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Solmonese era comes to an end

Parsing the good and bad in HRC’s recent record

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Joe Solmonese @ Hill press conference 2009 by Michael Key

HRC President Joe Solmonese will step down when his contract expires in March. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

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 [email protected].

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Rick Rosendall

    September 4, 2011 at 9:51 am

    This is a bit of a mess, Kevin. Joe Solmonese was a vast improvement over Cheryl Jacques, but he still wasn’t an “actual activist” like Dan Choi? The truth is that photo ops are only one small part of what Joe and HRC have done, whereas histrionics are Dan Choi’s main thing (along with indignant refusals to give the President credit for anything). I concede that Dan looked hot in his crucifixion pose, but instead of organizing his own event that day (March 18, 2010), he (with assistance from Robin McGehee) hijacked the HRC event at Freedom Plaza and urged people to follow him to the White House without telling them what he was planning. (I realize he didn’t want to tip off the Secret Service, but it was exploitive and no way to build trust.) When he got to the WH, he had no statement for the press explaining what he was doing. My contemporaneous report is at: http://tinyurl.com/yeus9px . Of course there is room for many different approaches to activism–which is a good thing, given our community’s diversity. But as we follow our different paths we should maintain good channels of communication, and we should be more respectful than to hijack one another’s events.

  2. Rick Rosendall

    September 4, 2011 at 10:10 am

    BTW, I agree with you, Kevin, on a lot of things, such as the handling of ENDA in 2007, the celebritizing of Solmonese, and the absurd inflation of HRC’s membership numbers. As to HRC being a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DNC (something Andrew Sullivan has flogged for years), let’s remember how HRC was crucified years ago when they rewarded Sen. Al D’Amato (who had done things they had asked) with an endorsement. I supported HRC’s decision then, even though I am a Democrat and would never have voted for D’Amato, because I respect different people/groups playing different roles. But HRC has its own constituency to please. If that keeps them from engaging the GOP sufficiently, let’s remember that all roads do not lead to HRC.

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The future of lesbian bars

Resolve to support our queer spaces in 2022

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lockdown zone, gay news, Washington Blade

This New Year, I hope you wish for more lesbian bars across the country. The story of lesbian bars in the U.S. has been slightly tragic of late: as of January 2021, there were only 15 clubs or bars dedicated to queer women across the country. 

That’s right—only 15. Across all 50 states. 

In Washington, D.C., my hometown, A League of Her Own stands out as the only lesbian bar in the city, dedicated to queer women. Located in Adams Morgan, A League of Her Own, also known as ALOHO, is a small mecca for queer ladies to pass through, socialize, and flirt. ALOHO is a chic gathering point for all queer folk, with posters of softball players dotting the walls and gender neutral signs lying about. 

Several years ago, another lesbian bar called Phase 1 existed in Southeast, where queer women could slam eight balls in pool games and engage in raunchy yet ever-so-hot jello wrestling competitions. 

Unfortunately, Phase 1 shut its doors in 2016. 

So what explains the closure of so many lesbian bars, while bars for gay men continue to flourish? Perhaps many queer women view gay bars as a space for their own as well, whereas gay men view lesbian bars as less of a place for them to socialize. 

Either way, we need to give support to lesbian bars now more than ever. Tokens of support can take many forms. 

For one, make sure to socialize in spaces dedicated to queer ladies. There are three lesbian bars in New York City: Cubbyhole (281 W. 12th St.), Gingers in Brooklyn (363 5th Ave.), and Henrietta Hudson (438 Hudson St.). Next time you visit the Big Apple, make sure to give these three spots some love. Maybe drag your experimenting bi friend to these locations. Or your pansexual roommate. 

Back in D.C., you can buy unisex shirts in A League of Her Own’s merchandise store, available online. 

Proceeds will go toward funding the bar, and making sure it stays afloat, especially during this COVID economy. 

Most of all, I hope you encourage your queer lady friends to keep on frequenting queer lady destinations. After all, there is only one thing that will keep lesbian bars afloat—and that is attendance. 

I, for one, will be frequenting many lesbian destinations this new year.  

Isaac Amend is a Yale graduate and participated in National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ documentary. He also is a member of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia, and contributes regularly to the Blade. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @isaacamend.

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Breaking barriers as an out trans ‘Jeopardy’ champion

Amy Schneider’s run inspires us all

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Amy Schneider (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Television)

“When was the last time anybody said ‘wow!’” a friend asked me.

I couldn’t remember the last time anyone I know (including me) had any “Wow!” moments. Until I heard about trans woman and software engineering manager Amy Schneider’s 29-game winning streak on “Jeopardy.”

You wouldn’t think anything could dispel our COVID exhaustion and political divisiveness. Yet, news about a champion on “Jeopardy,” a quiz show that has been on TV since 1964, has broken through our gloom.

In our culture, there are few things that everyone loves. But, “Jeopardy” is beloved by many, from theater geeks to 80-year-old sports nuts. A progressive friend was over the moon when his brother was a “Jeopardy” contestant. A buddy, a hetero (non-Trump) Republican, is a “Jeopardy” fanatic and a gay librarian pal is a “Jeopardy” freak.

Many of us daydream about being on “Jeopardy.” But we know that we wouldn’t have a chance on this legendary quiz show with its deceptively simple format: You give the answer to the (often incredibly hard) clues in the form of a question. You have to have a strategic military commander’s and a world-class athlete’s coordination: so you can press the buzzer to answer the clue.

