In the studio with Signorile were Rea Carey from National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Mara Keisling from National Center for Transgender Equality, Aubrey Sarvis from Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, blogger Pam Spaulding and former Clinton administration official Richard Socarides. Solmonese joined by phone from London, where he was stranded by the Icelandic volcano ash cloud.
No one on the panel asked Solmonese the question that many audience members were buzzing about: Why was he in London during this critical period for securing the final votes to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? Was the Senate Armed Services Committee holding a British retreat that we don’t know about?
There were plenty of barbs sent Solmonese’s way, including a pointed question from Get Equal’s Robin McGehee, who asked if Solmonese and HRC’s David Smith would resign if key LGBT legislative priorities are not achieved this year. Solmonese responded that his continued employment is up to the HRC board.
Asked by DC Agenda’s Chris Johnson if he regretted the regrettable “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rally last month featuring Kathy Griffin, Solmonese said that Griffin approached HRC with the idea and the organization felt it was better to be a part of it than not.
Another kerfuffle erupted when Sarvis said he was excluded from a key White House meeting related to “Don’t Ask” repeal. Several HRC staffers reportedly attended the meeting; it appears that Sarvis wasn’t invited because he had publicly criticized the administration’s handling of the issue. Americablog’s John Aravosis, who was in the audience, angrily denounced Sarvis’ exclusion from the meeting during the radio event.
You can’t fault HRC for having White House access, but excluding experts from key meetings smacks of either petty turf wars or appeasement and pandering to an administration looking to retaliate against its critics. HRC shouldn’t have played along and instead insisted on bringing Sarvis.
There were several questions related to how closely the LGBT movement’s many groups work together. Spaulding noted that she routinely receives multiple press releases on the same issue from a slew of organizations parroting the same message, something I can attest happens with regularity. The assembled leaders assured the audience that they do, in fact, work closely together. For a moment it seemed they would join hands and sing “Kumbaya.”
But they all missed the obvious point that the movement has too many organizations, leaders and egos chasing the same limited pool of donors. The LGBT movement is in desperate need of consolidation, something I’ve advocated for several years. Unfortunately, it’s an idea that is anathema to those in power.
As for Solmonese, he and his organization often sound out of touch with the average LGBT person. There is a palpable and growing anger with President Obama and the Democrats in Congress and HRC would be wise to recognize it and respond appropriately. Solmonese, for example, should have apologized for the Griffin rally — it was a sorry exercise in star-fuckery that had no place in the serious debate over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that has destroyed the careers of 13,000 brave American service members.
We have listened to the many promises made by Democrats since 2006, supported them with money and votes and waited patiently for Obama to tackle the economy, health care and other priorities before getting around to LGBT concerns. But time is running out. The Democrats will lose seats in both houses come November, giving them a handy excuse to avoid LGBT issues until after the 2012 elections.
There’s still time to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act this year, but both will require public support from Obama and his behind-the-scenes lobbying of reluctant moderate Democrats. Obama needs to be on the phone with Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and other uncommitted Democrats in the coming days and weeks, pressuring them to act now.
It’s true that the Obama administration has advanced LGBT equality via various rule changes and executive orders, including the recent letter sent to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services endorsing hospital visitation rights for LGBT couples. It’s also true that HRC doesn’t get the credit it deserves for pushing behind the scenes for those changes.
But with wide Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a supportive Democratic president, the bar was set much higher. If ENDA dies, as many are predicting, and “Don’t Ask” repeal is delayed by endless studies, there will be a reckoning in the movement in 2011. We haven’t heard a peep about repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, something Obama repeatedly and emphatically promised to do during his campaign. The Uniting American Families Act and other high-profile legislative priorities remain in limbo.
Meanwhile, too many of our so-called “activists” are too concerned with currying favor, preserving access and pursuing administration jobs to stand up to a president and a party that take LGBT support for granted. The LGBT movement is nearing a crossroads. The strategy of aligning closely with the Democratic Party must pay off in the next few months. Otherwise, new leadership and new strategies will need to emerge and prevail.