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 returned 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 recent visit. “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.
But Griffin’s message isn’t widely accepted in Arkansas, where in 2004 under Huckabee, about three-quarters of voters backed an amendment to the state’s constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
“That can only be changed with another constitutional amendment,” Gov. Mike Beebe told a group of high school students recently. “I don’t see it happening in the foreseeable future.”
Although Beebe and other top Arkansas Democrats oppose same-sex marriage, Griffin said he doesn’t write anyone off.
“I think so, too, will Mike Huckabee support full equality for LGBT people soon,” he said.
After all, the state’s Supreme Court last year rejected a law that effectively banned gay and lesbian couples from adopting or fostering children.
Someday, Griffin said, he’d like to marry and have a family of his own. He is seeing a man from Massachusetts, but is quick to point out that he’s not fighting for gay rights just for himself.
“My motivation really is the young people,” Griffin said.
He met with some of them in Little Rock, including a 19-year-old college student, who is the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. She started questioning her sexuality several years ago, and when her parents found out, she was sent to a camp to “pray the gay away.”
When she came back, she lied and told them she was straight.
The student, who spoke on condition of anonymity because her parents don’t know she is gay, said she has come out to some of her friends, but doesn’t want to lose her parents.
She said Griffin inspired her to do more for gay rights, and her voice shook as she asked Griffin how she could get her foot in the door.
“Kick that door down,” Griffin said.