Chad In Charge

After a year of historic victories, HRC's Chad Griffin sets his sights on full equality

Interview by Justin Snow
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on July 25, 2013, 6:24am | Comments

Chad Griffin doesn't seem very tired, but it's hard to imagine how he couldn't be. It's been a whirlwind of a year for the 40-year-old, who, having served as president of the Human Rights Campaign since June 2012, has been at the helm of the nation's largest LGBT-rights organization during some of the movement's most monumental victories.

''Who needs sleep?'' Griffin laughs, the morning after returning to D.C. after three weeks on the road following the Supreme Court's landmark rulings striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.

Chad Griffin of HRC

Chad Griffin of HRC

(Photo by Todd Franson)

A political strategist by trade who got his start working in the White House communications office for President Bill Clinton, Griffin has been at the center of the marriage-equality battle for nearly five years. He co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights in 2008 to challenge California's ban on same-sex marriage and helped recruit the star legal duo — Ted Olson and David Boies — who took the case all the way to the Supreme Court while many LGBT groups were saying it was too soon.

''It was an incredible journey,'' Griffin says. ''As the Prop. 8 case – and at the same time the Windsor case – rose, the country changed each step as those cases progressed.''

Indeed, when the Proposition 8 challenge was filed, only three states permitted same-sex marriage, and dozens more had approved same-sex marriage bans at the ballot box. And as Griffin notes, ''The only Republican that anyone could name who supported gay marriage was former Vice President Dick Cheney.''

''We now have 13 states and the District of Columbia. Thirty percent of Americans now live in marriage states. And Republicans, not yet enough, but Republicans and undecided Democrats or Democrats on the wrong side have moved tremendously in those four years,'' Griffin says.

Following watershed victories at the Supreme Court that stopped just short of marriage equality nationwide, Griffin has set monumental goals for his organization, including achieving marriage equality in all 50 states in as much time as it took to restore same-sex couples' right to marry in California — five years.

And Griffin hasn't stopped with marriage equality. As the LGBT-rights movement enters its next chapter, Griffin has elevated his organization's focus on issues such as LGBT workplace protections and appears more determined than ever to take the fight for full equality to areas of the country that lack even the most basic protections.

Fresh off a tour of the South, where Griffin visited his home state of Arkansas, along with Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina, he has traveled more than 111,000 miles and visited 23 states in his year as HRC president. During an extensive interview with Metro Weekly at HRC's D.C. headquarters, Griffin outlined his strategy for victory, reflected on June's wins and looked to what's next for a movement that has seen public support swing in its favor at an unprecedented rate.

METRO WEEKLY: You were inside the Supreme Court when these decisions came down. What was that like?

CHAD GRIFFIN: Since the day we had our first procedural hearing, I've never not been in the courtroom, even for the most technical of issues being heard pre trial.

It was unlike any experience I've ever had in my life. I don't have the best long-term memory in the world, but I will never forget a single step of that day.

Seated in that courtroom, where silence is enforced, and being ushered in on that final day. From the time I woke up that morning and went and met our plaintiffs at their hotel, to being in the car on the way to the courthouse, to getting out of the car and the chaos that was erupting outside the courtroom — good chaos — but walking in that courtroom and putting your cell phone in the locker.

And going in that courtroom where I was seated next to the four plaintiffs and then clock strikes 10 and those curtains open and the justices rise out of nowhere to their chairs, I went back and forth between holding the edge of the bench to grabbing [Prop. 8 plaintiff] Kris [Perry], who was next to me, her hand.

And then as they read the decisions. As Justice Kennedy started reading that incredible and brilliant decision in the Windsor case, it starts to sink in: the power of this moment and the fact that Justice Kennedy was deciding that case in a way many thought unlikely, and going further than probably most thought he would ever go. Then there was the wait on the Prop. 8 case, which obviously was the final one read by Chief Justice John Roberts. And I hung on to every single word and sentence, because I feared that the next sentence could undermine the previous one.

