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With Apology, LGBT Rights Group Seeks To Avoid Reopening Old Wounds

After transgender and immigrant rights activists criticized exclusion from this past week's Supreme Court rally, the Human Rights Campaign apologizes. "We failed to live up to the high standard to which we hold ourselves accountable and we will strive to do better in the future," HRC's vice president says.

Posted on April 1, 2013, at 6:03 p.m. ET

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — The Human Rights Campaign apologized Monday for treatment of transgender and immigration rights activists at the Supreme Court last week, days after the nation's largest LGBT group initially had sought to brush aside the criticisms.

HRC, which has been much celebrated on social media for its red marriage equality logo's takeover of Facebook, found itself the subject of scrutiny on Tumblr and YouTube for what many saw as marginalizing transgender people and LGBT immigrants.

A Tumblr post since deleted (but shown below) detailed that transgender rights activists were asked repeatedly to remove a flag supporting transgender rights from behind the podium, a fact confirmed to BuzzFeed by multiple people. Additionally, as detailed at YouTube, an undocumented immigrant was asked to remove information about his immigration status from the speech he gave at the rally.

Although HRC initially brushed off the concerns raised in the Tumblr post, the group's vice president referenced both incidents in an apology Monday.

In a statement on its website, HRC vice president Fred Sainz wrote Monday, "HRC regrets the incidents and offers our apologies to those who were hurt by our actions. We failed to live up to the high standard to which we hold ourselves accountable and we will strive to do better in the future."

The incidents reignited long-standing criticism of HRC for being overly concerned about a media-friendly picture being presented at public events and had the potential to reopen old wounds in the LGBT community about HRC's treatment of transgender issues.

In 2007, HRC made the decision to support a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would have excluded transgender protections from the long-sought job discrimination bill. In part because, as then-HRC president Joe Solmonese noted to this reporter in a 2012 interview, then-President George W. Bush would have vetoed the bill so "there was no chance that bill was going to get signed into law," HRC backed the trans-exclusive bill as part of "the complexities of legislative process and building a bill."

The move, however, "was a divisive moment" that Solmonese described as "a difficult time" at HRC. "[T]he community felt as though it had been divided through that act," he said. Although HRC has worked to repair that division over the past years, the organization has been particularly sensitive to criticism of its treatment of transgender issues in the years since the 2007 vote.

HRC's current president, Chad Griffin, took over for Solmonese in June 2012. Though his job before this was running the American Foundation for Equal Rights — which brought the court challenge to California's Proposition 8 marriage amendment — Griffin has made a clear effort to include non-marriage issues and to highlight transgender issues in his work as president. His first effort as the group's head was a survey that looked at anti-LGBT bullying and other youth issues across the country.

Although HRC officials did not respond late this afternoon to a request for information about Griffin's involvement in the decision to issue the apology, there's no question that Griffin does not want questions about the group's commitment to transgender issues to be raised again — let alone during a time in which LGBT issues, and his group, are getting particularly prominent coverage in the media.

The Trans Issue


The since-removed Tumblr post

The Immigration Issue

View this video on YouTube


Despite that past, Monday's apology was a contrast from HRC's initial response, when a spokesman denied to BuzzFeed that anything inappropriate had happened regarding the flag issue. In the March 27 Tumblr post that was circulated several thousand times before being taken down by the person who posted it, the person stated that a friend had been asked to take down the trans flag because "marriage equality is not a transgender issue."

On Thursday, March 28, HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz told BuzzFeed, "It was agreed that featuring American flags at our program was the best way to illustrate this unifying issue, which is why when managing the area behind the podium, several people were asked to move who were carrying organizational banners, pride flags or any other flag that was not an American flag. Several people refused and they were allowed to stay. The coalition welcomed the variety of signs and flags that were throughout the plaza that demonstrated the wonderful diversity of our community."

"It is a [sic] not true to suggest that any person or organization was told their flag was less important than another — this did not occur and no HRC staff member would ever tolerate such behavior. To be clear, it is the position of the Human Rights Campaign that marriage is an issue that affects everyone in the LGBT community," Cole-Schwartz added.

But by Friday the coalition — which includes HRC — issued an apology for the incidents, which detailed that "the coalition has learned about the mistreatment of a few individuals who were attending and speaking at the rallies."

The coalition statement continued:

"We apologize for having caused harm to the individuals involved. Apologies are being made individually and collectively and we are working to make direct amends. ...

Moving forward as a coalition we will work to achieve a society where everyone can be their full selves in an accepting and diverse community. We know that the incredible power of our community stems from our experiences and stories, and that only when all are respected and included will we achieve our goals."

The statement notes that the United for Marriage coalition is "led by the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Family Equality Council, GetEQUAL, Marriage Equality USA and the New Organizing Institute." Although it was not clear the specific role HRC played in the drafting of the coalition's apology statement, the Friday statement would not have been issued without HRC's full support.

HRC decided to issue its own apology on Monday because, Cole-Schwartz said, "People did not read that to be the apology [from HRC] that we meant it to be."