contradicted his support for a major religious expression bill thirty years before.
But the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ lobbying group in America which had made the Equality Act its top priority, called the executive order “the most substantive, wide-ranging LGBTQ order in U.S. history.” Yet no one else in Washington—excepting the occasional feminist group exiled from the Democratic Party to the conservative Heritage Foundation and the occasional contributor to The Wall Street Journal—said anything.
How had something this radical happened, and why was no one talking about it while it happened in plain sight?
Human Rights for Whom?
The place to go to answer those questions is the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—the interest group near the heart of the sex-and-gender darkness that’s been clouding around Americans for the last seven years. The Human Rights Campaign didn’t create sex-and-gender ideology or push it into national politics—that credit belongs to government-funded universities, where 1990s psychology and social theory collided to produce it, and to corporatist billionaires who funded that collision and turned it into policy in the 2010s. But the HRC provided the insider muscle that pushed this ideology to the top of the Democratic agenda.
Tracing the HRC’s moves to get there, from its triangulations over gay marriage in the 1990s to its pivot to transgender ideology in the 2020s, tracks the Democratic Party’s centralization of power over the same period. It’s the story of how center-left, D.C.-based nonprofits spent 30 years partnering with the federal government, corporations, establishment media, and the entertainment complex to turn controversial but genuine grassroots movements into top-down power plays. In the process, they’ve replaced the democratic deliberation at the heart of American politics with shell games and arbitrary directives from the blackout zones of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.
The Human Rights Campaign got its start in the 1980s from a merger of a political action committee and a gay rights lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. It hit its stride over the next two decades: An era of rapid growth also responsible for most of the political shifts afflicting us today. The most tectonic of these shifts was the Democratic Party’s move away from its traditional base of private-sector labor unions and city parties toward a rotating cast of corporate and entertainment funders, political consultants, upper-income urban professionals, and government administrators-turned-financiers.
In 1992, one insider summed up the growing divide between the new movers and the old base the party still relied on for votes: the rising “players” were people “who don’t go into Harlem, don’t go into South Central. They don’t even fly MGM anymore”—the airline of choice for the entertainment industry—”they have their own planes.”
From these new movers came the rapid growth of equally disconnected nonprofits: Activist groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. Social scientists called these groups “advocacy organizations” to distinguish them from the “member-centered, local and chapter-based associations” which had driven American politics until that point. Unlike those older liberal groups—such as the Italian-American leagues and the AFL-CIO, or today’s conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and Turning Point USA—this new wave of advocacy nonprofits rarely involved people working on the ground. They were instead “professionally staffed” by connected insiders, “denizen[s] of the Washington hothouse” and almost entirely creatures of the government, corporations, or billionaires who funded them.
Each funder used nonprofits for its own purposes. For government, they were ways to quietly advocate on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (among others) without drawing attention.
For corporations, they were ways to invest in government-subsidized and tax-exempt research they might one day purchase, or to generate consumer goodwill (and get free advertising) by lending their name to benign-sounding causes.
And for wealthy Democratic donors, they were ways to advance the Left’s priorities in Washington while avoiding the messiness of legislative politics. Thanks to this support, nonprofits’ growth was stratospheric and their impact sharply felt. In 1970, there were a little more than 50 nonprofit organizations for every million people; in 1997 that figure rose to around 90. Their “national administrators” were “among the most feared lobbyists in Washington, in large part because of their massive mailing lists.”
Entering the Clinton Administration
In the 1990s, no group fit this bill more neatly than the HRC. It had broadened its mission to “lobbying, research, education, and media outreach,” and received funding from corporations that earlier generations of Democrats considered suspect, such as the defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The HRC was by now a media reference point thanks to its high-profile fundraising dinners which catered to supportive urban professionals. (In one episode of Will and Grace, for instance, the fictional Manhattan lawyer Will Truman drags his friend Jack to an HRC dinner in New York.)
Most importantly, the group was moving into national electoral politics. The HRC’s first presidential endorsement came in 1992 when it cast its lot for Bill Clinton, a politician cut from its mould. Clinton, after all, was the first president to prioritize affirmative action appointments in his administration. On the campaign trail, he fed access to his 1992 campaign “war room” to a deadline-driven media eager for the “inside story.” He also listened closely to political consultants hawking Hollywood-style marketing and focus group strategies, even bringing Hollywood into the White House so Rob Reiner could make The American President in 1995.
HRC’s insider moves didn’t go unnoticed. It was criticized for being cut off from the grassroots. Critics said it was “composed largely of white, affluent, and assimilated men”—that is, the people who then dominated the ranks of Washington’s college-educated, well-connected lobbyists and staffers. The pioneering gay marriage activist Andrew Sullivan, who’d written the first widely read piece on AIDS, called HRC the “patronage wing of the Democratic Party” which “sucked resources out of local gay groups and states who really are creating change,” like Evan Wolfson’s Freedom to Marry and Mary Bonauto’s GLAAD. These organizations, like earlier Democratic chapter-based groups, aimed to push gay marriage victories through state legislatures and (the less-democratic-but-still-accountable) state supreme courts.