So I did not have a moment of complete breath until the gavel went down and they stood up and walked out. That was the moment I realized it was actually final and Proposition 8 and DOMA were gone and no one was going to do anything to change that. We really were at the end of the march as it related to those two.

Again, when the gavel goes down, they all descend. You want to scream, you want to jump up and yell and hug, but again complete silence. We stood as we had all six prior days and walked out. It was not until we were all out in the foyer where we were able to be with David [Boies] that everyone hugged and had tears of joy in their eyes. And that's when it starts to really sink in. And I think we were all still in a tiny bit of a haze at that moment. It's just sinking in, we've just heard those two decisions read….

But it wasn't until the third step, outside – because they have that scaffolding outside that the first two steps you're underneath – and then it was the third step that you heard the roar heard round the world as the folks outside realized it was the plaintiffs and David. It was unlike anything any of us had experienced in our entire lives.

But what was also front of mind to me, and I had two sentences of celebration at the press event and then everything else that I said was focused on the 37 states that didn't feel the reach of justice by those decisions. And every single thing I've done since that day has been to focus the spotlight. The spotlight has been on two cases for four and a half years and I think our job is to immediately turn that spotlight on the 37 states that still don't have not only marriage equality, but – many of those states – even the most basic of protections, where you can still be fired for being LGBT, where it's illegal for an LGBT person to adopt a child. That is where our work is.

And I had said to our team repeatedly that we celebrate that day, but the very next day we roll up our sleeves and we get to work for all those folks who were only able — it was absolutely a joyous moment and hopeful moment and brought tears to the eyes of thousands who lived everywhere in between the coasts – to watch folks celebrate in the streets of California or New York with Edie [Windsor] or that weekend when marriages had begun, but their lives didn't change. Perhaps they're more hopeful because of those two decisions and it's very clear that there is a path to achieving full equality everywhere for everyone in all 50 states.

But that day was incredible. From the phone call from the president, which was right after our press event, where again he congratulated us, thanked me and our team for the courage we had to file and then I immediately said the same thing to him — ''While we're celebrating, Mr. President, we have to remember there's 37 states that still don't have equality.'' It was important to me then and it will remain important for us to remind everyone that we still have the rest of the country.

MW: Were you at all disappointed that the justices didn't address the broader questions of the Prop. 8 case?

GRIFFIN: It's hard to be disappointed when the two symbols of discrimination in this country were erased by the highest court in the land. Would I have preferred a sweeping decision that gave marriage equality to all 50 states, as Judge Walker's decision would have? Absolutely. Is it clear because of those two cases someday we're getting that ruling? Absolutely.

You know, having Justice Kennedy write the opinion in the DOMA case that he wrote, it lays out the legal roadmap for our future. It took our case four and a half years from the day we announced it till it was fully decided. So there's going to be some number of years before that next case gets to the United States Supreme Court, whenever they grant cert. What we have to ensure is in those years we move the ball forward as aggressively as we can in all parts of this country. Anywhere we can advance equality, whether it's marriage equality, whether it's statewide employment protections, whether it's anti-bullying laws, whether it's changing some of the adoption laws in the South, we've got to move the ball forward to improve the lives of folks everywhere we can – and perhaps more aggressively in certain parts of the country than we ever have before, including the places where I just came from, where I grew up.

MW: When you exited the Supreme Court you set a goal for marriage equality in all 50 states in five years. Some people have said that's unrealistic.

GRIFFIN: They said the same when I filed the Prop. 8 case.

Chad Griffin of HRC

Chad Griffin of HRC

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: They did. But what's your game plan?

GRIFFIN: I think it's important that we set the goal post. And the Prop. 8 case really set the goal post in many ways. For four and a half years we had the Prop. 8 case and the Windsor case.

It is certainly an aggressive goal, but I think it's important to set aggressive goals in this movement because there are real-life people, particularly young people, who suffer every single day that there's delay.

I think it is an aggressive goal, but it's a reasonable goal. It's one that will take every single organization in the movement to achieve. We will have victories in state court, we will have victories at the ballot box, we'll have victories in state legislatures, and ultimately we'll have another victory at the United States Supreme Court. No one can predict which case – if it's a current case, if it's a future case, if it's multiple cases.

