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Solmonese to step down as head of HRC

Source denies reports of sweeping shakeup

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Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Joe Solmonese, who has served for more than six years as president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group, will step down from his job when his current contract ends on March 30, 2012, HRC officials announced last week. The news of Solmonese’s departure was first reported by Pam’s House Blend.

In a statement released Aug. 27, co-chairs of the board of directors of HRC and its sister organization, the HRC Foundation, said Solmonese will remain as head of both organizations “until the completion of his contract to ensure a smooth leadership transition.”

They also announced the formation of a search committee for Solmonese’s replacement to be co-chaired by board members Joni Madison of North Carolina and Dana Perlman of Los Angeles.

“Joe Solmonese is an outstanding leader,” said Anne Fay, who co-chairs the HRC Foundation board. “While we will miss his extraordinary leadership, we enter this next phase, thanks to Joe, in the best place the organization has ever been. Not only has our community secured historic victories, but our membership is larger and more active than any time in our history, and our financial health is secure even in these difficult economic times.”

HRC spokesperson Michael Cole-Schwartz said the combined revenue for HRC and the HRC Foundation for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011 was $39.8 million. He said the two groups have about 150 employees.

Sources familiar with HRC have speculated that several LGBT movement leaders would likely emerge as candidates for Solmonese’s replacement, including Chuck Wolfe, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund; Brian Ellner, an HRC consultant who coordinated HRC’s efforts to help pass New York’s same-sex marriage law; Chad Griffin, head of the California-based organization that initiated the lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8; and Sean Maloney, one of former President Bill Clinton’s openly gay White House aides who later worked for former New York Gov. David Paterson.

Solmonese has received mixed reviews by LGBT activists during his tenure as head of HRC, which began in 2005. Disagreements over his and HRC’s policies and activities appear to reflect divisions within the LGBT movement.

Supporters and others familiar with the group say Solmonese has worked well in navigating HRC and its LGBT rights agenda during a hostile Bush administration and during a supportive Obama administration, using behind-the-scenes political skills to prod allies in Congress and the White House to move its agenda forward.

Critics say he and HRC have been too closely aligned with the Democratic Party and Democratic congressional leaders, which they say have failed to adequately advance LGBT legislation, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and LGBT-supportive immigration legislation while Democrats controlled the House of Representatives.

The statement released by the HRC board co-chairs says that under Solmonese’s leadership, HRC expanded its public outreach programs, including the start of its Healthcare Equality Index, which, among other things, assesses the sensitivity of hospitals in caring for LGBT people.

HRC and the HRC foundation launched or expanded other important programs during Solmonese’s tenure, the board statement says, in the area of outreach to religion and faith communities, schools programs promoting fair treatment of LGBT youth, and a family and children initiative to open adoption agencies to LGBT parents.

In the area of legislation, the board statement said Solmonese played a key role in steering HRC’s opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. They also note that under his tenure, Congress passed a hate crimes law with protections for LGBT people and repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law barring gays from serving openly in the military.

The statement notes that during his tenure, the Obama administration put in place a number of administrative directives and policy changes favorable to LGBT people, including a policy banning discrimination against federal government workers based on gender identity.

Dana Beyer, executive director of the transgender advocacy group Gender Rights Maryland and a former HRC board member, said Solmonese alienated many in the transgender community and in the LGBT community in general in 2007 when he declined to oppose a decision by House Democratic leaders to remove protections for transgender people from ENDA.

Then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who’s gay, said they determined at the time that ENDA couldn’t pass in the House if a transgender provision remained in the bill. The House passed a so-called “gay only” version of the bill that year over strong objections from a coalition of dozens of LGBT groups from across the country. Pelosi and Frank said they would introduce a separate bill with transgender protections at a later date, when support for such a bill could be lined up.

Solmonese said it would have put HRC in an untenable position to oppose a major gay rights bill backed by longtime LGBT rights supporters in the House. The bill died when the Senate did not bring it up for a vote.

Solmonese and HRC changed their position on the bill the following year, saying the organization would no longer support ENDA without a provision protecting transgender people from job discrimination.

But Beyer and other LGBT activists said HRC’s earlier position left deep scars within the transgender community, which felt abandoned by HRC.

Others have said the LGBT movement as a whole was divided over HRC’s position, with many in the movement – including D.C.’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club – supporting an incremental approach of passing a sexual orientation-only version of ENDA while continuing to push hard for adding a transgender provision as soon as possible.

Those holding that view said they favored a fully inclusive ENDA but recognized such a bill could not pass at the time.

Beyer said that in addition to the ENDA flap, many LGBT activists believe HRC is devoting too much of its resources to marriage equality, including the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, at the expense of other legislation, such as a trans-inclusive ENDA. Beyer argues that ENDA would help many more LGBT people than those interested in getting married.

“Many of us are hoping HRC will change its direction on some of these issues under a new president,” she said. “But the president is really nothing more than a reflection of the board of directors,” she said. “If the board of directors doesn’t want to change the direction of the organization, it doesn’t matter who the next president is.”

Richard Socarides, president of the national LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters, said Solmonese has performed well in advancing the LGBT agenda.

“He has been there when some very important gains took place,” he said. “And I think he did a tremendous job building the organization.”

