December 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Praise, criticism as HRC heads into new era
Joe Solmonese @ Hill press conference 2009 by Michael Key

HRC President Joe Solmonese will step down at the end of March.(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Human Rights Campaign’s search for a new president began in full force on Nov. 22 when an executive recruiting firm retained by the HRC board issued an eight-page job announcement describing the qualifications and experience sought for the next leader of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group.

The release of the job announcement, which is posted on the HRC website, followed an Oct. 3 announcement by HRC that its board had retained Russell Reynolds Associates, a nationally known executive recruitment firm, to assist the board in its search for the replacement of Joe Solmonese.

Solmonese has held the post of president and CEO of HRC and the HRC Foundation since 2005. He announced in August that he would step down from his position when his current contract expires on March 30, 2012.

“The entire HRC board understands the importance of this search to our community, to our continued progress as a movement and to our organization,” said HRC Board Co-Chair Rebecca Tillet.

“That’s why we will run a process that is inclusive and respects the importance of diversity in the candidate pool,” said Andy Linsky, co-chair of the board of the HRC Foundation, HRC’s research and educational arm.

Since Solmonese announced he was stepping down, LGBT activists have been debating HRC’s role in the movement its effectiveness during Solmonese’s tenure.

In an informal survey of LGBT activists in Washington and across the country over the past week, the Blade has found that most believe HRC has done a good job of advocating for LGBT equality on the federal and state level. Leaders of at least seven state and local LGBT organizations said HRC worked cooperatively with their respective groups on joint projects.

Others, including two nationally recognized transgender rights advocates, expressed concern that HRC – as well as other national LGBT organizations – have devoted too much of their time and resources to same-sex marriage efforts at the expense of pushing for non-discrimination laws on the federal, state and local levels. Those expressing this position say non-discrimination laws would have a beneficial impact on far more LGBT people than laws seeking to legalize same-sex marriage.

While they don’t object to spending resources on marriage equality, those expressing this view say HRC and other national LGBT groups are devoting far too little attention to non-discrimination measures, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA, a bill pending in Congress that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I hope the HRC board of directors thinks about this,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “They do some very great things. But they are moving in the direction of marriage being their primary focus,” she said.

Keisling’s view was echoed by Maryland transgender advocate Dana Beyer, a former HRC board member, who said HRC appears to be evolving into a “marriage all the time” organization.

HRC officials have said it is devoting its resources to a wide range of programs and projects in addition to marriage equality. They say many of the projects are aimed at changing the minds of voters and lawmakers in an effort to line up the small number of additional votes in the U.S. House and Senate needed to pass ENDA.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the gay lawmaker and lead sponsor of ENDA in the House, has said the bill has no chance of passing until Democrats regain control of the House. Frank says Republican House leaders won’t allow the bill to come up for a vote, even though a sizable number of House Republicans are expected to vote for ENDA.

HRC supporters acknowledge that many in the LGBT community have questioned HRC’s capabilities and effectiveness, often fueled by HRC critics who say the group hasn’t been able to secure passage of ENDA. Some critics say HRC should have done more 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate with a Democratic president in the White House.

Arlington, Va., gay activist Bob Mialovich, an HRC member and contributor who retired recently as a federal government official, called such criticism unfair.

“I can understand peoples’ frustration, but the reality is we don’t have a majority of support in Congress to pass the bills we need to pass,” he said. “If you are not directly involved, you may not be aware of what HRC is doing. What I know is they are doing a lot.”

HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz has said HRC played a key role, along with other gay advocacy groups, in lobbying for passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which authorizes the federal government to prosecute hate crimes targeting LGBT people. Sainz also points to the success HRC and its partner groups have had in lobbying for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

He said HRC worked closely with other groups to facilitate the Obama administration’s issuance of a large number of regulatory changes and federal agency rules that ban discrimination against LGBT people in healthcare, housing and other areas.

In addition to lobbying Congress, the White House and state and local governments on LGBT supportive bills and policies, and its election-related work on behalf of LGBT supportive candidates, HRC supporters point to a wide range of projects carried out by the HRC Foundation. Among them is the HRC Corporate Equality Index, which rates the nation’s Fortune 500 companies on whether their internal personnel policies ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In its latest criteria for companies to obtain HRC’s highest rating in the Corporate Equality Index, the group raised the bar by calling for companies to include gender reassignment surgery for transgender employees in the companies’ health insurance plans. A large number of them have agreed to do so.

Other projects include a Healthcare Equality Index, which rates hospitals and other healthcare facilities on their treatment of LGBT people; a Welcoming Schools Program, that pushes for anti-bullying and other LGBT-supportive school policies; an All Children-All Families project that trains and sensitizes adoption agencies on LGBT families; and a Religion and Faith Program, which encourages LGBT-supportive clergy to speak out on LGBT issues, including same-sex marriage efforts.

