The Human Rights Campaign announced this week that Joe Solmonese would step down in March as president after nearly seven years at the helm of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization.
Running HRC is a relatively thankless job: legislative victories can’t come fast enough to satisfy critics — and God help you if you throw a cocktail party for inside-the-Beltway “elitists.”
Solmonese will be most remembered for presiding over HRC during a period when we saw repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and passage of an expanded federal hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. But his tenure was also marked by controversy, when in 2007, a bruising fight over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act threatened to tear HRC apart. Solmonese — and many others in the movement — agonized over the question of whether to support an ENDA that was stripped of its gender identity provision. Ultimately, HRC punted and neither supported nor opposed the bill, which died after a painfully divisive debate in Congress. The lasting impact of that episode: any version of ENDA that omits gender identity/expression is dead in the water. Four years after that bruising debate, ENDA remains a dream — perhaps permanently.
The next HRC leader should work to further repair and strengthen relations with the transgender community, which is most impacted by employment discrimination. Many grassroots activists remain deeply suspicious of HRC, though some of their criticisms are unfair. The organization has been attacked for its spending, salaries, new headquarters building and coziness with the administration. But the truth is that our opponents on the right are far better funded than the so-called LGBT movement. The vast majority of LGBT people don’t donate to HRC — or any other rights group fighting on their behalf. HRC claims 1,000,000 members under Solmonese’s tenure, but that number is ludicrous and laughably inflated. If only there were a million people paying annual dues to a national LGBT rights group.
If we are ever to pass ENDA, repeal DOMA, protect the rights of bi-national same-sex couples and convince the Republican Party to cease its attacks on us, we will need to pay competitive salaries to our lobbyists and leaders. The HRC headquarters was expensive, but a smart, long-term investment. As for being cozy with the administration, I prefer the White House gates remain open to LGBT voices. Some of us too easily forget the Bush years, when even our gay journalists were thrown out of the White House. The Obama era has delivered on the promise of change to our community and while we still need grassroots activists pushing for more progress, so too we need lobbyists on the inside.
One problem that continues to hamper our visibility is that we lack a stable of slick and confident TV-ready commentators to take on the endless voices of bigotry on the right. Sure, Solmonese made a few appearances on “Hardball” during the “Don’t Ask” debate, but the next HRC president should be more aggressive in defending our community in public forums and on TV. The void created by that reluctance leads to the LGBT community being represented by gay actors, musicians and sex advice columnists — surely we can do better.
The next HRC president should also work to combat the impression of tone deafness. At a time of national recession when so many Americans, including LGBT people who are disproportionately impacted by job discrimination, are out of work, Solmonese was profiled by Washington Life magazine, which dubbed him the “elegant activist,” who favors designers Ann Demeulemeester, Billy Reid and Dolce and Gabbana. While actual activists like Dan Choi were being arrested at the White House, Solmonese was staging cheesy photo ops nearby with Kathy Griffin for her reality TV show. Enough with the star fuckery already. HRC shouldn’t be a reality TV platform or a fashion house.
Also as we look to HRC’s future, the next president must make it a priority to forge inroads with Republicans. As we’ve seen under House Speaker John Boehner, our legislative fights cannot advance as an occasional Democratic Party pet cause. The Democrats have proven again and again the fickleness of their support, nearly squandering majorities in both houses of Congress during Obama’s first two years in office. The Republicans are worse, but we haven’t really tried to win them over. Writing off Republicans all these years has stymied the movement and delayed our progress. The GOP reads the same polls we do — its future leaders understand that anti-LGBT prejudice doesn’t resonate with younger voters and it already turns off independents. So let’s get out of the DNC’s back pocket and engage with the rest of the political universe.
In all, Solmonese was a vast improvement over his predecessor, Cheryl Jacques. HRC under his leadership is stable, more respected in Washington and has had a place at the table during Obama’s term.
His departure enables HRC to chart a new course as we head into 2012, but Solmonese righted the ship and HRC is better poised to play a serious role in the national debate today than when he took over.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.