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Solmonese to step down as head of HRC

Source denies reports of sweeping shakeup



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.”



Texas governor signs bill banning transgender youth healthcare

Senate Bill 14 to take effect on Sept. 1



Landon Richie, a 21-year-old political science major and a leading transgender activist, protesting at the Texas Capitol in May. (Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)

By Alex Nguyen and William Melhado | Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Friday a bill that bars transgender kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies, though the new law could face legal challenges before it takes effect on Sept. 1.

Senate Bill 14’s passage brings to the finish line a legislative priority for the Republican Party of Texas, which opposes any efforts to validate transgender identities. Trans kids, their parents and LGBTQ advocacy groups fiercely oppose the law, and some have vowed to stop it from going into effect.

Texas — home to one of the largest trans communities in the U.S. — is now one of over a dozen states that restrict transition-related care for trans minors.

“Cruelty has always been the point,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “It’s not shocking that this governor would sign SB14 right at the beginning of Pride [month]; however this will not stop trans people from continuing to exist with authenticity — as we always have.”

Authored by New Braunfels Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell, the law bars trans kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies, treatments many medical groups support. Children already receiving these treatments will have to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” manner. The law also bans transition-related surgeries for kids, though those are rarely performed on minors.

Those who support the law claim that health care providers have capitalized on a “social contagion” to misguide parents and push life-altering treatments on kids who may later regret their decisions. SB 14’s supporters have also disputed the science and research behind transition-related care.

But trans kids, their parents and major medical groups say these medical treatments are important to protecting the mental health of an already vulnerable population, which faces a higher risk of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. At the same time, doctors say cutting off these treatments — gradually or abruptly — could bring both physical discomfort and psychological distress to trans youth, some of whom have called it forced detransitioning.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Lambda Legal and the Transgender Law Center pledged on May 18 to fight SB 14 in court. They have yet to file a lawsuit.

“Transgender people have always been here and will always be here,” Ash Hall, policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, said Friday. “Our trans youth deserve a world where they can shine alongside their peers, and we will keep advocating for that world in and out of the courts.”

This legal threat is not new; some of these groups have sued several other states over their restrictions. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice also joined the legal fight against Tennessee’s ban.

While the lawsuits are tailored to each state, Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal and the director of its Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project, told the Texas Tribune last month that a major common challenge to the laws hinges on the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the argument that these laws are stopping trans kids from accessing the same medical treatments that are still available to their cisgender peers.

Buchert added that the lawsuits’ immediate goal is generally to get a preliminary injunction to stop these laws from taking effect, a tactic that has seen some success.

“It’s one thing to see some of the things that state legislators do, but it’s a completely different thing when you’re under the white-hot spotlight of judicial scrutiny,” she said.

And prior to SB 14, the ACLU and Lambda Legal successfully sued Texas last year to halt state-ordered child abuse investigations of parents who provide their trans kids with access to transition-related care. Impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton later appealed the decision in March, but the 3rd Court of Appeals has yet to issue a ruling on it.

“It’s a privilege to be able to fight,” Buchert said about the ongoing court challenges that Lambda Legal is involved in.

Editor’s note:

In a late Friday evening phone call, Landon Richie, with the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told the Washington Blade:

“Today Governor Abbott signed cruelty into law. Legislation that purports to ‘protect youth’ while stripping them of the life-saving, life-giving care that they receive will cost lives, and that’s not an exaggeration. Trans kids deserve not only to exist, but to thrive as their authentic selves in every facet of their lives, and we will never stop fighting to to actualize a world where that is undisputed. Despite efforts by our state, trans people will always exist in Texas, as we always have, and we will continue to exist brilliantly and boldly, and with endless care for one another.”


The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge rules Tenn. drag ban is unconstitutional

Law was to have taken effect April 1



(Bigstock photo)

U. S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Parker of the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee declared Tennessee’s anti-drag Adult Entertainment Act to be unconstitutional.

Parker’s ruling comes after a two-day trial last month. A Shelby County-based LGBTQ theatre company, Friends of George’s, had sued the state of Tennessee, claiming the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Parker ordered a temporary injunction halting the just enacted Tennessee law that criminalizes some drag performances, hours before it was set to take effect April 1. In his 15 page ruling ordering the temporary injunction Parker wrote:

“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution. […] The court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this statute, it missed the mark.”

Attorneys for the theatre company had argued that drag performances were an artform and protected speech under the first amendment.

In his 70 page ruling Friday, Parker wrote:

“After considering the briefs and evidence presented at trial, the court finds that — despite
Tennessee’s compelling interest in protecting the psychological and physical wellbeing of
children — the Adult Entertainment Act (“AEA”) is an UNCONSTITUTIONAL restriction on
the freedom of speech.”