Another program trains LGBT students enrolled in the nation’s historically black colleges to become student leaders in an effort to advance LGBT equality on their campuses.

HRC supporters also point to the group’s aggressive press and communications operation, which responds quickly and on a 24-hour basis to breaking developments by providing the media with statements and information on a wide range of issues, including responses to anti-LGBT groups or public officials.

The group’s 990 IRS finance report for 2010, the most recent one filed, shows that HRC and the HRC Foundation had a combined income of $39.8 million for the fiscal year running from April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011.

With a staff of 150 full-time employees, the group’s revenue of close to $40 million makes HRC the largest national LGBT advocacy group. The group also owns its own office building in downtown Washington, an investment HRC officials and supporters have said helps the group advance its mission.

The building, among other things, houses a community event space that HRC calls the Equality Center, which often is used by local D.C. area LGBT organizations. The building includes a multimedia production facility. HRC says the building also generates income through the renting of surplus office space to outside groups and firms. The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue has assessed the value of the building for 2012 at $16.6 million, an increase from its 2011 assessed value of $14.4 million.

‘Surplus of ill will’

Despite its income and broad range of programs, some critics say HRC has worked at cross purposes with other national and state LGBT organizations. In a development that created a stir among some activists, veteran gay rights advocate Matt Foreman, the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and former head of New York’s statewide LGBT group Empire State Pride Agenda, wrote a strongly worded critique of HRC that was published last month in two widely read LGBT blogs.

“The reality is that we are two separate movements: the Human Rights Campaign and everyone else,” Foreman wrote. He said that while HRC and its leaders and staff have accomplished many important things, “the cause of LGBT equality has suffered because of a deficit of trust and a surplus of ill will between HRC and the rest of the movement.”

Foreman did not respond to a call from the Blade seeking to discuss further his criticism of HRC.

Leaders of statewide LGBT advocacy groups contacted by the Blade in California, Illinois, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania and D.C. each said they have an amicable working relationship with HRC. Although they declined to comment directly on Foreman’s views about HRC, the officials said it was not uncommon for LGBT advocates to disagree over strategy and tactics but that the groups they work with – including HRC – have always worked through the disagreements.

Rebecca Isaacs, the recently named executive director of the Equality Federation, a national group that represents LGBT advocacy organizations in the states, has been involved in LGBT movement groups on the national level since the 1980s, including her role as political director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

“HRC is part of the world of people with expertise on a lot of things,” Isaacs said, adding that Equality Federation is working with HRC on a number important issues occurring in the states. “We are dealing with 50 states, each with different people doing different things. My question is who wants to help? I’m not in any camp.”

Bil Browning, publisher of the Bilerico Project, an LGBT blog that published Foreman’s commentary criticizing HRC, said he was among HRC’s strongest critics in past years. But he said he has seen what he considers a major change for the better by HRC under Solmonese’s leadership.

Among other things, Browning said Solmonese greatly improved HRC’s relations with state LGBT organizations and significantly boosted HRC support for state and local initiatives. He said he saw this first hand as one of the leaders of the state LGBT group in Indiana, where Browning lived before moving to D.C.

According to Browning, HRC provided him with important support when he coordinated a successful effort to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in Indianapolis that includes protections for LGBT people.

“And as Indiana was fighting its marriage amendment battle, who was one of the first groups to stand up and say do you need cash, do you need polling, what do you need? It was HRC,” Browning said.

“I have to admit that for all my quibbles with HRC and some of the various stuff that they’ve done over the years, LGBT rights wouldn’t be as far as it is in Indiana without them,” he said.

Veteran gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein of D.C. was among some activists who viewed Foreman’s criticism as reflecting disagreements within the LGBT movement over tactics and strategy.

“While I agree with some of what Matt Foreman writes I think he needs to take some personal responsibility for the movement not being in sync,” said Rosenstein. “As he says, he had the opportunity to lead a national organization and it sounds like he still wants all things his way. I have often criticized HRC and I agree they should be more open and work more closely with the larger LGBT community. My hope is that they first do a truly open and wide ranging search for a replacement for Joe Solmonese.”

Longtime D.C. gay and Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell, who has advocated for LGBT support within the city’s African-American community, said he’s been an HRC member for many years and thinks HRC does good work on the local and national level.

“I have seen HRC reach out the black community,” he said.

Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., said he is troubled over what he called “internecine sniping” over HRC in the LGBT movement.

“The reality is that all LGBT activists and donors do not share the same goals, priorities and approaches.” He said GLAA and HRC “haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we have had a mutually respectful and productive relationship for many years.”

