Whenever I read my children’s book, This Day in June, different pages evoke different feelings for me. So much so that I’ve given each page a name. (Seriously. I know it’s weird.) There’s the “Dykes on Bikes” page, where motors are roaring and spirits are soaring. There’s the “leather” page, which allows me to talk to my daughter about dress-up and role-playing (in kid-friendly language, of course). There’s the “pink page,” which is totally saturated in that color. There’s the “Sisters” page, which always makes adults laugh. And there’s the HRC page, which is covered with the blue and yellow equals sign. You know, the one that looks like this:
This page makes me feel angry. And sad. And conflicted. What’s funny is that in Kristyna Litten’s initial sketches for This Day in June, there were no images of people holding up signs or banners, and there weren’t any indicators of specific groups marching. “Make it more political,” I said. “Otherwise it’s just a garden-variety parade.”
Whether she knew it or not, by adding the Human Rights Campaign and its associated logo, the book became more political. HRC is a huge presence in the LGBT community (and at Pride parades). But its presence has been massively contentious within these communities.
First, a little background: HRC is the largest LGBT advocacy organization in the United States. They oversee the largest political action committee (PAC) focusing on LGBT issues. They employ an impressive staff, and they have field offices throughout the country. They have three different boards and five advisory councils, focusing on issues such as diversity, religion, schools, and the workplace. They are a juggernaut in the LGBT political landscape. And they have committed a lengthy list of transgressions, mostly involving the transgender community, undocumented LGBT immigrants, and people of color. Here are just a few examples:
In 2008, after HRC supported a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that failed to include gender identity protections, executive director Joe Solomonese offered an apology to transgender activists. Specifically, he apologized for “misspeaking” – that previous year, he had given a speech at a transgender conference where he stated that he would only support an inclusive ENDA. He apologized for the inconsistency in his statements, but he didn’t apologize for supporting a non-inclusive version of the bill.
In 2013, at a marriage equality event at the Supreme Court, an HRC staffer asked a trans activist to remove the trans pride flag that had been raised behind the podium. Another staffer asked a queer undocumented speaker not to refer to his immigration status in his speech. The HRC issued a formal apology.
Now we’re in 2014. Several days ago, HRC president Chad Griffin issued a broad-based formal apology to the transgender community. “I want to cut right to the chase here today,” he said. “There’s an elephant in this room, and, well, it’s me.” His apology was lengthy, specific, and heartfelt. But still, it was merely an apology.
Apology after apology after apology. Remember the phrase George Costanza used in that famous Seinfeld episode? “You can stuff your sorries in a sack, mister!” That’s how many people feel about HRC. At some point, the words “I’m sorry” hurt more than they help. There’s a next step, which involves making amends.
In the addiction recovery world, the idea of making amends is not a new one. Step Eight of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” (The HRC would have a lengthy list.) Step Nine states: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Merely saying “I’m sorry” is not an amends – an article from the Hazelden Foundation, aptly titled “Making amends is more than an apology,” makes this abundantly clear. “An amend has to do with restoring justice as much as possible,” the article states. “The idea is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged–or to make restoration in a symbolic way if we can’t do it directly.”
Making amends, restoring justice – this is what “restorative justice” is about. In The Little Book of Restorative Justice, Howard Zehr, one of the founders of the restorative justice movement, describes it as “a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” It involves, for lack of better terminology, both the victims and the offenders. Victims have an opportunity to say how they’ve been affected by the injustice, and they also have a say in what should be done to repair the harm. Offenders, in turn, are expected to take responsibility for their actions, and take steps to repair the harm they’ve done.
Chad Griffin, in his speech, addressed many of the harms that HRC has either willfully or unwittingly committed. But according to restorative justice practices, that’s just a first step. What else needs to happen?
- They need to change their practices – and it needs to happen quickly, broadly, and as close to perfectly as possible. (One social media commenter said, “There’s no room for error on this” – and I think they’re right.)
- They need to listen . . . and listen . . . and listen some more – without interrupting, or making excuses, or hijacking the conversation to talk about all the good things HRC has done for various communities. Because this isn’t about saving face. They need to be willing to hear some really ugly stuff without trying to wiggle out of the discomfort. And they need to be willing to repair the harm in a way that’s best for the victim, not necessarily for the offender.
- They need to accept the very real possibility that, for some people, irreparable damage may have been done. Some people in the LGBT community may never support or trust HRC, despite all of their best efforts. Part of making amends involves accepting the fact that your amends just might not be accepted, and being willing to live with those consequences. (That’s happened to me; years ago, I reached out to someone I’d hurt to try to make amends, and that person made very clear that he wanted none of it. No matter how much it sucks, I accept that I don’t get to try to make it better in order to make myself feel better.)
Even though I feel sadness, anger, and a mixture of other complicated feelings when I get to “the HRC page,” I also feel hopeful. I know that’s not true for everyone. One reviewer described This Day in June as “Pride as I would love Pride to be,” and that’s exactly how I felt as I was writing the book. Pride isn’t perfect, and our community isn’t perfect either. But I can envision what it could look like – amd reality always starts with a vision.