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JUNE 17, 2005
HRC's numbers game
If HRC plays fast and loose with its membership
numbers, how are we supposed to trust
anything else the organization tells us?
By MUBARAK DAHIR
HERE IS A T-SHIRT
hanging in my closet that
dates back to the 2000
march on Washington for
gay and lesbian rights.
My then-lover and I
bought the matching T-
shirts because of the funny, double-enten-
dre statements on them.
"I can't even walk straight," mine
says. His read, "I can't even think
Mostly, we bought them both for fun,
because they were clever. But naturally
we were aware of the political suggestion
behind them. It was, after all, a political
march on the nation's capital.
We bought the souvenir T-shirts at the
Human Rights Campaign store, just off
Neither of us intended our nonchalant
purchases to be construed as any kind of
political endorsement of HRC, or membership in the organization.
But after discovering the rather crafty
way that the group that bills itself as the
nation's largest gay and lesbian rights
organization counts its membership, I
can't help but wonder if I am an unwitting member of an organization I never
intended to join.
And I can't help but wonder just how
many other gay men and lesbians around
the country are, too.
Even worse than feeling deceived
about whether I am counted as a member
of HRC against my will, I can't help but
think: If HRC fudges its membership
numbers simply to get political clout,
how else are they misrepresenting the
organization that claims to be the most
powerful group in the country fighting
for gay and lesbian rights?
And if they would misrepresent even
this most basic, elementary issue, why
should I trust them on other, more
important things? Indeed, how can I
HRC CLAIMS TO HAVE A MEMBERSHIP of 650,000 people.
That number easily makes it the
largest national gay and lesbian rights
group in the country.
In fact, that number dwarfs the reported membership of other name-brand gay
The National Gay & Lesbian Task
Force, also located in Washington D.C,
reports a membership of approximately
Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays,
better known as PFLAG, weighs in at just
about 44,500 members.
The National Center for Lesbian
Rights registers it has about 9,000
All of this makes HRC's number look
pretty impressive. Until you know how
the group counts its "members."
As detailed in a recent Washington
Blade news article, HRC's bylaws define
members as anyone who has contributed
$1 or more, whether as a gift or payment
for goods and services delivered by HRC."
The group's spokesperson, Steven
Fisher, told the Blade that once someone
gives or pays $1 or more to HRC and provides a name and address, they're counted as a member for life.
He defended this unusual way of
counting members by saying, "The GLBT
movement is unique. When we come out
of the closet, we commit for life."
Apparently, we commit in death, too.
HRC does not proactively clean out its
membership rolls. The agency pays for a
service that tracks when an address is no
longer valid, but otherwise those who
know the member must inform HRC for a
name to be removed from the rolls.
GIVEN THIS ODD ACCOUNTING SYSTEM,
it's no wonder that HRC's membership
rolls have skyrocketed since 1990.
That year, the group listed a membership of 20,000 people. Just five years later,
reported membership had increased fivefold, to 100,000.
In the past decade, HRC's official membership numbers increased 650 percent,
to today's whopping 650,000.
It's easy to understand why HRC, or
any political rights organization, would
want to have the highest possible membership it could record.
There is not only safety in numbers,
but power in them, too. When you are lob
bying Congress, the more people you can
claim to represent, the more likely members of Congress will be to pay attention,
and ultimately vote in your favor.
But it's disgraceful that HRC would
engage in such a misleading representation of who they are and how many gay
and lesbian Americans support it.
It appears that HRC does know how
many real members it has, but they're
Prospective members are told on
HRC's Web site and in membership
materials that dues are $35 and must be
"Active members" of HRC are those
who pay dues annually. Someone who
buys a product at an HRC store would not
be counted as an "active member."
HRC spokesperson Fisher acknowledged
to the Blade that the organization's number
of "active members" is substantially less
than its number of total "members."
But he refused to tell what that number was.
"We do know the current number of
'active members,'" Fisher told the Blade.
"But we don't publish it because our enemies would love to know."
WeU, guess what, Mr. Fisher. I'm not
an enemy of gay rights, and I'm pretty
curious to know, myself.
THE TRUTH IS, IT MATTERS LESS TO ME,
and to most people, I suspect, what the
actual HRC membership number is than
it does that the organization has deliberately obfuscated the truth behind the
Most of us are not as politically naive
as the HRC would believe.
We understand the tremendous difficulty of lobbying Congress on gay rights,
particularly in an age of neo-conser-
vatism in this country
And, in the grand scheme of things,
the size of an organization shouldn't be
what determines support for the group
from its constituents.
But HRC is not only a group that is
apparently full of size queens, it's a
group that lies about its size, too. And I
hate being lied to.
Now, when I look at that T-shirt in my
closet, rather than thinking about the
political impact of the message on the
shirt, I feel a little taken.
And I can't help but wonder: What's
HRC really trying to sell us these days?
Mubarak Dahir is
[ii editor of the
Express Gay News
and can be reached at
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