He added, “HRC does a lot of useful things, but if someone doesn’t like them, there are plenty of other groups to support…. HRC has a large and loyal donor base, and its headquarters is not going to crumble because of one more harsh op-ed. Any movement as diverse as ours is inherently messy. Deal with it, folks.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Why do you dedicate so much space to the demands and criticism of trans activists? These trans activists are the primary reason that there is no ENDA today, as they “persuaded” HRC to follow a suicidal policy of insisting that the bill be stuffed with “gender identity” provisions – which are dead on arrival in Congress. Bad enough that these activists have caused such appalling damage to this effort, but they contribute no money, no resources, and few bodies. In sum, all they do is make demands. Who cares whether they object or don’t object to HRC’s pursuing marriage equality? Their opinion should matter as much as that of any non-contributing loudmouth on the street.

    If HRC is entering a new era, let it be an era dedicated to actually getting things done. They can start by backing state battles for marriage equality to the hilt. And they can pass ENDA and benefit workers of all sexual orientations by introducing it in its original, intended form.

    • People who argue from the point of “It’s all about rights for ME! Let’s toss those Others under the bus!” play right into the hands of those who claim ENDA is granting “Special Rights”. But compromising your morality for personal benefit is human nature.

      I wonder what was on the minds of those white Civil Rights workers who came to the South to fight for equality for African Americans in the early 60’s were thinking. Justice, perhaps? You might find some of the non-LGBT “Allies” deserting you when you start knifing your loose “Community” in the back. Hypocrisy doesn’t play well.

  • Hmm, the complaint of Foreman and some others perhaps is that HRC doesn’t get along with other groups? Perhaps that just means these angry activitists won’t get along along with HRC?

    Solomonese seems to have been a strong leader. Most LGBT groups cannot obtain a leader who lasts more than a few months maybe two years. So something worked here.

    One hopes that in the rush to get ‘diversity’ in the leadership, HRC doesn’t pick a weak successor. Bizarre that the LGBT community has turned racial diversity into a fetish. Horrors: the best qualified candidate may be a gay white man?

  • Perhaps once they get some real transsexuals on their board of directors, not just one person who is only transgender out of convenience, HRC will finally get some representation. The problem is that these organizations are funded by rich gay men who want to marry their partners. These people have already made their fortunes and don’t care about workplace rights, more or less for transsexuals. The HRC is using lazy tactics to claim they are doing something for trans such as dangling a golden carrot in the faces of employers threatening their CEI scores if they don’t give in. Mind you now, I support the addition of trans medical procedures in the CEI but my point is that why isn’t HRC in Washington doing anything for ENDA. Why didn’t they use their influence in New York to put some grease into GENDA after marriage equality passed? Just like how GLAAD sometimes shifts away from media issues, HRC needs to focus back on workplace issues and before they can tackle anything trans, they need to bring on advisers and board members who are going through a medical transition and may be out of work or in low paying jobs. Sure, these people may not have a resume that looks very impressive on a press release but these people represent the real people that this organization is supposedly going up to bat for. Let the local equality groups handle marriage. Let the NCTE and local groups handle other trans issues. HRC needs to be focused on WORKPLACE issues that effect everyone.. nationwide.

  • Let’s hope the next HRC director rediscovers the HIV epidemic that continues to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of gay men. It is shameful that this organization, built on the donations and volunteer effort of men and women brought into the “movement” for a just response to AIDS–and the larger LGBT equality movement–behaves as if there is a cure for HIV infection and everyone who needs it has it. HRC reflects the agenda and values of its mostly white, educated, middle-class donors. Even those among them who are HIV-positive have “moved on.” Their private health insurance pays for their excellent medical care and medication, and they don’t much think about HIV/AIDS beyond that.

    Meanwhile, as many as 50 percent of young black and Latino gay/bi men in 21 US cities are HIV-positive. That is a higher rate than ANY country in the poorest, most HIV-plagued country of the developing world. Yet HRC has not been a champion of prevention funding proportionate to the burden of existing HIV and risk for new HIV infection among these men. In fact, you have to search a bit on HRC’s website to find even the outdated articles there on HIV. When questioned by a reporter about their HIV-related work, HRC spokespersons describe bringing the “heft” of their organization to encourage President Obama to overturn the ban on HIV-positive travelers coming to the US and on federal funding for needle exchange programs. But those two achievements have nothing, really, to do with American gay/bi men.

    I certainly hope HRC will use its perception of its “heft” to advocate on behalf of ALL LGBT Americans, not only its more privileged supporters.

  • Give me a chance to walk the halls

  • Barney Frank is gonna be job hunting soon………

  • The biggest problem with HRC is hardly that it isn’t politically correct enough. The biggest problem with HRC is that it has become a meek and compliant appendage of the Democratic Party. It prefer to manipulate gay people for the Democratic Party than pressure the Democratic Party for gay people. The President tries to postpone DADT repeal until 2011, and HRC compliantly runs interference and blames Congress for it? No, the organization has destroyed its credibility.

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