Thursday, July 31, 2008

HRC President Solmonese Speaks in San Diego

Attempts Damage Control on Transgender Rights Issues


copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — America’s largest national organization dealing with Queer rights issues — came to San Diego for the Pride weekend and stayed long enough to be the featured speaker at a reception at the LGBT Community Center July 24 sponsored by a steering committee formed to organize an HRC chapter in San Diego. The Center’s announcement of the event (which misstated Solmonese’s title with HRC as “executive director” instead of “president”) said Solmonese was coming to San Diego “to help energize the community around our historic marriage equality battle,” but he spent most of his brief (under 10 minutes) speech attempting to do damage control on HRC’s strained relations with the Transgender community.

The controversy began last October as the House of Representatives began considering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The bill was originally designed to amend the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect Americans from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Shortly before the bill was scheduled for its first test at the House Committee on Education and Labor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and openly Gay Congressmember Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) removed the part of the bill protecting Transgender people, claiming they had the votes to pass a version that barred discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity. HRC endorsed the compromise legislation, but virtually every other national Queer rights organization opposed it and joined a coalition to demand an all-inclusive ENDA.

At the Center, Solmonese defended HRC’s position as the sort of compromise virtually all civil-rights advocates have had to make during the years-long process by which bills like the Civil Rights Act and ENDA ultimately get passed. “We had never taken a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ever in the history of the House of Representatives,” Solmonese said. “The first vote did not start the way that we wanted to, [but] it did two things that were very important. It gave us a very clear road map in terms of where we go to build on that. These are the sorts of things that take a number of years to get done. I worked in Washington on the Family and Medical Leave Act. We voted on that bill eight times over eight years, and each time we voted on a different bill. Each time we voted on it, more was added to it.”

Solmonese said the House is currently considering two versions of ENDA, one with Transgender protections and one without. He said HRC is working to build support for an inclusive version and also to cut back the so-called “religious exemption” in the current bills. He boasted that, two weeks earlier, “we had the first-ever hearings before a House subcommittee on issues impacting the Transgender community,” and said this was a start to the kind of education that needs to be done so Congressmembers will become more educated on anti-Transgender discrimination and willing to support a law to ban it.

Saying that “we’ve got to move 48 members of the House from supporting one bill to supporting the bill that we want,” Solmonese introduced Alzie Robinson as “our associate director of diversity … who is going to be out across the country, working with us and making sure that work gets done in district after district all around the country” to build an awareness of the need for inclusive Queer-rights legislation. Though Solmonese didn’t introduce Robinson as Transgender, in a later conversation with a local Transgender activist angry at HRC’s position on ENDA, Robinson referred to Transgender people as “we.”

The clash over ENDA and HRC’s apparent willingness to put Transgender rights on hold overshadowed the other issues Solmonese came to talk about — including Proposition 8, the initiative to reverse the California Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry; the Presidential election and such other long-time national Queer issues as hate-crimes legislation and the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forbidding openly Queer people from serving in the U.S. military. Solmonese praised San Diego Congressmember Susan Davis for taking a lead role in the recent Congressional hearings on “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the first ones since the policy was passed in 1993 — and introduced Todd Gloria, a member of Davis’s staff and candidate for San Diego City Council in District 3. (His opponent, Stephen Whitburn, did not attend the reception.)

Solmonese also boasted that HRC had scored a major victory in amending President Bush’s AIDS bill to lift the ban on HIV positive people entering the U.S. This ban, pushed by the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, passed in 1990 and is the reason the U.S. hasn’t hosted an international AIDS conference since the one in San Francisco in 1990. “As a result of the good work of Senators John Kerry and Joe Biden, we were able to get a provision into the [AIDS] bill that said that will no longer be the case, and the President is committed to signing that,” Solmonese said. “That will be law, and that is a very big deal for our community.”

According to Solmonese, the Queer community’s agenda from now until the November election “could not be clearer.” One of the priorities, he said, is making sure Barack Obama wins the Presidential election against John McCain. “I have had many conversations with Obama about his vision for this country, and in every conversation he has made clear to me that it includes us,” Solmonese said. “He has thought deeply and long-time about issues impacting our community, he has been there for us as a Senator, and he will be [as President].”

By contrast, Solmonese added, “Senator McCain voted against the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill. He voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [when it came up for a vote in the Senate several years ago — the current version has yet to be considered by the Senate]. He voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment [the radical-Right effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to prevent states from allowing same-sex marriages] on the ground that that’s an issue best left to the states, but in the same breath he then turned around and endorsed the ban in his home state of Arizona and made three television commercials in support of the ban. He thinks ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ works just fine. So for our community, the circumstances and the consequences [of this year’s Presidential election] couldn’t be clearer.”

Not surprisingly, Solmonese’s other political priority this year is “winning the fight here in California in November and defeating this discriminatory marriage ban. The Human Rights Campaign has to date contributed $750,000 to this fight. We have had anywhere from six to 10 staff members and people on the ground at any given time. We had our entire communications department here on Marriage Day [June 15, the date the California Supreme Court’s ruling took effect and the first Lesbian and Gay couples married] to help out and make sure that day went well, and I’m sure you would agree that that date went extremely well, and it was wonderfully covered.”

Nonetheless, the continuing antagonism between HRC and the Transgender community over ENDA has got in the way of the group’s ability to support the No on 8 campaign. On July 27 the Associated Press reported that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had withdrawn as keynote speaker for an HRC-sponsored fundraiser against Proposition 8 in San Francisco. He dropped out after Transgender activists threatened to picket the event in protest against HRC’s willingness to accept and support a non-inclusive ENDA. Villaraigosa withdrew after the San Francisco Labor Council voted to support the anti-HRC picket because in order to speak at the event, he would have had to cross a picket line — a potentially fatal transgression for a candidate counting on labor support in his widely expected campaign for governor of California.