Effectively lobbying Congress for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and an expansion of hate-crimes legislation to protect GLBT individuals, and hosting a well-publicized and first-of-its-kind Democratic presidential debate centered on GLBT issues – that’s just some of the work that the Human Rights Campaign has done in recent months. Now, with a national election approaching, the organization that’s been the political voice of the nation’s gay and lesbian community for more than a quarter century is set to wield its influence like never before, helping steer the discourse at a crucial time in gay American history.
But such a monumental mission belies the fact that HRC is first and foremost a grassroots organization, garnering its members, momentum and money through local chapters. And in just a short period of time, HRC Austin has dramatically expanded its presence in Texas’ liberal-minded capital city, growing its membership base here to several thousand.
In the last three years, the group has filled out its steering committee- the body charged with organizing local events and driving membership – in an effort to diversify and reach out to various factions of the GLBT community. Through annual events like the “L Word” premiere party and the Dinah Lakeshore soiree on Lake Austin, HRC Austin has drawn more lesbian members and supporters. And the monthly social-networking event called Tuesdays Together has brought a renewed cohesiveness and extended HRC’s message to a new generation.
“We needed to bring more people in to the mix,” explains Katy Farrar, membership and community events co-chair. “And I think as a result, people are seeing us as a more fun and diverse group than we ever were before.”
In 2007, HRC Austin tripled its fiscal and attendance goals for community events. At the annual pride festival alone, the group signed up 70 new members, 20 more than its intended goal. The net effect, says Farrar, is raising not just money but awareness of the issues and the battles that HRC is waging on behalf of GLBT rights.
The funds raised by HRC through events, membership and its Federal Club donors – those who contribute at least $1,200 annually – go primarily to political lobbying efforts at the national level. Debates on issues from a federal ban on same-sex marriage to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy mean HRC’s work level rarely slows. But in this presidential election year, the organization will strive even harder not just to put a supporter of gay rights in the White House, but to ensure that the balance of power in Congress does not shift once again against the GLBT community.
“We will target the candidates we feel will support us and work hard to get them elected,” says HRC Austin Governor Kevin Loop. “We have had tremendous success in getting candidates [elected]. Last year, 95 percent of our support candidates were put in office.”
While the bulk of money raised in local HRC chapters goes toward national lobbying, some funding comes back to local communities. For instance, HRC provides funds to Equality Texas, the group advocating for GLBT issues in the state Legislature. Under current HRC President Joe Solmonese, the organization has increased its coop- eration with like-minded groups on the local level, like Texas Relay for Pride and the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, offering vital support and contacts.
HRC has a particularly special meaning in Austin because of one prominent Central Texas lady. Local activist Bettie Naylor was among those behind the formation of the organization in Washington D.C. in the early 1980s and she served on the first board of directors. Naylor continues to be a staunch supporter of HRC and many consider her a matriarch of the group, says Farrar. To that end, HRC Austin presents an annual award in her name to an individual who has demonstrated “excellence in service” to the community.
To be sure, what helps keep HRC going is its events. Drawing about 400 attendees last September, Dinah Lakeshore has become, in just two years, HRC Austin’s largest community event. Now, Farrar says, the steering committee is looking at options for developing more guy- focused events in 2008. Possibilities include a fashion show that would engage supporters from the retail community and a black-tie bachelor auction.
“We’ve seen what a tremendous success Dinah is and we think we can do something equally successful for the guys,” says Farrar.
The annual HRC Austin Gala Dinner is not one of the community events, rather a party unto itself that’s part of the network of Gala dinners in HRC chapters across the country that are major sources of revenue. Locally, Gala has become a powerhouse party, growing from 300 participants in 2006 to about 500 people in 2007. Farrar says the group is hoping for 500 to 700 participants when the event is held January 26.
The organization’s efforts to increase visibility have not gone unnoticed. In 2006, Tuesdays Together won the best grassroots event award from the Austin Chronicle. And at HRC’s national dinner, the Austin chapter picked up several awards for best overall steering committee, fastest-growing federal club and fastest-growing federal club council.
Unlike HRC itself, money contributed to the HRC Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity, goes toward a series of programs that encourage GLBT Americans to live their lives openly. Such programs include the HRC Family Project that promotes the visibility of GLBT families and the HRC Workplace Project, which advocates for policies that prohibit discrimination against GLBT workers.