By the way, Maggie Gallagher outdid me and said three years [until a Supreme Court decision granting nationwide marriage equality]. So I actually hope Maggie is right with her aggressive goal as opposed to mine. Who knows, I hope she too will evolve and join our side.

MW: Even Justice Scalia in his dissents has been very accurate in his predictions so far.

GRIFFIN: He was accurate last time, and he is accurate this time. In fact, he wrote the next decision. So it's sort of done. When that next case does finally reach the court, Justice Scalia, all he has to do is pull out the file and hand it to the majority.

MW: To go back to the South, it seems that is the final frontier, so to speak. There just seems to be so much work that needs to be done, so much basic educating. Is that daunting in a way?

GRIFFIN: It is, but it's the daunting challenges we need to tackle now. That's what we need. If the challenges before us aren't daunting then we're not doing enough. It's the place I want us to be and I want to spend my time.

But these places are also hopeful. Folks in these places are hungry for support. There are so many things beyond marriage – or before marriage – in those states.

We just did this bipartisan poll in Arkansas, Virginia and Mississippi, and there was actually a tremendous amount of hopeful data points in that polling.

For instance, in Mississippi the poll release shows six in 10 people say that they know someone who is LGBT. Now the truth is 10 in 10 do, whether they know it or not, but more people are closeted in places like that because there aren't protections. Someone fears putting their picture with their 20-year partner on their desk at work because they could be fired, so people remain closeted in places like that. We've got to move forward with protections.

There is so much basic work and organizing that is needed, and it's not just the South by the way, it's also parts of the Midwest — the states that a lot of folks fly over from New York to L.A. The fact of the matter is most people live in between. People there are eager to be a part of something that, for the most part, they have just watched happen in other places.

I do think we'll have Southern states that step up and lead. There are certain Southern states in the civil rights movement that were way behind the curve and I think there's a desire, certainly among the leadership, in some of those states, to be ahead of the curve. So what we've got to do is organize like we've never organized before in these places and work harder and form partnerships that have never been formed in order to move the needle on equality everywhere for everyone, including in the South.

MW: You mentioned workplace protections. We recently saw the Employment Non-Discrimination Act take a very big step forward after a committee hearing that lasted about 15 minutes.

GRIFFIN: Shocked us all. Everyone was prepared for a few hours.

MW: What was your reaction to that vote? And how do you get people excited about ENDA in the same way they're excited about marriage equality?

GRIFFIN: Marriage provides joy and happiness to a loving couple that are getting married. ENDA provides the most basic protections to keep someone from getting fired, and I think the biggest hurdle is most people think the law is already on the books, including in all these Southern places. The vast majority of people in Mississippi believe it's already illegal. When told it's not, the vast majority believe it should be, including Republicans.

This, to me, is the biggest no-brainer of all. It was absolutely a hopeful sign coming out of that committee and the votes we got, this could be one of the few issues in this town these days that's bipartisan. Coming out of that committee with all the Democrats, three Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah [voting to send ENDA to the full Senate]…. And then only one other Republican being there, and that was Lamar Alexander, who spent most of his time praising his colleague Mark Kirk for his leadership on this issue and then talking about a couple of amendments he was interested in, but didn't even push them forward in committee. And then the only ''no'' votes we had were the proxies that Alexander delivered. No one showed up on their own to deliver them.

It's a real sign of progress. We still have a long way to go. We still have to get 60 votes in the Senate and then we have to go, obviously, to the House. But coming out of committee with that kind of bipartisan support is incredible. And so is the lack of vehement opposition. You didn't hear a single hateful thing.

MW: Do you have any forecasts for the Senate and, perhaps more importantly, the House of Representatives?

GRIFFIN: It is a top priority for me and this organization. And I am optimistic.

I was optimistic we would get out of committee – I didn't know it would be in the fully bipartisan way that it was. We knew we would have a Republican or two. It's going to take a lot of work, but I'm optimistic that we can get to 60 in the Senate.

