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A brief note on cocktail parties

by Jeremy Hooper

Img 0573-1On any given calendar year, this writer is invited to a sizable number of dress up and schmooze kinds of events. State organizations throw them. National organizations throw them. Professional associations, political campaigns, advocacy organizations -- they all stock up the bar and cheese up the canapés before opening their doors to both paying and non-paying guests. It's something that can be found in every movement, in every party, in every state.

So why do I say any of this? Well, because while I find criticism of our groups and our movement both necessary and needed (and participate in the same when it's warranted), I'm growing increasingly tired of the lines that imply that this group or that group does nothing but throw cocktail parties. For one reason: It's just an unfair reduction, as no group, no matter how meritorious or lacking its work may be, is doing nothing but stocking up on Moet. For another: Most everyone likes a party, human beings like to blow off steam, and all organizations need ways to raise funds, so I think it's pretty lame to send the message that these annual functions are inherently evil and therefore need to be eliminated. And last but not least: BECAUSE I'VE WAITED ON GALA BAR LINES BEHIND SOME OF THE VERY SAME PEOPLE WHO COMPLAIN THE LOUDEST ABOUT THESE KINDS OF PARTIES!

Yes, all of our groups answer to us, and they have to show a body of work that justifies the celebratory fundraisers. But defining most any of our groups by the relatively rare moments of vodka-filled glass-clinking is like judging a school kid's academic performance by how much he enjoys his summer vacation. Take on the work, the approach, the failing grades, or whatever. But both the school kid and groups like HRC use these recharge periods to fuel their wells, be they mental or financial. That, in and of itself, is not invalid!

And honestly, if you're someone who's going to go in the national press and continually shun these groups with unfair "cocktail party and dinner" reductions, then I really don't wanna have to wait behind you at next year's national dinner while you pose for the cameras.

***UPDATE: A brief note on public relations [G-A-Y]

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Your thoughts

The problem being is that is all HRC seems to be. It is a money grab organization with little or nothing to show. We have an organization of told us 6 months ago that the president had a clear plan to repeal DADT. Then we find out that was a lie there was no plan. Then the president said in the SOTU that he wanted to see DADT repealed. Then HRC rolls out again telling us now the president has a plan ignore what we said 6 months ago. Fast forward a month or two later and we hear from Barney Frank of all people that the president doesn't really want DADT repealed. Either we have ineffective leadership who is being lied to by the president or worst we have leadership at HRC who is lying to us so we give them more money to have these black tie affairs. It is time to boycott HRC plain and simple.

Posted by: Tim W | Mar 23, 2010 9:36:10 AM

But Tim, that is exactly my point: Take on what you perceive as the lack of work. Loudly and from the rooftops. I have great friends who are (incredibly hardworking) staffers at HRC, and they would be the first to tell you to hold them accountable. I have done so both privately and publicly, and always will.

But it's simply untrue that they are throwing that many black tie affairs. It's just not true. They are throwing no more than any other advocacy group that I know of, and are throwing many less than some others who are virtually immune from this kind of criticism. And again, they use these affairs as fundraisers. And in many places, the local gay communities uses these function as the one time a year when they feel special. When they, the local and greatly unappreciated activists, can feel some respect. I get that.

Personally, I think HRC should dismantle the current party structure and throw low key events that could be cheaper and more opened up. I've suggested that rather than having a national dinner, have a national backyard BBQ, that would be laid back, fun, and open to anyone who could afford the cheap ticket. But they're gonna have *something*.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 9:48:26 AM

I think it is justified, the statements being made. People are fed up. I doubt anyone truly believes that HRC, that being who you are speaking of, is only throwing cocktail parties. The fact is, HRC, is not doing enough currently. We have been promised legislation that has not been acted on, at all. We have been used, and I think people are generally tired of Joe chucking comments at the camera, and then not acting. I am disgusted by their response to Lt. Choi. We are not going to go anywhere simply by supporting the Administration, even when we should not. There is not enough action going on, simply put. Face it, look into history, and you will see; Change occurs by action. Action being actively pursuing your desired goals at all costs. All costs, even when your pretty image may be distorted.

