April 23, 2010 at 9:17 am EDT | by Kevin Naff
HRC, Solmonese in the hot seat

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese (DC Agenda file photo by Michael Key)

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese took it on the chin Thursday at a panel discussion among LGBT movement leaders moderated by Sirius XM radio’s Michelangelo Signorile in Washington.

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.

Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

  • I heard the show. I think Joe handled all these points very well.

    And, when was it decided that blogs and reporters set the opinion of the gay community? I don’t think he has anything to apologize for RE: Kathy Griffin. It’s not the only thing HRC is doing for DADT. Go to HRC Backstory, they have activities in several states. Been doing it for several months.

    • Reporters and bloggers don’t set the opinion of the gay community, they report it and reflect it. Unlike closed institutions like HRC, blogs and reporters actually carry on a regular dialogue with the gay community.

      Nice try being an apologist for HRC, “MJ”, but the defense of HRC by its apologists is old and ineffective. Nobody’s buying it anymore. HRC has burned through millions of LGBT dollars with close to zero legislative results. And when the clock is quickly running out on our last window to pass LGBT rights legislation for who knows how long, HRC’s President is off gallivanting in London, in a poor excuse for an HRC-funded vacation, preaching to the gay rights choir.

      Its absurd. And as long as Solmonese remains, HRC’s active donor list will continue to shrink.

    • Sounds like MJ works at HRC. If you do I’d like to share something: stop asking me for money on the street while Joe makes $300,000 a year.

      Of course this KG thing isn’t all HRC does on DADT, it’s just the only DADT thing Joe cares to show up to. The best thing HRC is doing for DADT is Jarrod Chlapowski, but he should get credit for his hard work, not Joe.

  • “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?”

    Simple answer. He was at an event in London held last week by Stonewall, the sort of equivilent in the UK of HRC in America. With a volcano erupting in Iceland and volcanic ash in the sky, all airspace was completely closed down and flights grounded. Though airlines were able to operate again on Wednesday, there are a lot of stranded passengers making up a massive backlog.

    Joe Solmonese was literally stranded in London, along with thousands of others. Sorry to spoil any “conpriracy theories” …

    • No conspiracy theory necessary. Solmonese was preaching to the choir, in a thinly-veiled excuse for an HRC-funded vacation to London.

      During a very critical time in LGBT rights history — a time when the HRC should be in high gear — its President is wasting time doing something that will have ZERO effect on the passage of any LGBT rights legislation.

  • And since when does the HRC determine the agenda of the gay community? Fully inclusive ENDA wouldn’t be on the table if HRC hadn’t been embarrassed into it…

  • Solmonese is the gay Marie Antoinette, primping and playing dress-up while this brief time with a Democratic majority is squandered. He expects us to be satisfied with crumbs when we want marriage and equality. HRC should be fighting for us. Instead Solmonese sucks up to Rahm Emanuel and demands nothing.

    He and HRC are entirely ineffective and completely out of touch. I cannot think of one thing they have accomplished satisfactorily in years.

  • HRC has become a sad, pathetic joke. The leadership is far more interested in the GAy-list party circuit and defending their turf than the real lives of gay and lesbian Americans.

    Don’t get me wrong, many good and well meaning people work at HRC. But it’s long past time for Joe (and a few others) to be shown the door. And the board of directors needs to get out of their corporate offices and spend some time in the streets.

  • Excellent article Kevin. You said a lot of the things I’ve been thinking ever since I heard the town hall.

    One thing that really disturbed me about Solmonese’s participation in the town hall was that whenever a question was asked of him, his instinctual position started with defending the White House. He spoke as if he were the designated spokesperson for the President at the meeting. It was quite bizarre.

    My favorite part of your article was:

    “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.”


    On the national level, all the LGBT organizations are split into specific rights instead of one organization committed to one comprehensive LGBT Civil Rights bill. For gun rights activists, there isn’t a handgun coalition, a hunting rifle coalition, a gun show coalition…its just one, strong, united group: the NRA. It gets even worse when you drop down to the state and local level. Everyone wants to be the next Harvey Milk and nobody wants to join the other person’s group.