We still need more Republicans and we still need more Democrats who are undecided on this issue. And then we'll turn the corner to the hard work that is the House. But, again, I really think there are a lot of things folks have thought impossible over the last four years, and the impossible has gone from impossible to reality. And I really am optimistic that we can get ENDA through the Senate. And I'm optimistic, although it will be challenging, that we can get there in the House.

It's going to take a lot of work from all of us across the movement to get this done, but particularly coming out of that committee in the way we did, I'm optimistic.

MW: It seems going forward Republican support is going to become more and more crucial. What's your take?

GRIFFIN: There are two things. There are Republicans, and then there's the Republican Party — the actual bureaucratic entity that is the party. For Republicans, ENDA is noncontroversial. They support it at the same level Democrats do. I think increasingly the elected leadership is catching up with Republicans. That was evidenced in the committee vote and I hope will be evidenced in what comes out of the Senate.

At the end of the day this is the most conservative of American principals: One should be judged based on the job that you do, not based on who you are, who you love, how you were born.

I often talk about it, and did in the South, and it's language I grew up with, the Golden Rule. There is nothing more central to the Golden Rule than ENDA. Treat others as you wish to be treated. If you look over the last four and a half years at how Republicans have evolved on the issue of marriage, the issue of employment nondiscrimination should be the easiest no-brainer of all for members of both parties.

And I do think for Democrats or Republicans who oppose something that is supported by 80 percent of the American public, something that is the most basic and fundamental principal of fairness, I think there will be prices to pay for Democrats and Republicans who aren't on the right side of this issue. I think that's becoming increasingly evident. And I hope that as we move forward in these votes more and more members of Congress will evolve to vocally and overtly support ENDA.

MW: And on the marriage issue, more than 220 Republican state lawmakers have voted for same-sex marriage. It seems like it's just starting to percolate to the top.

GRIFFIN: There have been more Democrats than Republicans, but in every one of these states we have won with Republicans and Democrats coming together to get something done. In every one of them. And I think that will increasingly be what happens in these states and in Congress.

MW: Now it seems you can't talk about ENDA unless you talk about the executive order for federal contractors. Why don't you think President Obama has kept his campaign promise to sign that?

GRIFFIN: Here's all I can say to that: I don't know why. There is no reason. I've never been given a reason. I don't think anyone has been given a reason, and there is absolutely no legitimate reason that the president can't sign the executive order providing these protections to LGBT people while Congress moves. It is not the final solution, but it is a giant step in terms of covering Americans who need the most basic protections in this country.

And one of the best examples is ExxonMobil, which takes billions and billions of taxpayer dollars, they turn around and discriminate against LGBT people. With the stroke of a pen the president could prevent Exxon from refusing to hire the LGBT person in the first place, or from firing them because they are LGBT.

This president has been an incredible leader. He has moved us forward at a pace like no other president in our history. He has most recently, in terms of the implementation of DOMA, moved at lightning pace to ensure as many Americans as possible receive the most protections that they can. But there is no reason to not sign this executive order. I and this organization have pushed privately and publicly and we will continue to do so. The pressure should be kept on the president and the White House. It's a campaign promise that he made and there's no good reason to not deliver on it.

MW: Some have speculated that he may not even be aware of the controversy surrounding this. When Michelle Obama was heckled about this at a fundraiser, some people wondered if she even knew what she was being heckled about. Do you think more blame should be placed on the president himself or his senior staff?

GRIFFIN: Look, at the end of the day the buck stops with the president. He is a brilliant man. I find it hard to believe he doesn't fully understand this issue and the historical precedence for it. In the civil rights movement this is exactly what happened before there was full and complete nationalized protections – there was an executive order. I believe the White House staff and the president fully understand this issue. I believe that it's prepared, that it's even ready. All he needs to do is to sign it and I hope he does. Our job is to keep the pressure on.

MW: What other issues are you focused on?

GRIFFIN: There's the political work and then there's the foundation work.