Posted by: Eric | Mar 23, 2010 9:51:09 AM

But again, Eric: I find everything you said to be justified. There are SO MANY valid points to be made. I'm just talking about this one point, which is find to be unfair. And in fact: I think that the reductionist "they only throw parties" lines threatens to weaken the response. Anyone who is political savvy knows that advocacy groups hold functions --progressive, conservative, what have you. When one goes into their arguments by focusing on this one point, I think some hear it as: "Oh, they hate this group from the get-go, so anything they say is colored by their own biases."

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 9:55:36 AM

I should also say that I do think there's one group in particular that *does* deserve focus based on perceived frivolity. But not because of the parties that they throw, in and of themselves -- rather because it really does kind of seem like use this event to finance the next, are having a harder time in this changing media world justifying the day-to-day work, and are failing to give much or any focus to some of the many, many heroes of this movement who are doing such powerful work in the area of visibility. There is a conversation to be had there, but one that's based on the work that doesn't always seem to justify the revelry, not the revelry itself.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 10:09:11 AM

Well, let's look at your point the other way. Other than the parties, what has the HRC accomplished? I am seriously thinking and I can't come up with anything other than parties.

Posted by: MirrorMan | Mar 23, 2010 11:06:05 AM

First of all, I hate the infighting, we need to work together, somehow,someway.

That being said, an organization that can't handle feedback or better yet, not address the feedback is showing its limitations. If they don't have one, the HRC should create a community board that advises and addresses these concerns. And yes, there are valid concerns.

The HRC does do great work, but we need to have more than one tool in this toolbox. The soft sell approach was a necessity during the Bush years, but now is the time when the road ahead is clear of obstacles and the gas pedal should be on the floor.

Sorry, I'm a no vote for the over-priced galas.... our community has it's problems with classism. The "A" listers, the "Have" v. "Have-nots" the illusions of elitist is not quite what I want to see sold either. There's plenty of ways to raise funds, but selling the movable middle that Gays are rich white folks isn't it.

Posted by: Bob Barnes | Mar 23, 2010 11:20:54 AM

Bob: Feedback, limitations, the need for multiple tools in the toolbox, putting gas in this vehicle: Yes, yes, yes! All things we need to be addressing.

But the galas: If you hate these kind of affairs, then that's valid on a personal level. I personally am on a night-to-night basis with such things. Sometimes I like to dress up and schmooze, sometimes I'd rather drive needles in my eyes. But these kind of events are not a gay thing. They are a political reality. They are a certain city reality (here in NYC, half the places require a certain dress code and wallet). They are what they are, but what they are is not exclusively gay/HRC. And I do think it's a little unfair to generalize them as rich and white, even if I understand the inclination. I know people in NJ who save up throughout the year to go to Garden State Equality's event (which is among the most over-the-top in crystal event on the calendar, btw) because it's their one night to step out and shine with their partners. Some people genuinely like this kind of thing.

As said above: I'd love to see all of the groups, not just HRC, rethink the structure. I'm serious about the "backyard BBQ." You could still have like a VIP tent or something, for those who want to pay and receive a little something more. But if there could be something more democratic and open that would raise funds in a less bank-busting way, I do think it'd do a lot of good.

I also do want to reinforce that in saying this, I am in no way apologizing or even answering for HRC in anyway. People who know me, both publicly and privately, know that is not something I am in the market to do. I'm speaking only to the notion of fair points that we use as a multi-whelled movement. And personally, I don't think that the "they only throw black tie parties" meme is as fair or productive as it could be. Clearly many disagree, and that is in and of itself a valid point, since it shows that this is a common perception of HRC and other groups. But for me, I'm finding this one point to be counterproductive.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 11:43:37 AM

I know most of you are back east where HRC is headquartered. Out here in the west, it is GLAAD throwing monthly or even weekly parties for itself that is obnoxious.

If HRC really wants to 'do something' have its teams put together an online action campaign like OFA ... better yet set up something community oriented like MOVE.On.

In a way I understand HRC not wanting to support what was a truly illegal activity.. e.g. Lt. Choi but thats fine cuz GET EQUAL did.

And today GET EQUAL is demonstrating in Cuccinelli's office in VA... and these are people from Fresno CA! So what is HRC doing DOING DOING???? Other than plan the next party.

Posted by: LOrion | Mar 23, 2010 1:41:01 PM

In the past couple of weeks, I've either been invited to or attended cocktail parties on behalf of the Gillibrand campaign, GLSEN, NGLJA, "In the Life," among others that I can't remember off the bat. it's really not any one group. Or if the "black tie party" thing *is* to become a descriptor, then it can't be fairly applied just to HRC.