HRC’s approach was the opposite. It followed and increasingly helped shape the new Democratic Party’s playbook: Making inroads with socially liberal funders and the urban upper-middle class while relying on votes from socially conservative blue-collar whites and blacks.
This meant walking a tightrope of tricks, triangulation, and centralized money rather than addressing issues head-on. Stanley Sheinbaum, a major Los Angeles Democratic fundraiser who’d gotten shut out of the Clintons’ Party because he “wanted to talk about the issues,” explained that the Clintons and the people funding them thought that “to talk about the issues will alienate too many people.” Instead, they “got caught up in this dance of how to run campaigns better, rather than what [they] do for [their] constituency.”
This logic dictated the party’s approach to gay rights. Clinton was the first president to commit to the symbolic, affirmative action-type white collar appointments for gay Americans that he used in other areas and that were valued by the Human Rights Campaign. But his policies moved in the other direction: He retracted an early commitment to allow gays to serve openly in the military and signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which codified traditional marriage, ahead of his 1996 reelection campaign.
The HRC criticized the legislation—but some of its allies in the consulting and entertainment world like Richard Socarides backed the bill on pragmatic grounds. And a dozen years later, when public spending and nonprofit growth had bloated Washington, D.C. to the point where even the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times Magazine was calling it America’s “Gilded Capital,” the HRC was raking in even more money and still playing the insider game: Urging gay rights advocates to take a soft tack on gay marriage and avoid controversy when Barack Obama became president. Writing in the left magazine American Prospect, Gabrielle Arana summed up the attitude among gay rights advocates: “The HRC deserves some credit for helping move public opinion in favor of gay rights for the past 30 years, but it’s been much less successful in convincing legislators to do anything more than have cocktails with them in the short term.”
At the same time, groups like Wolfson’s and Bonauto’s were advancing legislation and winning court battles in the states the old-fashioned way. By 2010, five states legalized same-sex marriage; three years later that number was sixteen, thanks in part to support from Millennials who’d voted in the 2008 elections. HRC, however, would only grow more authoritarian in time.
A “Hollywood Production”
The driver behind HRC’s top-down approach was its new executive director, Chad Griffin, an operator at the intersection of Hollywood publicity and Washington backchanneling who embodies the modus operandi of the Clinton-Obama-Biden-era influencer. After serving as the Clinton administration’s liaison to Rob Reiner during the filming of The American President, Griffin moved to Hollywood to become an “industry political adviser.” California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in 2008 changed that. Soon Griffin—with support from Rob Reiner—launched his own advocacy group, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, to target Prop. 8 in court.
The New York Times later summed up Griffin’s approach as a “Hollywood production.” For marquee names, he corralled David Boies, the star Democratic lawyer who represented dubious celebrities like Harvey Weinstein and Elizabeth Holmes, and Theodore Olson, the solicitor general under George W. Bush who’d ardently defended the expansion of the national security state.
This pairing wasn’t coincidental but cinematic: Boies and Olson had been opponents in the 2000 election recount battle, and the courtroom reunion of what Vanity Fair obligingly called “America’s odd couple” in support of gay marriage gave the story dramatic flair. For production value, Griffin brought in the producers and writers from Milk, the biopic of the gay rights’ pioneer Harvey Milk, to stage press conferences with “so much bunting it looked as if someone …were running for president.” And for emotional moments, he pulled in Republican police officers with gay children to testify at trial, ignoring Olson’s questions about legal relevance in favor of Reiner’s approving “wow!”
Finally, to build his own brand, he brought in the established media, still eager for insider access and increasingly reliant on upper-income urban professional readers like the fictional Will Truman who shared Griffin’s views. His special target was the New York Times, where he liaised with both Pulitzer Prize-winning opinions columnist Maureen Dowd and prominent investigative reporter Jo Becker, who likened the anti-Prop. 8 campaign to Rosa Parks’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. This was the new Democratic Party in action—not pivoting on arguments or persuasion but insider access and PR maneuvering.
The case ultimately saw Prop. 8 struck down on much more mundane technical grounds. Still, the publicity Griffin generated made him a star among gay marriage activists, and he was soon appointed HRC’s director and embedded himself in the Obama White House. (Notably, the American Foundation for Equal Rights’ co-founder was now Michelle Obama’s communications director). HRC’s strategy was now fixed in a more hardline direction.
In Part Two, HRC’s tactics radicalize along with the Democratic Party