Especially, as we talk about going into these places in the South, … you look at a particular state that has zero protections. You look at where you can advance the ball. The Corporate Equality Index, one of the greatest programs in this building, headquartered in our foundation, [shows who] provides those protections and benefits when states, municipalities and our federal government have not.

And particularly today when we have truly two Americas, for those who live in the other America where there are no protections and there are no benefits, we have companies that have been forward thinking and have been leading on this issue for a very long time, including the most conservative of American companies. We can advance and get more companies to provide such benefits, particularly those that are located across the regions in these 37 places where's there no equality.

The Religion and Faith Program is another one. You can't talk about this issue in the South without talking about it through a religious lens. We need more fair-minded faith leaders who stand up and are part of this. Our Religion and Faith Program is one of the programs I'm incredibly proud of.

I grew up in a faith tradition in a Southern Baptist church going to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. And that's what most people grow up with and in fact still attend church regularly in the South, including LGBT people. It's a myth that sometimes gets created outside of the South that LGBT people aren't people of faith, and that's not true. The vast majority of them are people of faith. The majority of them do go to church on a regular basis and there are an increasing number of fair-minded faith leaders who are standing up to embrace equality, but we need more.

And at the same time, we need to call out those who are hypocrites and those who, quite intentionally in my view, inflict harm upon young people by spewing hate from a pulpit. There's no law that fixes that. And that's why the work of the faith and religion program is important and needs to grow and needs to expand.

Also, our Welcoming Schools program. People talk about the progress and young people are coming out. There are two studies, I think one has the average age at 13 and one has it at 14. I cannot fathom. It's the healthiest thing in the world that these young people are able to come out and embrace who they are in their adolescence, but what it also does is brings about more negative attention. Folks today who are in their late 20s, 30s or 40s, when we were 12, 13, 14, 15, we were closeted. Many people were able to hide. Today, as these young people are out and open, it in many ways increases the amount of bullying that is thrust upon them. And so more needs to be done on that and our Welcoming Schools program is a great program.

All the solutions are not political. The culture shift, the changing hearts and minds, the impacting schools and folks at the work place, is work of the foundation and work that I want to elevate.

MW: It seems there are some in the movement who have criticized the focus on marriage. Do you hear those criticisms, and how do you respond?

GRIFFIN: I think they're absolutely right. The media has focused like a laser on the issue of marriage. And this organization has in no way shifted focus away – in fact if anything we've increased, particularly in this last year, the focus on things like ENDA and our foundation and elevating all that work I just talked about.

It is true that there has been a media spotlight on the issue of marriage. But in many ways I think that the rising boat for marriage lifts everything else up, because it has enabled us to tell our stories.

So I'm appreciative that the media is focusing on anything positive that's LGBT. Rewind five years ago and all you heard were the politics of these issues and 30 out of 30 ballot measures failing. That's what you saw on TV. Over the last five years, because of marriage, you've been able to see on TV stories of loving couples and their families getting married or attempting to have the right to get married.

So I think the media attention, generally positive on LGBT issues, is a good thing. It is true that that same spotlight hasn't been as bright on all the other work that's really important. But again that's why I just spent the time I did in these places that are far, far, far from having marriage. It is true that there has been the increased spotlight on marriage, but I think as a whole it benefits the community across the board.

MW: If we ever get to that point where all the laws are passed, what happens to an organization like HRC?

GRIFFIN: I don't think the right question is if, the question is when. I can tell you we are going to fight like hell until we get to that day and we're not stopping until we get to that day.

Now, once you're there you have to look back at the lessons of the civil rights movement. Once all of the laws were in place, it was still a very long time before municipalities in states actually caught up to what the laws were. And it didn't mean, for instance, that African-Americans were treated equally where they live. I was in the courtroom as that horrific and tragic decision was read as it relates to the Voting Rights Act. The struggle will not be over when we achieve legal equality. We will still have a long ways to go and, again, looking at the parallel of the civil rights movement, once technically legal equality had been achieved, there was still struggle after struggle after struggle.