“The court concludes that the AEA is both unconstitutionally vague and substantially
overbroad. The AEA’s ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to
provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement. The
AEA is substantially overbroad because it applies to public property or ‘anywhere’ a minor
could be present.”

Read the entire ruling:

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LGBTQ literature advocacy org to host celebrity panel

Discussion to be moderated by writer Sa’iyda Shabazz, ‘Glee’ actor Chris Colfer



‘Glee’ actor Chris Colfer will be one of four panelists at a virtual event hosted by Pride and Less Prejudice on Saturday, June 3. (Photo by Kathclick/Bigstock)

Affectionately known by fans of the show as the “fashionable soprano,” Chris Colfer’s character in “Glee” came out as gay to his father in the fourth episode of the Golden Globe-winning musical drama series. Colfer paused in between fragments of sentences to catch his breath as his pupils, set atop his recognizable rosy cheeks, dilated.

“Being a part of…the glee club and football has really shown me that I can be anything,” he said. “And what I am is…I’m gay.”

Colfer, who is also author of young adult fiction series “The Land of Stories,” will be one of four panelists at a virtual event hosted by LGBTQ organization Pride and Less Prejudice (PLP) on Saturday, June 3. At the event, panelists will discuss queer visibility in authorship and the importance of queer people telling queer stories. 

“We selected [them] because we’re trying to look at the intersection between TV, film, podcasts, [and] books because it’s all media and it’s all really great avenues for queer people telling their own story,” said Rebecca Damante, co-founder and outreach coordinator of the organization.

PLP began in 2019 when Damante had conversations with her mother about her experiences as a queer person and how she came to terms with her sexuality in high school. Although she watched shows such as “Glee” and “Pretty Little Liars” that had great queer representation, she knew that “it would’ve made a huge difference” if she had seen this as a kid.

“I was a huge reader as a kid and my mom had a lot of great books in our library about interfaith families and adoption,” said Damante. “I come from an interfaith family and have family members who are adopted, so she had diverse books in that way but never really had LGBTQ inclusive books.”

This motivated the mother-daughter duo to start an organization that donates LGBTQ-inclusive books to classrooms from pre-K to third grade.

They posted a Google form to social media that was reposted by GLAAD, where Damante had interned, and amplified by LGBTQ activist Kristin Russo. Teachers would put in requests for books and this allowed PLP to start an email chain that they could also use to solicit donations. 

It wasn’t until Damante posted to Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group that rallied Hillary Clinton supporters during her 2016 presidential run, that PLP garnered interest from hundreds of teachers. This led to a celebrity campaign video where actors Nicole Maines, Theo Germaine, and Darryl Stephens, among others, emphasized the importance of LGBTQ literature in classrooms. 

Since 2019, the organization has raised more than $140,000 in grants and donations and donated over 8,000 books. 

Dylan Moss, a kindergarten teacher in Albany, N.Y., is among those who have benefitted from PLP’s efforts. 

During a quest for more diverse and inclusive books for his classroom, he stumbled upon PLP’s website between 2020 and 2021 and reached out to the organization. Since then, he has been actively involved in PLP’s efforts and is now a member of the advisory committee that helps to create lesson plans that accompany the books.

“Biases start to get formed [in kindergarten], so I like to help [my students] create better narratives,” said Moss in a Zoom interview. “It’s easier to learn it now than to take away all the negative biases they have from everyday society, family, and just being around other humans.”

Moss also added, over email, that when discussing diverse topics in the classroom, conversations are aligned with social studies standards. 

“I’d rather [my students] understand that people are different and that there’s a reason we’re different and that we should love that we’re different,” he said on Zoom. “You don’t have to go deep into the ideas necessarily. You can just give them the basis of what you’re saying and kind of let them take it from there.” 

For Lisa Forman, Damante’s mom and co-founder and executive director of PLP, approaching education this way is not only a form of allyship and advocacy, it’s “standing up for what’s right.”

The first half of the 2022-2023 school year saw 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles, 26% of which had LGBTQ characters or themes, according to data from Pen America, an organization that advances human rights and literature causes in the United States and worldwide. 

In 2022, the Washington Blade reported that a Loudoun County, Va., school board voted to remove “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe that contains descriptions and comic book style drawings of sexual acts that Kobabe uses to tell the story of the journey and struggle in discovering the author’s gender identity.

“As much as these books are for the queer kids in the classroom, they’re for every kid,” said Forman. “We’re doing this not just for the queer kids…we want to normalize the idea of being queer in the classroom.”

Looking to the upcoming celebrity panel, Damante wants to leave attendees feeling inspired enough to own their narratives, whether they identify as queer or not. 

“If teachers are able to see the impact of these queer stories then they’ll understand why it’s important for them to share the books,” she said. 

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