Occupy the Human Rights Campaign

On February 4, the Human Rights Campaign gave its 2012 Corporate Equality award to Goldman Sachs, the infamous investment bank typically associated with greed and inequality. While Goldman has an admirable diversity recruiting program for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people and other groups traditionally excluded from Wall Street, hiring practices are just one of many fields where a corporation may have a social impact. Looking at its broader impact on LGBT rights and other forms of inequality, it is clear that Goldman Sachs is blatantly undeserving of the Corporate Equality award. Furthermore, HRC’s decision to give Goldman this award is a telling indictment of an organization increasingly at odds with queer activists across the country.

The HRC was founded in 1980 “to provide financial support on behalf of the gay and lesbian community to candidates... who pledge their support of gay civil rights legislation.” However, Goldman Sachs has supported conservative politicians who oppose LGBT equality. For example, Goldman’s employees have been the largest financial supporters of Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, despite his opposition to marriage equality and his ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, refused to defend the federal government’s ban on same sex marriage, and made protection of LGBT rights abroad a part of U.S. foreign policy. By promoting Romney instead of Obama, Goldman employees are using their wealth to fight against LGBT equality.

Goldman Sachs cannot be a meaningful political ally for LGBT equality because its position to profit from conservative economic policies will almost always place them at odds with candidates promoting LGBT equality. Clearly, corporate influence is too strong at the HRC when it is giving special recognition to a corporation that works against its original mission. In addition to Goldman, other major corporate sponsors of HRC include Bank of America, Citi, Chase, and Morgan Stanley.

More deeply, Goldman Sachs is unworthy of the Corporate Equality award because it has produced and perpetuated economic, gender, and racial inequality through irresponsible financial practices. But why should economic, gender, racial, and economic inequality matter at all to the Human Rights Campaign? The simplest reason is that there are LGBT people of all races, genders, and classes, and the HRC cannot expect support from people whom it liberates in some ways but oppresses in others.

Furthermore, HRC claims to promote LGBT rights as a part of human rights more generally. Its mission statement declares that HRC strives to “realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.” Branding LGBT equality as a human right is a strategic tool for building consensus and legitimacy around LGBT rights. However, this framework cannot be used if the HRC fails to respect the broader human rights agenda—which is exactly what honoring Goldman Sachs has accomplished. Clearly, this organization must implement many changes before it can deserve the name Human Rights Campaign.

Honoring Goldman Sachs means honoring a bank whose financial abuses have disproportionately hurt low-income and non-white Americans. Goldman played a pivotal role in the creation of the financial crisis, employing credit default swaps to create toxic debts in Greece and toxic mortgages in the USA while betting against the odds of repayment in order to derive profit from the ensuing collapse. Goldman directly hurt the working class through wrongful home foreclosures, kicking people out of their homes without even conducting the required review of case files. Furthermore, the foreclosure crisis exacerbated racial inequalities, with black and Latino families almost three times more likely to lose their homes than white families.

Honoring Goldman Sachs also means honoring a workplace environment where racial and gender inequality run rampant. Christina Chen-Oster, a former vice-president who spent eight years at Goldman, filed a class action discrimination lawsuit against Goldman in 2010 with two other female employees. She reported pervasive workplace sexism and racism at Goldman, including an instance when she had to use physical force to stop unwanted sexual advances from a coworker while walking home from a company-funded visit to a strip club.

Sadly, the decision to honor Goldman Sachs is the norm rather than the exception for HRC. Astonishingly, the HRC also gave the 2011 Workplace Equality award to Goldman Sachs. By failing to look outside Wall Street, HRC has demonstrated that it is uninterested in workplace equality outside of the outrageously wealthy financial firms that help fund their organization.

Many working class Americans fear disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity at work knowing they could fall into poverty if they are fired. But HRC continues to focus single-mindedly on LGBT equality on Wall Street, whose employees are rich and protected by state and city laws against anti-LGBT discrimination. However, in most parts of America it is still perfectly legal to fire someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. It would be much more meaningful for HRC to reward pioneers standing up for LGBT equality where it is not legally protected rather than to reward Goldman Sachs for meeting expectations.

By focusing on this incredibly privileged group of Wall Street employees, HRC is ignoring the needs of normal LGBT people. Awards like the Corporate Equality award enable Goldman Sachs to create a false image of social responsibility while continuing to perpetuate inequality in all of its forms. However, LGBT activists with a social conscience have responded quickly, organizing protests in NYC and San Francisco as well as a petition on change.org. The whole debacle has ultimately served to implicate HRC for supporting Wall Street abuses and has solidified HRC as an organization that has lost any memory of what the fight for equality is all about.

Samuel J. Bakkila ’11-’12 is a special concentrator in Social Inequality and Public Health in Eliot House. He is the former Co-Chair of Queer Students and Allies.

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