MW: HRC was one of more than 30 LGBT organizations to sign on to a letter calling for justice for Trayvon Martin. Obviously there are some in the LGBT community who have a different take on that case and who support George Zimmerman and some have argued LGBT organizations have no place getting involved in such a case. It's similar to arguments I've heard about the Bradley Manning case. Aside from sexual-orientation and gender-identity issues, do you think the LGBT movement has a political culture?

GRIFFIN: I don't know about a political culture. I do think our movement has done a great job over the last few years of working in coalition and collaboration with organizations that are not seen as traditional LGBT organizations. We had fantastic partnerships this last election. In fact, perhaps a key ingredient to victory was partnerships with, for instance, Ben Jealous and the NAACP, particularly in Maryland.

So there are a lot of examples where our movement has done a great job of partnering and finding places where you have crossover, where you have agreement on particular issues, where you can come together, work together, whether it's bipartisan with Republicans and Democrats or using that same model as it relates to other organizations in the country that can agree on this. And I think that statement speaks for itself and it was urging the Justice Department to do its due diligence and adequately look at that case and ensure justice to the extent it can be and should be delivered and I wouldn't add anything other than what was in the statement.

MW: To go back, what were you doing and what was your reaction when you found out the stay on marriages in California had been lifted much earlier than anyone had quite anticipated?

GRIFFIN: [Laughs.] We were on our way to San Francisco to see a play produced by Bruce Cohen, I Am Harvey Milk. Then there started to be this rumor that was spreading about that the Ninth Circuit was going to be doing something as it relates to our case. No one knew what.

We had been ready for our plaintiffs to get married since we thought the Supreme Court was going to deny cert so, literally, we had mapped out to the grandest of detail to make sure our plaintiffs could be the first couples to get married so the narrative we've had for the last four and a half years could continue into the public dialogue. And so when we heard that, we put everything into place for those weddings to be able to happen.

The moment I actually found out that the Ninth Circuit's decision was what it was, in terms of dissolving the stay, I had just landed in San Francisco and was in a car with Dustin Lance Black and an HRC staffer. And I get the call and had it on speakerphone and Lance and I just yelped and hugged one another and then we raced — we had the car literally race to City Hall, where, as the rumor spread, our plaintiffs were already nearby. Unfortunately there wasn't enough time to gather family, so, sadly, only one of Kris and Sandy [Stier]'s four kids was close enough. Paul [Katami] and Jeff [Zarrillo] unfortunately weren't able to have any of their family in L.A. We were able to call [California Attorney General] Kamala Harris and have her come over and do the wedding in San Francisco and have [Los Angeles Mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa on his last day in office do it in L.A.

For an hour or so we knew there was a chance of it, but there had been so many technical things in this case so we had no idea what it was going to be.

We jumped out of the car and met the plaintiffs at the top of the steps and together we go through security and a few people start noticing it's the plaintiffs. And word starts to spread in San Francisco City Hall. And then the applause and the roar goes from three people to 10 people to 20 people, and then you can feel it going throughout the levels of San Francisco City Hall. Then we get to the door of the clerk's office.

There were only about eight of us there at first. Every second that went by it grew to the point people were standing on top of the desk. And then there was the added drama when we had team members with Paul and Jeff in L.A. at the clerk's office and that clerk wouldn't issue the marriage license initially, saying they hadn't received the ultimate order. So I'm standing next to Kamala Harris and she gets on the phone and she orders the clerk to start issuing marriage licenses. It was this cool moment because it was the first time you heard verbally the order of what was about to happen.

I have to say perhaps the most powerful moment for me was that Sunday after the Pride Parade. [Dustin Lance Black, AFER Executive Director Adam Umhoefer, Cleve Jones] and me went into City Hall and were just looking around. It was the first time things were really starting to sink in. We just stood there and watched strangers, people I never met and most I'll never meet, get married.

There was this incredible lesbian couple I met who had been together for a dozen years and they had their child with them and they were getting married by a federal judge. Cleve ended up being their witness and I was their wedding photographer. And we all had tears in our eyes.

We were watching people we had never met before enjoy what is the most basic of rights. That was probably the first time for me the magnitude of what happened really sunk in.

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