Socarides said he disagrees with some critics who say HRC failed to do enough to push ENDA or is placing too much emphasis on marriage equality.

“I don’t think they can be blamed for the failure to pass any particular piece of legislation just as they can’t take all the credit for the legislation that has passed,” he said.

“But what I have said before is that as an organization, they have not sufficiently leveraged their power to bring about change more quickly,” Socarides said. “They are a key part of the Washington establishment but they seem to seek change within existing structures. They are very reluctant to rock the boat.”

Rick Rosendall, vice president of D.C.’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, and Bob Summersgill, GLAA’s former president, each said HRC under Solmonese’s leadership has provided strong support for the efforts by D.C. activists in passing a same-sex marriage law. The two said Solmonese also arranged for HRC to devote considerable resources to fight efforts by members of Congress to attach anti-gay riders to the city’s annual appropriations bill. Congress must approve the city’s annual budget under the city’s limited home rule charter.

Summersgill and Rosendall noted that HRC, among other things, helped to line up support to defeat proposals by Republican lawmakers to ban same-sex couples from adopting children in the city.

Lateefah Williams, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said she, too, appreciated Solmonese’s support for D.C.’s marriage equality campaign, noting that he directed HRC to provide a full-time field organizer to help local activists build support in the community for the same-sex marriage bill.

Williams said she also shares the views of some that HRC should broaden its support for transgender rights initiatives as well as efforts to support programs aimed at minorities within the LGBT community, such as blacks and Latinos, and youth.

“I wish Joe well,” she said.

News of Solmonese’s departure was first reported by the blog Pam’s House Blend last week. The blog cited unnamed sources as saying his departure may be part of a sweeping staff shakeup initiated by the HRC board and that news of his leaving came about under less than amicable circumstances.

Other sources familiar with HRC told the Blade that account was inaccurate. One source familiar with the group characterized as “complete fiction” claims of a staff shakeup as well as claims by some that HRC may already have lined up a successor for Solmonese.

“This is about as normal and straight forward as it gets,” said the source. “He’s giving them six months advance notice. They’re going to launch a replacement process. The organization will go through that and come out with a successor.”

In a letter to HRC volunteers across the country, Solmonese discussed the timing of his decision to leave the group.

“While there may never be an ideal time, this moment seems right for me and my family,” he said. “In addition to our unprecedented victories, the health and future of the Human Rights Campaign has never been more robust,” he said. “My successor will lead a thriving organization despite the recent economic challenges.”

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California mom claims school manipulated child into changing gender identity

Jessica Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham & Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon with client, Jessica Konen (Screenshot Fox News)

A Northern California mother is claiming teachers in a small school district in the state manipulated her daughter into changing her gender identity and name in a legal claim. 

The claim, filed by the ultra-conservative Center for American Liberty on behalf of the mother, alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct” by the Spreckels Union School District, leading Jessica Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and drive a wedge between them.

Specifically, the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, names two teachers – Lori Caldera and Kelly Baraki – at Buena Vista Middle who, in addition to teaching, ran the school’s Equality Club, later known as UBU (You Be You). Buena Vista is a part of the district. 

It comes after Abigail Shrier, the author of a book widely criticized as anti-trans, quoted what the two educators said last year at the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in a piece headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids.” Caldera and Baraki spoke about the difficulty of running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in a socially conservative community. 

After the article was published, the teachers were put on administrative leave, and the district hired a law firm to investigate, which is ongoing. The UBU club was suspended. 

Spreckels is a town of about 400 people in the agricultural Salinas Valley, approximately 90 miles south of San Francisco

According to the complaint, Konen’s daughter began attending Equality Club meetings after being invited by a friend when she started sixth grade at Buena Vista. After attending one session, she decided it wasn’t for her until Caldiera convinced her to come back. At the gatherings, Caldera and Baraki held LGBTQ-centered discussions and introduced students to different gender identities and sexualities. 

During her time in the club, Konen’s daughter began exploring her own gender identity and sexuality, choosing to wear more masuline clothes. At some point, she decided to change her name and pronouns, which she has since changed back to her original name and pronouns. 

Konen said she was aware her daughter was bisexual but did not know she began using a male name and gender pronouns until she was called into the school when her daughter was in seventh grade. The meeting caught both Konen and her daughter by surprise – Konen’s daughter had said she wanted to notify her mother, but she did not know the meeting was that day. 

Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her. 

However, when Shrier’s article was published and circulated around the small town, everything changed. At this time, Konen’s daughter was again using a female name and pronouns.

In the leaked recording from the LGBTQ conference, Caldera and Baraki were discussing how they kept meetings private, among other things. 

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

However, Caldera told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were either taken out of context or misrepresented. According to Caldera, the stalking comment was a joke. She also defended their work, saying students lead the conversation and they provide honest and fair answers to their questions.
In addition, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association criticized the group bringing the lawsuit forward, according to the Associated Press: “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain, which is evident in this complaint. The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its own political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Equality Florida quickly condemned the measure

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The Florida State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

The Republican majority Florida House Education and Employment Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23 percent lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Los Angeles Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85 percent of transgender and non-binary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66 percent) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56 percent of transgender and non-binary youth said it made them feel angry, 47 percent felt nervous and/or scared, 45 percent felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, the Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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