HRC President Chad Griffin apologizes to trans community at Southern Comfort Conference

Chad Griffin took the stage Friday afternoon at the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, acknowledged as president of the Human Rights Campaign that he was the “elephant in the room” and then apologized on behalf of HRC for the organization’s betrayal to trans people seven years ago.

“So I am here today, at Southern Comfort, to deliver a message. I deliver it on behalf of HRC, and I say it here in the hopes that it will eventually be heard by everyone who is willing to hear it,” he said. “HRC has done wrong by the transgender community in the past, and I am here to formally apologize.”

“Amen, it’s about time,” one person could be heard saying over applause.

Griffin spoke to about a crowd of 300 during a lunchtime keynote address at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

“I am sorry for the times when we stood apart when we should have been standing together. Even more than that, I am sorry for the times you have been underrepresented or unrepresented by this organization,” Griffin added. “What happens to trans people is absolutely central to the LGBT struggle. And as the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, HRC has a responsibility to do that struggle justice, or else we are failing at our fundamental mission.

Griffin acknowledged that it was his responsibility to help close the large divide between HRC and the trans community that started in 2007. That year, former HRC President Joe Solmonese gave a keynote address at Southern Comfort and promised to support only an inclusive federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act to include gender identity.

However, shortly after that speech, former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, the only openly gay lawmaker in Congress at the time, said he had to remove the transgender aspect of the bill because it would not pass in Congress if  the “T” was included. Many in the trans community said they were betrayed by HRC for supporting Frank and the non-inclusive ENDA and a deep divide has existed between many trans people and HRC for seven years.

In 2008, Solmonese returned to Atlanta to apologize to a small group of trans people for “misspeaking” at Southern Comfort the year before.

The bill’s intent is to prohibit people being fired because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In Georgia, for example, it is not illegal to fire someone for being LGBT; a federal bill would protect employees in the state as well as across the U.S.

ENDA has yet to be passed. This year, many LGBT groups pulled support of the current version of ENDA because of its religious exemptions after a controversial ruling by the U.S Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case.

Marisa Sandlin of Florida, who has been attending Southern Comfort for 13 years and was in the audience in 2007 when Solmonese promised to support only an inclusive ENDA , said she was “cautiously optimistic” after hearing Griffin’s speech.

“I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a start. I think Chad’s smart enough to know there is a divide. It started in 2007 when [Joe] Solmonese and [former U.S. Rep.] Barney Frank sold us up the river,” she said. “There were a lot hurt feelings.

“I think now he has to deliver. It’s just that simple,” she added. “Everyone wants to believe. They [HRC] do a lot of good work. Right now everyone’s pumped up, but he has to deliver.”