    Joe Solmonese needs to be fired by the HRC board, or else HRC needs to be sidelined completely. The White House knows they are pushovers and as long as HRC is friendly with the White House, the White House can point to HRC’s positive comments and say the LGBT community is satisfied with the “progress” they’re making.

    Everybody needs to drop their egos and their turf wars. A coalition of all the major LGBT rights groups needs to be organized. Some will engage in lobbying, others direct action, some will choose to participate in some actions, others won’t, but all must work together, communicate and coordinate. Right now its a disorganized clusterf*ck and our opponents know it.

  • Using a results-oriented-analysis, how does HRC fair? My analysis is that while they have been successful obtaining half-measure and/or almost unsubstantial measures (i.e. partial benefits for federal employees which do not include access to health insurance, but do include benefits they already had), they have achieved nothing on the big three (ENDA, DADT, DOMA).

    I feel they have allowed Congress and Obama to control the agenda entirely.

  • This is exactly why we cannot give the democrats a blank check every election no matter how they vote.
    You don’t decide on the basis of whether or not they have a “D” or “R” by their name but on how each person actually votes regarding gay/lesbian related issues. So that means no money at the national level for the democrats or republicans.
    And I’ve had it with Obama and his apologists such as Solmonese (wait for 8 years before judging Obama). Obama’s DOJ compared us to incest and pedophilia in their DOMA defense and has repeatedily defended DADT in court, most recently against the Log Cabin Republicans.
    Don’t judge Obama by his words but by his actions and it becomes quite clear he is most certainly NOT our fierce advocate or even a real ally.

  • HRC is supposed to be a gay advocacy group that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the gay community. Under Joe Solmonese it has become an advocate for the Obama administration that lobbies on their behalf to the gay community. So the next time they send YOU a letter asking for a donation, you might just want to forward it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

  • Too many groups, too few dollars and too difficult to keep track of what is really going on (and where the money is really going). But I still have my vote and that is where I am putting my money (and yelling as loudly as I possibly can). We really want ACTION, not fancy dinners and talking points from the Administration. Take it to the streets!

  • The day seven or eight years ago when HRC announced it was going to buy itself a downtown Washington office building EVERYONE should have known it was time to abandon the organization. I hope that is clearn now. Does it come as a surprise that Solmonese was in London (or would it if he was in Laguna Beach or South Beach or Rio or whereever) during the final vote securing period for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? It doesn’t surprise me. That sort of grunt work is left up to minions by people like Solmonese. I don’t know who have been the worst traitors, the Democrats or our own “leaders.”

  • Why wait until 2011? The reckoning should come in November, 2010.

  • I wish you have revealed more of the conversation from the ‘show’, like when Aubrey Sarvis from SLDN did say that he was there at the White House three days after HRC’s meeting with the administration. Aubrey said that he was there with the Palm Center in meetings. Attacking Joe for not getting legislation passed is childish. The President has been in place for 1y 3m. More has been accomplished by his administration in that time than was EVER done under BUSH or in the eight years of Clinton!!!

    Lets get real folks and acknowledge that the ‘show’ was nothing more than a continued slam on HRC and Joe, when it had been tabled as an event to bring the orgs together and focus on how to get DADT and ENDA passed.
    There are no organizations that have the contacts on capitol hill like HRC. They are a lobbying organization.

    Another ED of an org put it nicely on the ‘show’, we are focused now on turing on the light bulbs after only just finding out where all the lights are….

    1y 3m so far… sheesh children !!

    • I was there. What Aubrey actually said was that he was subsequently invited to a much lower level meeting with WH staff that weren’t nearly as important. That’s called cutting people out. And it’s something the White House has threatened for a year now vis-a-vis SLDN. And they finally did it.

      Finally, the room was filled with people from all walks of gay political life. All were pissed at HRC. That wasn’t part of the “show.” It’s a reflection of reality.

      And you’re right, HRC does have the contacts. So it’s their fault if everything is going to hell, and it is.

  • Editor’s note: This comment was posted by someone other than the man who conceived the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and helped implement the National Equality March.

    The blame lays with Congress and the President.

    HRC wasn’t blamed for the failure to lift the ban in 1993. The President was. While criticized for many other things, HRC wasn’t denounced for failure to get DADT repealed during the previous 8-yr administration. Bush was. Why is THIS President given a pass, not treated like an adult accountable for HIS decisions, and responsibility passed to HRC? Is there a bit of subconscious racist paternalism going on?

