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Praise, criticism as HRC heads into new era

Some laud Solmonese for state focus, others say marriage crowding out other priorities



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.”


European Union

Latvia elects first openly gay president

Edgars Rinkēvičs has been country’s foreign minister since 2011



Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs (Screen capture via LTV Ziņu dienests YouTube)

The Latvian Parliament elected Edgars Rinkēvičs as the country’s next president in a vote held Wednesday. When he assumes office on July 8, he will be the country’s first openly gay head of state, as well as the first openly gay head of state of an EU country or a former Soviet country.

Latvia’s president is a largely ceremonial role that is elected by the national Parliament. He won a narrow majority of 52 out of 100 votes on the third ballot, held coincidentally during Pride week in the capital, Riga.

Rinkēvičs has served as Latvia’s foreign minister since 2011, a post where he became popular for championing European integration. 

In 2014, he became the first Latvian political figure to come out publicly, while the country debated a same-sex civil union law. To date, the Latvian Parliament has still been unable to pass any laws recognizing same-sex couples, despite multiple court decisions ordering it to do so.

Reached for comment after the election, the Latvian LGBTQ advocacy group Mozaika and Riga Pride released a joint statement saying they are thrilled with the election.

“We are thrilled about the fact that Edgars Rinkēvičs will be the next president of Latvia.  First and foremost, he is one of the most popular and professional politicians in Latvia, and with this election he broke the glass ceiling. He is an absolute inspiration to many young people and the LGBTQ community at large. 

We are hopeful that he will stand behind his promise to have human rights and democracy as one of his priorities and we believe he will play an instrumental role to strengthen Latvia’s society and will make it safer not just for the LGBT community but for many vulnerable groups,” the groups say.

Pride parade in the Latvian capital city of Riga. (Photo Credit: Riga Pride/Facebook)

Not everyone has been so thrilled. Former Member of the European Parliament Andrejs Mamikins, tweeted that “God will no longer bless Latvia,” in response to the election.

“Today, godlessness won the presidential election in Latvia. Disgrace and misery @edgarsrinkevics,” he wrote. 

Latvian TV reports that the State Police have opened an investigation into Mamikins’ post for possible violations of the law banning incitement to hatred. 

Latvia, a deeply conservative Baltic nation of about 1.8 million people about one-third of whom are Russian-speakers, regained its independence amid the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since that time, it has taken a stridently pro-Western political orientation, including joining NATO, the European Union and the Eurozone. 

But the country’s political elite has never warmly embraced LGBTQ rights. According to ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Index 2023, Latvia scored only 22 percent on a list of legislated rights for LGBT people, placing it 37th among 49 ranked countries.

Latvia’s neighbors on the Baltic Sea have also been slow to advance LGBTQ rights, although Estonia’s government is expected to advance a same-sex marriage bill in Parliament next week, and Lithuania’s parliament passed a civil union bill through a second reading vote in May.

While openly gay and lesbian people have served as prime minister of several other EU countries — including Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel and Belgium’s Elio Di Rupo — Rinkēvičs will be the first gay person to hold the role of head of state of an EU country. The only other openly gay head of state in modern history was Paolo Rondelli, who was one of the two Captains Regent of the microstate San Marino for six months in 2022.


Rob Salerno is a writer, journalist and actor based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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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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Prince George’s County library system launches banned book club

First discussion to take place in Hyattsville on June 14



(Bigstock photo)

The Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has launched its Rock Banned Book Club.

The club will feature monthly discussions of the 13 top banned books from 2022, most of which focus on LGBTQ-specific themes. 

The club’s first discussion, which will take place at the Hyattsville Branch Library on June 14, will be on “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. 

Kobabe’s memoir won the 2020 American Library Association Alex Award and recounts Kobabe’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality through adolescence and adulthood. According to the American Library Association, the book faced the most censorship challenges of any novel at 151.

“We’re seeing nationally the highest rate of challenges to books in libraries since the data has been collected by the American Library Association,” Nicholas Brown, acting co-chief executive officer of the library, said. “I think what happens with all of the discourse around book banning is that, oftentimes, not everyone participating in that discourse is actually taking the time to read the full works and discuss them and understand where the author might be coming from and whose stories are being reflected in these books.”

Along with the book club, the library system is hosting a Pride celebration at the Hyattsville branch on Saturday from 12 – 4 p.m. It will feature a panel discussion, vogue and runway workshops, free HIV testing and more. 

The library system will host its second annual Rainbow Festival on June 24 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bowie Branch Library with family-friendly events like craft stations, story time and a live DJ. In April, the library system won a Top Innovator Award from the Urban Libraries Council for its banned books campaign.

“I think a lot of folks don’t always realize that your local public library is kind of the front line of democracy and we always have been,” Brown said. “Public libraries across the country are very united on this and if the right to read continues to be under threat like it’s been, it is not a good time for the state of our democracy.”

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