|This June 11, 2012 photo shows Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, on the steps of the Arkansas state capitol in Little Rock, Ark. The Human Rights Campaign says Griffin is the first Southerner to head the Washington-based group. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)|
Gay rights leader lets Ark. roots take the reins
ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (AP) — Chad Griffin could have spent his first official day heading the country’s largest and most influential gay rights group anywhere: in Washington, where he cut his teeth working for President Bill Clinton, or California, where he spearheaded a legal challenge to the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
Instead, he came back to the Arkansas community where he spent his Sundays in a Baptist church and heard kids call him gay slurs in school, to show that he stands with young gay people in small towns across the country, not just on the coasts.
‘‘One’s state’s borders should not determine one’s rights,’’ said Griffin, the new president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Arkansas helped shape Griffin into the leader he is today: a man uniquely qualified to fight a civil rights battle that will be difficult, even after President Barack Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage this year. As the first Southerner to head the Washington-based group, Griffin has a knack for translating the fight for gay rights into language familiar to people in the Bible Belt. He sometimes borrows phrases from the pulpit — brothers and sisters, God’s children — to advocate equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
‘‘This is nothing more than the golden rule,’’ Griffin told community leaders during his visit last month. ‘‘Treat others as you wish to be treated.’’
It’s a lesson that echoed throughout his childhood, which was steeped in Arkansas’ cultural history of discrimination against African-Americans fighting for the same rights afforded to whites. In 1957, the state’s governor and hundreds of protesters famously tried to stop nine black students — the Little Rock Nine — from entering Central High School.
‘‘If you remember those famous photos from the ‘60s and the civil rights movement, you didn’t only see African-Americans marching down the street,’’ Griffin said. ‘‘You saw them marching arm in arm with their white brothers and sisters.’’
So, too, does Griffin want the fight for gay rights to extend beyond the usual suspects.
Griffin has shown he’s up to that challenge by ‘‘building bridges to communities that we never expected to support us ...’’ said screenwriter and gay rights activist Dustin Lance Black, who spent part of his childhood in Texas. ‘‘And now (he's) going after people from our neck of the woods.’’
Griffin was born in Hope, as were Clinton and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and grew up about 45 miles northeast in Arkadelphia. As a teen, he worked part-time at a local Walmart and did well in his classes, even as some of his peers called him nasty gay slurs.
‘‘I wasn’t even out to myself at the time, so I guess those people knew before I did,’’ Griffin said.
Looking back, Griffin said he didn’t know that he knew a gay person when he was growing up in Arkansas. Not that he lacked for role models, finding them in his family, community and in the state Capitol.
Griffin said he was inspired that ‘‘someone like President Clinton could come from a small town and rise and do ultimately what he did.’’ So, Griffin went the political route, first as a page in Clinton’s state Capitol, later as part of his presidential campaign and ultimately following him to the White House as part of the communications team.
There among Washington’s movers and shakers, Griffin found his next challenge when actor-director Rob Reiner convinced him to move to California and run a charitable foundation.
Griffin, now 38, came out in his late 20s. And when he flew home to surprise his mom for her retirement ceremony as a school principal, he told her what she already knew: He’s gay.
His mother looked at him and asked, ‘‘Did you think I would love you any less?’’
Several years later, Griffin became the brains behind the historic legal challenge to California’s same-sex marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, which voters approved in 2008. Without ever going to law school, he assembled an unlikely legal team — high-profile lawyers who represented both George Bush and Al Gore in the disputed 2000 presidential election — and found two same-sex couples willing to share their stories.
That case took another step toward the U.S. Supreme Court last month and David Blankenhorn, the chief witness who testified in favor of the ban, recently came out in favor of gay and lesbian unions.
Meanwhile, among advertisements for bingo games and lemonade pie in an Arkadelphia restaurant, Griffin began his next chapter as a gay rights leader, listening intently as community leaders shared small signs of progress. He received a warm welcome home: Dozens showed up for breakfast, and about 200 people turned out for his chat in Little Rock with Arkansas’ lone openly gay lawmaker, state Rep. Kathy Webb.Continued...