Max mentioned this morning that Arkansas native Chad Griffin is in town. In 1992, at age 19, Griffin became the youngest person to hold a staff position in the White House. Recently he was named president of the
Los Angeles Washington-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LBGT civil rights organization in America.
In 2010 Griffin astounded everyone by convincing Theodore Olson, who represented George W. Bush, and David Boies, who represented Al Gore, in Bush v. Gore, to form a legal team and federally challenge the constitutionally of California’s Proposition 8 (legislation that overturned an earlier California Supreme Court ruling giving same-sex couples the right to marry). It was the first time that same-sex marriage rights had been challenged under the federal justice system. Olson and Boies won the case in Federal District Court, in the U.S. Court of Appeals and in a second Court of Appeals. They’re prepared to fight in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Someone suggested that Ted Olson might be on our side of the issue, I didn’t believe it. In fact, I was quite remiss that I didn’t have anything in common with Ted Olson. And I probably still don’t except for this issue…I found out that Ted Olson is a long-time supporter of marriage equality, not despite being a conservative, but frankly because he’s a conservative,” Griffin said, in a lunch talk at the Clinton School that was moderated by Arkansas’s first publicly gay state legislator, Rep. Kathy Webb.
Griffin mentioned that bipartisan support is the only way to accomplish equality. There were a few questions about how HRC will engage Republicans and how Griffin reconciles allegiances with those who may support marriage equality but otherwise have disparate political platforms. “This issue is so life-impacting for young people…that it’s certainly number one for me. So my view is, when there are Republicans that will stand up for equality, I want to support those people…they have a seat at the table that most of us don’t have. And if anyone’s going to start changing those minds…when those closed door meeting happen…we need people in that room,” Griffin said.
He’s optimistic that people of all political persuasions will support equality sooner rather than later because, “We’ve reached a turning point where…you need to be on the side of equality if you want to advance your political career…Politicians that don’t catch up will forever be remembered with a legacy of bigotry and discrimination…We have governors of this state and all over the country that forever have their place in history books because of discrimination.”
Griffin is in the middle of a five state tour (California, Utah, Arkansas, Nebraska and Maryland) to release statistics HRC gathered from 10,000 high school students across the country, who answered a 97-question survey about their relationships with family and peers, and with school, government and religious leaders. The survey found that 37 percent of LGBT students say they’re happy (36 percent in Arkansas), as opposed to 67 percent of straight students. LGBT students are over twice as likely to experiment with drugs. Seventy-three percent of LGBT students say they’re more honest online, 47 percent say they “don’t fit in” (60 percent in Arkansas), over half say they are verbally harassed at school (65 percent in Arkansas), 17 percent have been physically assaulted at school (25 percent in Arkansas), and 92 percent say they hear primarily negative messages about being LGBT. These students are resilient, though. Seventy-five percent believe their peers are okay with their LGBT identity; that number drops to 66 percent in Arkansas. Seventy-seven percent believe that things will change for the better, but 72 percent of Arkansas students say they’ll need to move to another town or state to be accepted.
In 2011 Arkansas passed an anti-bullying bill that includes Facebook and electronic forums and specifically mentions persecution related to gender identity and sexual orientation. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 68 to 18 in the House. It forces schools to provide anti-bullying training and to document and investigate all credible reports of bullying. Arkansas is one of eleven states to have such a bill, and its sponsor, Sen. David Johnson, was in the audience today.
Both of Griffin’s local appearances, the earlier press conference and the Clinton School talk, were charged with the emotion that any civil rights discourse carries, alongside the expectant pride of a homecoming. Griffin’s family was present, including his Southern Baptist mother who, when Griffin came out in his late 20’s, responded with the question, “Did you think I would love you less?”
During the press conference, Sen. Joyce Elliot broke down, recalling her days as a high school principal. One gay student was “absolutely drummed out of school,” she said. “He missed a free public education because he was bullied…and because adults didn’t stand up for him.” She encouraged another student to be honest with his parents. That student was kicked out of his home. Johnson mentioned that the dramatic events (such as Matthew Shepherd and Tyler Clementi) make headlines, but the daily toll often gets overlooked. “School bullying results in a loss of ambition and opportunity,” he said. Romney’s prep school bullying wasn’t mentioned, but its undercurrent snaked throughout the room.
At the Clinton School Q&A, a few questions were preceded by a tearful anecdotes – a reminder that despite professional objectivity, identity and discrimination are personal issues first, policy issues second. A woman spoke about her 17-year-old son, who has attempted suicide three times, and who is currently in a two-year wilderness program trying to learn to cope. He wrote her a 10-page letter about how difficult it is to be gay in Arkansas and how hurtful peers and family members have been. An elderly woman from Arkadelphia mentioned a gay man she knew years ago, a beloved philanthropist and later, a Washington Post editor, and how an Arkansas Baptist church balked at holding his funeral. A 19-year-old minister’s daughter, who isn’t out to her family, said, “I want to do more, I want to rise above the statistics. How do I help?”
Griffin talked about the LGBT civil rights battles won and lost in Arkansas. The anti-bullying legislation is on the books. Legislation that stripped unmarried couples of adoption rights is off the books thanks to the courts. In 2010, Clint McCance, formerly of the Midland School Board, was forced to resign following gay-targeted hate-speech on his Facebook page. But there are still no housing and employment protections for LGBT Arkansans and of course, no marriage rights. And the statistics in the HRC Youth Survey are fairly grim.