The game’s categories run the gamut from opera to mountain ranges. Most of us, mere mortals, would be lucky to know even one category in the first round of the game. Let alone in the “Double Jeopardy” round or the “Final Jeopardy” clue. I might jump on clues about Katharine Hepburn movies or M&Ms. But that would be it for me.

It’s exciting to watch a “Jeopardy” contestant become a long-running champion. You marvel at the player’s intelligence, endurance, and nerve. It’s thrilling when the contestant on a winning-streak is part of your community.

Many of us LGBTQ “Jeopardy” fans are thrilled by Schneider’s record-setting winning streak. As I write this, Schneider has won more than $1 million in 29 games of “Jeopardy.” She is the fifth millionaire in “Jeopardy” history, and only the fourth player to reach this milestone in the regular season. She has won more than any other female “Jeopardy” contestant.

Schneider, like so many of us, doesn’t want to be defined by her gender identity or sexuality. Schneider’s life is multi-faceted; she has many interests. Schneider lives with her girlfriend Genevieve. They have a cat named Meep.

Yet, Schneider doesn’t want to hide that she’s trans. On “Jeopardy,” Schneider brilliantly dealt with this dilemma. She didn’t make a big deal about being out. She just wore the trans Pride flag pin.

“It was something that I wanted to get out there and to show my pride in while not making it the focus of what I was doing there,” Schneider told the New York Times. “Because I was just there to answer trivia questions and win money.”

As a cisgender lesbian, I can’t speak to how Schneider’s record-setting “Jeopardy” streak feels to transgender people.

But, as a trans ally, I’m cheering for Schneider. Kudos for her bravery! At a time when many states are passing anti-trans laws, it takes guts to be out on TV and the Internet.

Few things are as mainstream as “Jeopardy.” I bet that many “Jeopardy” viewers who are frightened at the idea of trans people, will become more comfortable with transgender people after watching Schneider on the popular quiz show. Because folks on TV come into our living and bedrooms and we feel as if we know them after watching them for a while.

“Amy looks like everybody else,” my neighbor said when I told her Schneider was trans. “She doesn’t act odd. She’s not strange.”

Transgender people encounter violence and discrimination in everything from housing to health care to employment.

I know Schneider’s “Jeopardy” triumph won’t end transphobia. But her winning streak will go a long way toward jumpstarting a change in hearts and minds.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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SCARY: Tucker Carlson now the conscience of GOP

Cruz bows down, kisses ring of Fox host

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Tucker Carlson (Screen capture via Fox on YouTube)

The Republican Party has sunk to a new low, hard to do, when a sleazebag like Tucker Carlson is now their conscience. Seeing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) groveling before him is laughable, disgusting, and frightening all at the same time. 

As reported in Rolling Stone, Cruz said, “We are approaching a solemn anniversary this week. It is an anniversary of a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol where we saw the men and women of law enforcement demonstrate incredible courage, incredible bravery, risk their lives to defend the men and women who serve in this Capitol.” Then “Cruz was lambasted by Tucker Carlson that night, prompting him to hop on Carlson’s show Thursday and beg for forgiveness. “The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy and it was frankly dumb,” Cruz said before Carlson cut him off and said he didn’t believe him. Cruz took it up a notch, stammering through an absurd bit about how he wasn’t talking about the “patriots across the country supporting President Trump,” only those who assaulted police officers, and that he’s always described anyone who assaults a cop as a terrorist.

Carlson has made a career of being a pompous commentator. Interestingly he worked at CNN, PBS, and MSNBC, before finally landing at Fox in 2009. According to his Wikipedia page he went to Trinity College where he earned a bachelor’s degree and Carlson’s Trinity yearbook describes him as a member of the “Dan White Society,” an apparent reference to the American political assassin who murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. After college, Carlson tried to join the CIA, but his application was denied, after which he decided to pursue a career in journalism with the encouragement of his father, who advised him that “they’ll take anybody.” Reading this clearly raised my opinion of the CIA and based on what we see in some media today I agree with Carlson’s father on his view of journalism. 

When you have a moment of silence in the House of Representatives to honor those who lost their lives on Jan. 6 and only two Republicans show up, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and her father Dick Cheney, the former vice president, one understands the influence Carlson has on the GOP. The rest were afraid of being criticized on-air by him or lambasted by Trump. 

Dick Cheney remarked on the GOP, “It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years.” He spoke to ABC News saying, “I’m deeply disappointed we don’t have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution.” 

There is a leadership void in the Republican Party today. Their so-called leaders are afraid to say what they think if it differs in any way from Trumpism or Carlson’s view of the world, which requires total fealty to Trump. He found a home on Fox where he can lie with impunity and have millions believe his lies. 

President Biden said, in what many think was the best speech of his presidency so far, these people are “holding a dagger to the neck of democracy.” He went on to say, “For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol.” 

Tucker Carlson and his ilk have never bothered to answer a question the president threw at them, which is how they can accept all their down ballot victories, governors, and members of Congress, which occurred on the same ballots, cast by the same people, on the same day, as those for president. Of course, Carlson has no need to make sense, tell the truth, or speak rationally because of his platform on Fox, which doesn’t require that.

My question is whether Carlson is as dumb as he makes himself sound or is he brilliant and this is all a big act? Either way the acolytes that follow Trump don’t seem to care and are bowing down to Carlson’s big audience. It’s as if he can tell any Republican senator or congressperson, or Republican candidate for those jobs, to just ‘bend over and take it’ and they do. All we can do is mourn for the GOP of Lincoln and Eisenhower. Non-Trumpers will have to work hard and speak out if they ever want to resurrect a GOP that can be respected.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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