Chad Griffin, middle the new head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nations… (Bret Hartman/For The Washington…)
Just a few months ago, Chad Griffin conferred with British Prime Minister David Cameron over plates of bison Wellington during a state dinner at the White House in Cameron’s honor. How, Griffin wanted to know, did the leader persuade his fellow conservatives to back same-sex marriage? A few seats away, at the head table, was Griffin’s boyfriend, Jerome Fallon, and a few seats from him was President Obama, who had not yet announced his support of gay marriage.
“I didn’t eat a bite of food on my plate,” recalled Griffin, who can sound like a smarter version of Kenneth, the earnest page with the soft Southern drawl on TV’s “30 Rock.” “I wasn’t going to look down or have food in my mouth.”
On Monday evening, Griffin turned the tables, playing host with Fallon to some of the hardest-to-book high-recognition names on the planet. Over here was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; there was Sir Elton John and Sharon Stone, drawn to the District for the International AIDS Conference.
Yes, gay rights leaders such as Griffin have friends in the White House. They have enjoyed victories in federal courts and in statehouses. They have gay sitcom characters making their case. They have strong poll numbers. They have money.
But they lack one credential: a win at the ballot box.
This is now Chad Griffin’s problem.
As the new head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, Griffin has been tasked with stopping the streak of losses in statewide tests of same-sex marriage. This fall, the 39-year-old Arkansas native will be faced with ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state that could overturn marriage rights for gays. He can count on mounds of money, with the HRC’s donors contributing about $40 million each year. But with it come almost as many opinions about how the contributions should be spent.
A few decades ago, awareness and empowerment were a unifying goal for the gay community. AIDS created new bonds as gay men and lesbians fought disease, hostility, ignorance and the institutional torpor in response to the plague. Slowly, the movement has matured, expanded the conversation to consider schoolyard bullying, teenage suicide and the challenges of starting a family. Still, unlike other civil rights groups, which are united by skin color or ethnicity or faith, the gay community remains difficult to steer.
“I have always gotten the most criticism from our own community,” said Dustin Lance Black, a Griffin friend who won an Oscar for his “Milk” screenplay.
The HRC has earned sneers for being the domain of “tuxedo gays,” lured to promlike galas with Lady Gaga, Pink, the “Modern Family” actors. Also invited are corporations, which earn plaudits for workplace inclusiveness even as they are dunned for donations and auction items.
“I have been dismayed and disgusted by them for a long time,” said Cleve Jones, who worked for gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. “Working-class, minority, transgender individuals all felt completely abandoned and ignored and really disrespected by this organization.”
In Jones’s view, Griffin can and will change all that, but it’s not obvious how. Black churches and even local branches of the NAACP have recently campaigned against same-sex marriage. Yet here, at the helm of the largest gay rights organization, is another white man. “Well, if there’s one thing about myself I can’t change, it would be that,” Griffin said.
‘Closeted even to myself’
Self-awareness came late for Griffin, who dated women on and off into his late 20s. “I was closeted even to myself,” he explained.
Griffin described his childhood in Hope — the birthplace of Bill Clinton, his former boss — as infused with a sense of isolation and confusion. “I didn’t know that I knew a gay person,” he recalled. “I have a wonderful family, and I’m very lucky. But I knew there were certain tables you didn’t want to sit at at the lunchroom.” He volunteered the epithets he was called. “I would just sort of isolate it and pretend that it didn’t happen. I would keep it in a box locked away.”
Betty Hightower is Griffin’s mother, a honey-voiced middle-school principal, now retired. She suspected her eldest son was gay. Eleven years ago, after he told friends in D.C. and Los Angeles, Griffin asked to speak to his mother, at her home in Arkansas. When he closed the door behind him, she was making her way to bed, and his eavesdropping sister made the floorboards creak in the hallway.
This is how he often let her know about his life, not discussing a crucial decision until it was settled in his mind. “He was the adventurous type,” his mother said, “and, goodness, he was so determined.”