LOrion you do hit on a point that is also an important takeaway for me: GetEQUAL is doing their thing, HRC is doing their thing, etc. I kind of feel in the middle of it all, seeing both applause and concerns here, there, and everywhere. That's a movement.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 1:50:30 PM

The HRC actions with Lt Dan Choi are unforgivable. I've long ago washed my hands of these Step-And-Fetch-it, Oreo-Cookie creeps who've done damned little but drink themselves into oblivion and speak whenever given permission.

Posted by: Kevin Andrews | Mar 23, 2010 2:34:41 PM

Jeremy, with all due respect, I wonder if we appear to be naive, uninformed, inexperienced? I'm no stranger to the charitable/political fundraising circuit. As a DC fixture I've even dined with the Salahis on a few occasions.

The outpour of complaints cannot be summed up as coincidental, this discontent has been growing for sometime and has been poorly addressed.

I really do appreciate your efforts to stick up for the HRC, but now it's their turn.

Posted by: Bob Barnes | Mar 23, 2010 2:40:51 PM

Wait a sec, Bob: I have made it clear on here that I am not sticking up for HRC. I've also supported all of the criticisms that people have raised, and encourage everyone to shout them from the rooftops. And I've even said that "Clearly many disagree [about parties], and that is in and of itself a valid point, since it shows that this is a common perception of HRC and other groups." Go back through the thread -- I have not stuck up for HRC or any organization's merits. That is for another post.

My point here is that it's, in my opinion, ineffective to keep reducing any organization on the basis of their fundraising galas (esp. if it comes from people who are at the damn events). And it's not "inexperience" that leads me to say this: It's years of experience being invited to a wide and varied slate of such affairs, for all kinds of groups, candidates, campaigns, product launches, conferences, magazines, etc.

That's my one point here: That the verbiage is counterproductive, and can even weaken someone's valid criticisms.

I do agree 100% that HRC has a bit of a PR problem in this area, and that they must address it. Again: That so many people take a stance differing from my own on even this one point speaks to their need as an organization to address some of the concerns.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 2:57:22 PM

I have to admit that before today, I had never looked at an HRC IRS 990 filing. We all probably should, because those filings are what effectively hold non-profits accountable to the public that supports them. And on the topic of galas, or what the 990 refers to as "special events", it very much appears as if for every dollar that HRC spends (invests) on a "special" event, they recover about three dollars in revenue (donations back to HRC). While spending 33% on "fundraising" for these galas might seem a bit high compared to other fundraising expenses, it certainly isn't exorbitant. And, compared to some, is a mere pittance.

Bottom line, those galas accounted for about 1.5 million in expenses for HRC in 2008, and about 4.5 million in revenue, for a net of about 3 million dollars. When we have a discussion of fiscal responsibility, which is effectively what any discussion of "Lavish Galas" is, we should take care to be fair and reasonable in our assessment. Spending a million and a half dollars to grease the whales isn't worth spending that much effort discussing.

And, it should be noted that HRC in 2008 provided about 2.5 million to the battle over Prop H8. While we were unsuccessful in that effort, I think that everyone agrees that money alone isn't going to win any of our battles for us.

Posted by: Dick Mills | Mar 23, 2010 3:06:53 PM

Thanks for doing that legwork, DM!

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 3:14:30 PM

You hit the nail on the head and that's all HRC has done is raised money and spent money. They have not done the real things that need to be done. They had thrown money at issues and given the president political cover. Where was Joe during the fight in Maine? Was he there on the ground fighting in the trenches? That's what we need not money to throw and see if it sticks.

Posted by: Tim W | Mar 23, 2010 3:55:08 PM

Tim: I think Dick's point is that the galas bring in funds which are used elsewhere, and therefore not wasteful (even if money is not the be all/end all). Correct me if I'm wrong, Dick, but that's how I read it.

And just for the sake of accuracy: Joe was in Maine. I was there with him. He did mostly media, because his day way realistically booked with those requests. But he was there at least for the final few days that I was in the state, and possibly before.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 23, 2010 4:05:41 PM

Here, DAN CHOI tells us why even the 40+ year old activists need to keep WORKING.