    FACT: Despite the fruit juicy revelation during the Town Hall that HRC met with Messina and SLDN’s Aubrey Sarvis didn’t, reps of SLDN [gay vets Rear Adm. Alan Steinman, Capt. Joan Darrah, DADT victim David Hall, nongays Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett (Ret), and MCPO Vince Patton, (Ret)] MET WITH OBAMA’S OFFICIAL TRANSITION TEAM A WEEK BEFORE THE INAUGURAL and spelled out what Obama should do about repeal and how…including not reappointing Bush appointee and longtime repeal opponent Gates AND inserting repeal into LAST year’s DEFAUTH.

    Is SLDN to blame for Obama not doing what they asked? NO!

    Is there ANY evidence Obama WOULD do what so many assume HRC is NOT telling Messina he should? NO, again!

    So let’s drop the disingenuous and ineffective anti-HRC agenda [YEARS of criticizing them, pickets of their dinners, and that blog swarm worked SO well] and focus on where the buck stops..and it ain’t at Joe Solmonese’s desk.

    • Oh please Cleve, that’s such a red herring argument. It’s not one or the other, BOTH can and should be strongly criticized.

      Its funny that you start your comment by criticizing those who are giving Obama “a pass” and yet the only LGBT people I can think of who have been regularly giving Obama a pass and acting as apologists for his administration ARE HRC!!!

      The most vocal critics of President Obama ARE ALSO the most vocal critics of HRC. I have yet to meet a single person who’s critical of HRC/Solmonese who’s simultaneously making apologies for, or even passively supporting, the President.

      As long as the largest LGBT rights organization in the country acts as an apologist for the Administration, the easier it will be for the WH to marginalize critiques/protests as “fringe elements” organized by crazy bloggers (an attack I see you’ve co-opted).

      Obama deserves to be denounced for his decisions — not sure where you’ve been, but there’s been plenty of denouncing going on, and there’s plenty more to come. LGBT Americans have been giving him hell wherever they can.

      But HRC also deserves to be denounced for burning through millions of LGBT dollars w/almost no legislative results to show for it. Hell, you just listed a litany of their major failures since the Clinton Administration. Some of us were willing to give them 30 years and thousands of our dollars to finally become effective, but eventually the patience wears off and it becomes time for somebody else to give it a swing.

      But of course it’ll be very difficult for anyone else to give it a swing as long as the HRC is Hoovering up all the LGBT dollars.

      • Amen, Marc!

        There is nothing disingenuous about grassroots outrage at HRC’s capitulation to and collaboration with the extreme political homophobia of Rahm Emanuel, Jim Messina, and Barack Obama.

        And if the attacks on HRC were so ineffective, I doubt HRC would be working so hard to generate commentaries, like yours, with their apologist talking points.

    • Actually, the buck stops at my wallet, Cleve. Whether it be the DNC, HRC, NGLTF, Equality California or the Courage Campaign.

  • i didn’t realize the HRC lobbied the british parliament. he should have been here, not playing in england.

  • GetEQUAL are now our Jedi Knights.

    They ARE our only hope.

    Support Them.
    Praise Them.
    Lift Them Onto Your Shoulders.

    The time for reckoning is nigh. We will shake the very foundations until we acheive FULL equality.


    “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”
    ~Cesar Chavez

    • I agree. GetEqual has a clear, simple agenda. Hard working leaders. And no interest in cozying up to the money and power in Washington.

      GetEqual has done more in a few months than HRC has done in 20 years.

  • Joe was at the Stonewall event in London with a major funder, Bruce Bastian. It wasn’t his fault a volcano erupted and he got trapped.

    If people really think that Joe is doing such a bad job perhaps they should start writing directly to HRC board members. I imagine if Bruce Bastian and company got 100 – 200 letters to their homes or work then they might start asking some serious questions. Otherwise, they’ll just stay with their heads in the sand. Their names are public information and it only takes a google search to work out their office or home addresses. Wouldn’t this be a good tactic?

