Denise Bauer is excited to be a first-time table captain for North Carolina's Human Rights Campaign gala, held Saturday in Charlotte. Her duties include selling dinner tickets — which cost between $96 and $225 — to 12 people who will sit at her table.
Bauer didn't know this when she started donating to HRC, the largest LGBT rights organization in the country, but the money she and others spend on their gala ticket doesn't necessarily stay in North Carolina. Nor do regular donations made to North Carolina's HRC chapter throughout the year. Instead, everything goes to national headquarters, in Washington, D.C. From there, the nonprofit decides which state-level campaigns and politicians to back.
"I can't say I had the foresight enough to think that through," said Bauer.
While HRC is not obligated to fund local LGBT organizations, some say its high visibility — it counts more than 1.5 million members nationally — and prominence should be used to also promote local, grassroots causes. This has presented an oft-unspoken moral dilemma within the LGBT community.
"I don't think the HRC gala actually impacts any of the local organizations, other than providing them an opportunity to come to a dinner and possibly listen to a speaker and learn something," said Shane Windmeyer, who first brought the North Carolina HRC Gala to Charlotte in 2005, when he was on the HRC's national board of governors. He also co-founded Campus Pride, a national sponsor of the local HRC gala that supports university-level LGBT causes.
In 2009, Windmeyer wrote a controversial opinion piece for Q-Notes that questioned the significance of the gala to Charlotte's LGBT community.
"If anything, HRC and the dinner have helped Charlotte realize that we can throw a great party and raise a lot of money," Windmeyer wrote. "But was the $700,000 raised by the HRC Carolinas dinners a good investment to get us any closer to achieving LGBT equality?"
The piece was accepted by some, rejected by others. Feelings were hurt, Windmeyer said. Teresa Davis, president of the gay-friendly Charlotte Business Guild, agrees. After the piece published, she noticed people were afraid to criticize HRC because of its large national presence.
"Those who supported the article and agreed with Shane's claims quickly learned that it's best to keep such opinions silent," she said.
HRC does not officially disclose how much money the 25 galas held across the country raise. North Carolina's is usually the second most-popular, behind Washington, D.C. But member contributions collected at the galas and throughout 2012 totaled $17,886,878 and comprised about 50 percent of the nonprofit's revenue. Those funds go toward its education and mobilization programs, which instruct members on current LGBT issues and how to lobby for them, and provides resources for same-sex couples to arrange healthcare visitation authorizations, last will and testaments, and co-parenting agreements.
HRC also helps fund political campaigns. The organization spent $55,370 supporting Democratic candidates in the 2011-12 election cycle, per the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in politics. Democratic Congressman Ron Barber from Arizona topped the list with $15,000, President Obama came in third with $12,305, and first openly lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin came in fourth with $11,493. It spent $28,934 against Republicans.
Despite its national focus, some high-profile local issues attract its attention. Last year, HRC helped fund the Coalition to Protect All NC Families, which tried to stop the passage of the constitutional amendment known as Amendment One. It ultimately passed and now limits the types of unions recognized by North Carolina. HRC committed almost $500,000 to the campaign through the political action committee HRC North Carolina Families.
HRC "does really amazing work on the national level and also put a lot in on the state," said Connie Vetter, a local attorney and co-chair of the HRC gala committee.
Day-to-day organizations have some local support in the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund. Founded in 2003, it's part of the Foundation for the Carolinas and is not affiliated with HRC. Its board of advisers decide which local LGBT organizations receive grants — donated by private citizens — each year.
In 2012, the fund gave its top donation, $21,500, to Time Out Youth. The Lesbian & Gay Community Center got $13,500. In total, it gave $110,000.
"The people who want to see wide national change regarding the laws really ... find themselves attracted more to HRC," said Jenni Gaisbauer, chairwoman of the fund and senior vice president of development for Levine Museum of the New South. "I have friends give at the national level for HRC, but they're also giving through the fund and through the various gay organizations that are on the ground serving the community."