Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, jumped into the debate triggered this week by gay Army Lt. Dan Choi over whether LGBT leaders and organizations are doing enough to advance LGBT equality, saying there should be a place for different tactics and strategies, including civil disobedience.
In response to questions from DC Agenda, Solmonese disputed Choi’s assertion that a deep “schism” exists in the LGBT movement over tactics and strategy.
Here are Solmonese’s responses to our questions:
DC Agenda: Dan Choi told Newsweek that groups like HRC “do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder to elite society.” He also said there’s a “deep schism” in the gay movement over strategy and tactics. What’s HRC’s response to this?
Joe Solmonese: Any healthy and diverse social movement will have a diversity of voices and opinions. Individuals and groups will take different approaches based on their ideology, life experience and other sincerely and deeply held beliefs about the political process. This is not indicative of a schism, but rather a sign of vibrant engagement.
Differences over tactics are nothing new; they have been a part of the LGBT rights movement since its inception. While there are some differences over strategy and tactics, there is a wide and deep consensus about movement priorities — LGBT non-discrimination laws (ENDA, DADT repeal, education, housing, credit, etc…), hate crimes protections and relationship recognition (marriage, DOMA repeal, domestic partnership benefits, adoption). Again, some in the community dissent from one or more of these goals, but these objectives enjoy significant support across the LGBT community.
Quick facts on our work:
• Our recent efforts across the country, with particular emphasis on 103 priority congressional districts, have resulted in over 190,000 phone calls and e-mails to members of Congress.
• 2,500 veterans recently said in a survey they’re willing to take action to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
• Our members submitted over 1,300 letters to editors in papers in priority media markets.
• Earlier this month, HRC sent 275 of our members to lobby on the Hill in support of ENDA, DADT and other key legislation.
• Beyond the Beltway, our members conducted over 250 in-district lobby visits.
• In 41 cities, we held events that highlighted veterans who are opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Over the next several months, we will conduct at least 20 more of these events.
• In May, we will send an even larger number of veterans to the Hill to lobby for repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.
DC Agenda: What’s HRC’s view on how, or whether, non-violent civil disobedience action — as Dan Choi and Robin McGehee of the new national group GetEqual.org are now calling for — fits into the overall efforts to advance LGBT rights that HRC is working for?
Solmonese: The beauty of our movement is that we have a dedicated community that is constantly searching for new and innovative ways to effect change in Washington and at home. Whether it be the actions last week or meeting with a senator in a district office, these are ways that our community continues to advocate for LGBT equality. Activism by Dan Choi and others has one common intent in mind that we also share: to advance equality in the fastest way possible. As we said last week, this is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play.
DC Agenda: Members of GetEqual.org, as you know, were arrested in the Washington and San Francisco offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a protest over what they say is Pelosi and Congress’s failure to hold a vote this year on ENDA. HRC has not included ENDA on its list of LGBT-related bills it expects Congress to vote on this year. What is HRC’s understanding of why ENDA hasn’t been scheduled for a mark up in the House and Senate and may not be voted on in the Senate this year?
Solmonese: The Human Rights Campaign and the entire LGBT community have worked hard over the last two years to build support in Congress to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). In recent weeks, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the lead sponsor of ENDA, has publicly stated on a number of occasions that he believes that the House should move ENDA in the coming weeks and that we can pass an inclusive bill. We agree. We also agree with Speaker Pelosi that ensuring we will win that vote and protect the bill from harmful amendments is a critical factor in timing of floor action.
DC Agenda: Dan Choi and others have suggested that mainstream LGBT groups like HRC are too accommodating to the White House and congressional Democratic leaders on issues like ENDA and DADT. What is HRC’s current count of U.S. senators on an up or down vote on ENDA right now? Can you release a list of which of the 17 Democratic senators who are not ENDA co-sponsors will vote for or against ENDA?
Solmonese: There has been understandable frustration in the community at the pace of progress at advancing some of the pieces of key legislation that are important to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. We continue to press the president and Congress to live up to the promises they made to advance real, substantive equality for LGBT Americans. It is critical that everyone in the LGBT community and our allies engage in this effort.
All senators (or House members) who are not co-sponsors of ENDA, DADT or other LGBT bills are pursued as key votes needed in order to pass pro-equality legislation.
DC Agenda: If you choose not to release this list, please explain why you feel it should not be released at this time. Many activists feel they could better direct their lobbying or ‘direct action’ if they know which way their senators stand on ENDA. As far as I can see, HRC’s lengthy and detailed web site page on ENDA makes no mention at all of which lawmakers are for or against ENDA.
Solmonese: Members’ positions on ENDA are determined by their co-sponsorship of the legislation, a clear public statement or their vote. Ensuring we will win that vote and protect the bill from harmful amendments is a critical factor for determining floor action and timing. There are 17 Democratic senators and 39 Republican senators who are not cosponsors of ENDA. We must win 14 of these votes to get to 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster. Unless a member of Congress makes a clear public statement, we do not assume we have their vote.
Direct action toward a member of Congress should be done after a careful analysis of that member’s position on the issue and, if they are not publicly supportive, after determining why are they not publicly supportive. This involves significantly more research than checking a web site. HRC works every day with individual activists and organizations in those states and districts that require the most intensive grassroots work. Every LGBT person who cares about these issues should lobby their House member and two senators. Even cosponsors must be asked to do more to bring these bills to successful votes.
DC Agenda: Robin McGehee of GetEqual.org says her group wants a vote on ENDA, even if there aren’t enough votes to pass it. What is HRC’s view on this? What are the pros and cons of having a vote on an important bill if you know in advance there aren’t enough votes to pass it?
Solmonese: An unsuccessful vote can be very harmful to an issue and prevent successful action for many years. In some cases, having the vote can be a useful marker. Particularly in regard to ENDA, bringing the bill to the Senate floor without very careful consideration could result in some incredibly harmful amendments, some related to ENDA and other anti-LGBT-related amendments. Harmful congressional votes can spill over into fights over state legislation and into state and federal court cases. In addition, it is unusual for congressional leaders to schedule votes that are expected to fail.