  • I listened to the whole thing. The one thing that leapt out is how completely and utterly useless is NGLTF. They have been around since 1975, setting up an office in Gerald Ford-era DC, and have accomplished exactly nothing in 35 years. You listen to Rea Carey and hear her make excuses for the administration and you begin to realize that the rot does not lie solely with HRC.

    In particular, I found it offensive to hear her talk about how wonderful it was that we are now at least allowed in to the WH to express our views and how various administrative changes are taking place in the federal bureaucracy. I don’t recall Obama campaigning on a promise to listen to us and make some administrative changes. If he had campaigned on that platform, we would have voted for Hillary.

    NGLTF is best at hosting useless conferences and issuing press releases. Why anyone would write a check to them is beyond me.

  • Every pro-equality person just needs to call their U.S. Senators and their representative at the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and tell Congress to pass ENDA now and repeal DADT.

    If we can just get the word out to every pro-equality person in America to do that, ENDA and DADT would pass THIS year and we could knock off this circular firing squad. We must focus our advocacy on the persuadables in Congress. If anybody wants to protest anyone — why not protest the opponents of equality rather than its supporters and our own advocates?

  • There is enough blame to go around. Congress gets some. The President and his political homophobe minions certainly get some. But so does HRC. I’m sick of listening to people make exuses for that sorry organization. gaylib hit the nail on the head. HRC does not represent gay people. HRC represents the Obama administration in propagandizing, manipulating, and lying to gay people.

  • I have a suggestion for a new T.V. Reality Show….”The $360,000 Dollar Man: The extravagant life of a crusader fighting for Justice througout America (and England?)Joe Blow Solmonese”

    Ok, seriously folks. It is ridiculous that the HRC and Joe, Gladd and many other organizations, are making a fortune off of supposedly fighting for rights for the various causes and many different agendas pursued by the Gay Community.

    Now, if we were smart and paid attention in school, particularly,History class, the Gay Community should’ve followed the paths of the Women and Black movements in which both fought for, demanded and received, EQUAL RIGHTS. It worked.

    Harvey Milk seemed to be on track for this but unfortunately, this good man was murdered. No one since Harvey, has picked up the torch. It is truly time for the Gay Community to come together and focus on one cause: FULL LGBT EQUAL RIGHTS. This should be added to the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment. One cause that covers all. Is this really to much to ask of our own people to demand? Now I realize that HRC, GLADD and the hundreds of other organizations are going to be against this. Afterall, it would put them out of a job. Come on people, please wake up. ROY KIRKLAND …Yeah, Im on Facebook :-)

    Thank you Kevin Naff, DC Agenda, for an excellent article. I am so glad to see the Blade back.

  • Kevin –

    You know that there were few people in our community (especially our local DC community) who fought harder to elect President Obama than I.

    You also know that I admire, respect and praise your leadership at the Washington Blade.

    But I take personal offense to your insinuation that those of us who understand politics are all a bunch of suck-ups who are trying to get jobs with the Administration. If you look at the primary leaders for Obama Pride, you’ll see that NONE of us even applied for jobs with the Administration.

    Some of us have been fighting for LGBT equality longer than you’ve ever had the courage to say the words “I’m Gay” and we deserve as much respect as we afford you.

    So please hear this clearly:

    Now is not the time for community division, but a united stand for equality. We are only a few votes short of passing two major pieces of LGBT equality legislation and with a united voice, both victories are ours to lose.

    Leaders calling for the resignations of other leaders are not only counterproductive, they’re spiritually base. No leader in our community, be they an organizational head, a business leader, media magnet, or blogger, should be allowed to call for the resignation of another leader, unless they’re willing to hold every other community leader, including themselves, to the same standard. If ENDA and the DADT repeal fail, it’s spiritually as justifiable to hold every newspaper editor, blogger and community organizer accountable as it is to demand the resignation of any of our organizational leaders.

    Yours in the united stand for equality,

    + Phil

  • Phil,

    “No leader in our community, be they an organizational head, a business leader, media magnet, or blogger, should be allowed to call for the resignation of another leader…” Well then, why don’t we just pass out tiaras now and be done with it? Frankly, after what, 35-years or more and how many hundreds of million of donated GAY dollars…$200 million?…$300 million?…$400 million? and still the HRC has not enacted a Gay civil Rights bill?, how much longer should we wait? You tell me.

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