WASHINGTON — It is less than 16 hours since President Obama finished his victory speech in Chicago, and Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin is working on a few hours sleep, but still going strong — in fact, he’s already preparing for his third conference call of the day to discuss the impact of the election on LGBT Americans and, more importantly, the next steps in the fight.
Sitting in a conference room in HRC’s building on 17th Street, Griffin takes a pause from his breakneck pace, telling BuzzFeed that what confronts his community now is the question, as he put the question himself:
"What can our next victories be, and where can our next achievements be?"
Griffin, along with legislative director Allison Herwitt, vice president for communications Fred Sainz and spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz talked with BuzzFeed at length about the preparations they were making for the next phase of their fight — made more difficult by the continued House Republican leadership, which opposed initiatives like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to ban LGBT discrimination in the workplace.
Griffin, nonetheless, was energized talking about the path ahead. After the election of a record number of out LGBT members of Congress, the approval of marriage equality in three states and rejection of a ban on same-sex couples' marriage rights in another, he said, "When we’ve got the momentum like we have it, we can’t slow down, we’ve got to double down.
"We can celebrate for a few hours, then we’ve got to get to work," said Griffin. Although young, the veteran politico has won the begrudging respect of his adversaries, like the National Organization for Marriage's Brian Brown, who told BuzzFeed this past week, "Even though I disagree with much of what HRC does, you have to call a spade a spade: He’s good at what he does. Chad knows politics, and he knows how to win elections."
Griffin, however, acknowledges that a win today can quickly be turned into a loss, particularly when facing off against equally hard-nosed opponents like Brown, and he said he won’t dwell on his victories.
"We’ve got the Supreme Court around the corner," he said, pointing to cases challenging California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. The justices are set to discuss on Nov. 20 which of those cases they will be taking this year. Looking to the states, Griffin said, "We’ve got legislative opportunities — by the way, not just on marriage — on bullying, on workplace protections, on marriage where it might be achievable, on civil unions where it might be the next step in a state or more.
"And, then we’ve got Congress and the administration."
At the top of their list for the executive branch, detailed on Thursday at BuzzFeed, are an out cabinet member and an executive order protecting LGBT employees of federal contractors from discrimination.
But their list is much longer.
Other asks for the administration will include getting the administration to extend benefits to same-sex military spouses — an area where the Pentagon has been slow to act — and to back further efforts to address healthcare inequities for LGBT people.
On the congressional front, Griffin said that passing a "domestic partnership tax fix is at the top of that" agenda, referring to legislation that would address the fact that same-sex couples who receive health insurance benefits for their domestic partners are taxed by the federal government as income — unlike such benefits provided to opposite-sex married couples.
More broadly, Herwitt said that the next steps already are in the planning.
Of the group's engagement on the Hill, she said they're "talking, again, and beginning conversations that I’ve already kind of begun, with [Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick] Leahy’s people and with [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom] Harkin’s people about what bills we can move through committee, just to keep the momentum, keep the conversation, keep the education going — especially on ENDA."
Of the Senate, she said, "We’ve never had a real vibrant conversation around gender identity. We have in the House," but noting that "now, there’s a lot of different members from the ’07 debate." But, in the Senate, she said, "We haven’t had a committee mark-up on ENDA since 2002."
The continued Republican leadership in the House, which has opposed advancing LGBT rights, likely will continue to be a roadblock to passage of legislation like ENDA.
"In the House, it’s going to be continuing educating and getting co-sponsors. And, we will probably have to do defensive work, depending upon what amendments." She added, however, a note of possibility, saying, "They may completely decide that they don’t want to do social issues, although I find it hard to believe they won’t go after abortion, but, maybe they’ve learned something."
Griffin said, however, "Let’s not give up on moving the leadership on this issue. Perhaps they will have seen the results of last night, and perhaps it will open their hearts and minds to workplace protections."
Following a less-than-hopeful look from his legislative director, Griffin said simply — and politically: "I always remain optimistic."
Herwitt and Cole-Schwartz also noted that HRC plans to engage its members about the impact for LGBT Americans of the "fiscal cliff" discussions in the lame-duck session of Congress.
HRC’s plans for the next phase of their fight isn’t just limited to the national level. After all, they make clear, Obama could hind himself stymied in some ways on the federal level. Griffin, though, also pointed toward a third front: the local level.
"If Omaha, Nebraska, can have an inclusive ENDA, so too can the rest of the country," he said. "So, it’s my hope that we can have advancements at the local and state level to give us further momentum here in Washington."
The states, of course, also remain key in the marriage fight, and Griffin already has pointed to Colorado and Minnesota as places where movement on marriage, or at least civil unions, is possible following Tuesday's elections. New Jersey advocates are looking to override Gov. Chris Christie's veto of a marriage equality bill there. Additionally, lawsuits seeking marriage equality are ongoing in Illinois, Nevada and New Jersey.
A fourth option for advancement on workplace protections is through the Equal Opportunity Opportunity Commission, which found earlier this year that the prohibition against sex discrimination in employment in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity — which includes discrimination against transgender people. One of the EEOC's commissioners, Chai Feldblum, has suggested that ruling potentially could be expanded to include sexual orientation protections.
Herwitt was less optimistic than Feldblum, saying, "I think we’re on much firmer ground when it come to gender identity and sex in Title VII. I think it is a little bit more of a legal stretch to include sexual orientation in the definition of ‘sex’ under Title VII."
The EEOC decision applies to all federal agencies and is to serve as persuasive — though not binding — reasoning on courts. That, Herwitt noted, is the drawback of the EEOC decision, in comparison to explicit legislation like ENDA, saying, "I think that it’s fabulous that we have the EEOC decision and it is the force of law, but it will have to be litigated and cases will have to be brought. Calling the EEOC decision "helpful and important, historic," she said, "but I don’t think it’s enough. And that’s why it’s important to have a federal law."
Outside of their government-based plans, which are broad, Griffin did note one other plan that HRC — working through its educational foundation — has in the works.
"We’re going to be launching something called the Municipal Equality Index, where we’re going to start out by rating 130-some cities and towns, big and small — and medium — on their city-wide and municipal policies, as it relates to LGBT equality, protections, inclusiveness and so forth in all 50 states," he said.
Noting that it is modeled after the group's widely praised Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies for their LGBT policies, Griffin was rather direct about the group's aims with the city rankings, due to be launched in December.
"I think’s going to provide some healthy competition amongst many of these cities and these mayors when the scores start coming out," he said with a smile.
Moments later, Griffin and Sainz headed out, ready for Griffin's next call, another step in a day of victory laps — and planning sessions.
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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