"“Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society,” Choi said. “I think there’s been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable. The movement seems to be centered around how to become an elite. There is a deep schism [in the gay-rights movement], everyone knows this. But this shouldn’t be about which group has better branding. There is a tremor right now in every gay and transgender youth that these groups are not grasping. I would say to them—you do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder in to elite society.”"

Posted by: LOrion | Mar 23, 2010 4:11:40 PM

AND FOR MORE OF GAY INC. Here this from the BLEND.


I really don't know how to react to this. To me it's a sign of what "activism" has come down to in the land of TEH GAY. Isn't it an interesting juxtaposition to see that HRC's Joe Solmonese has made Washington Life Magazine's 2010 Fashion Awards ("We salute 35 men and women who bring that je ne sais quoi to the ballrooms and boardrooms of Washington").

ELEGANT ACTIVIST: Joe Solmonese. The president of the Human Rights Campaign favors designers Ann Demeulemeester, Billy Reid, and Dolce and Gabbana.

Well, plenty of us here in flyover country have very little je ne sais quoi about fashion and more working to do as much activism on a shoestring and the kindness of those who support the work on the Blend through PayPal or ads. Taking a look in my closet, I don't see a label of note on my togs, I gather many of you don't either. The closest I get to haute couture as an advocacy journalist/commentator is watching Project Runway in my jammies. I can clean up nicely for a gala, but honest to god, I have better use for my disposable income. Guess HRC must write off Joe's togs; who knows.

Posted by: LOrion | Mar 23, 2010 4:33:20 PM

That is exactly what I was saying, Jeremy. HRC is the one of the best money raising organizations that we have. They provided 2.5 million to California's Prop H8 campaign, which was significant, but they weren't responsible for (in my opinion) wasting it with too little and too late in the way of rebuttals of the lying liar's lies.

But this discussion is about galas, and the fact that some like to belittle HRC because of them. HRC raises a significant portion of their donations at these galas, and whether or not that money actually makes a difference is somewhat beside the point. We can all agree (probably) that our campaigns have been less than resoundingly effective. And, HRC may have some culpability on that front. But that is a completely different discussion.

Posted by: Dick Mills | Mar 23, 2010 8:15:32 PM

The one last thing; the money that HRC raises, doesn't solve our problems, or win our battles. But without it, we wouldn't even be able to compete. Money (by itself) will never win our battles, but with out money, we will never win either.

Posted by: Dick Mills | Mar 23, 2010 8:19:28 PM

The popular culture has been lampooning "hoity-toity" charity balls, where the rich and famous hobnob out of the way of the commoners, supposedly for the benefit of the downtrodden who don't actually get invited, for many decades; the character of Bruce Wayne (introduced in 1939) is a "socialite" billionaire who is constantly seen at those things, though in his case it's just a cover for his secret life of getting down and dirty as Batman.

Posted by: Dan T. | Mar 23, 2010 8:53:08 PM

Couldn't post a comment. What, have I been banned from commenting here? Or is it the use of the F word? Let me know, so I can tailor a few choice words I have to respond to the only post you've ever made that has made me want to throw up my hands and let the rest of the so-called "community" be thrown to wolves.

Posted by: Sapphocrat | Mar 23, 2010 11:22:00 PM

Sappho: No banning. Nobody's ever been banned here except in like two very extreme circumstances.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 24, 2010 7:08:03 AM

Some thoughts from my friend Adam Bink (who has been deeply focused involved fundraising/field organizing/etc):

"All of these events happen while HRC uses the proceeds to give lots of money to groups like The Mautner Project (focusing on lesbian health), Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (focusing on LGBTQ youth of color), the Netroots Nation conference, and does hard work to advocate for many policies that improve people's lives. Not to mention that a lot of these events fund field organizers who are in the trenches at the moment on DADT repeal and other initiatives. Not to mention funds over $150,000 in contributions to No On 1/Protect Maine Equality. On and on and on. It's not like they're the only group to do this, either.

What is one of the best ways to raise money to fund all these good things? One useful tactic is to hold... wait for it again... dinners and cocktail parties. Shocker. Personally, I would rather see underfunded non-profits get a little more funding, and I'd rather see field organizers be able to do their work, and I'd rather see No On 1 win, so let's keep raising that money."

Posted by: G-A-Y | Mar 24, 2010 7:11:45 AM

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