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A new era begins for HRC under Chad Griffin

Immediate challenges include ballot measures, re-electing Obama

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Chad Griffin, gay news, Washington Blade

Incoming HRC President Chad Griffin (Photo courtesy of AFER)

After seven years leading the Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese steps down next week, bringing change to the nation’s largest LGBT rights organization just five months before a critical presidential election.

On Monday, Chad Griffin will officially take over as president of HRC, which, with an annual budget of $40 million and about 150 full-time employees, is often seen as the political and cultural lead for the LGBT community. Griffin was named HRC’s new leader in March and replaces Solmonese, who has headed the organization since March 2005.

Solmonese saw many historic and positive changes for the LGBT community in his seven years at the helm. Among them are the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment during the Bush years, the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and, most recently, the first sitting U.S. president coming out in support of same-sex marriage.

Major challenges await Griffin, including the effort to re-elect President Obama, who has already won HRC’s endorsement. Also ahead, fights over marriage on the ballot in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland and Washington State as well as pursuing long-awaited federal employment non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

Will Griffin take HRC in a new direction or bring a different style of leadership? The organization has often been criticized in the blogosphere for being too timid in taking on the Democratic establishment and not representing the “queer” faction of the LGBT community. Will the new leadership foster a new perception of the organization?

Griffin is best known for his work as board chair of the American Foundation for Equal Rights and its federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8, but he’s also had an extensive career fighting for progressive causes. According to his bio on AFER’s website, Griffin is founding partner of political and communications strategy firm Griffin-Schake, and taken on the tobacco and oil industries while advocating for issues such as clean energy, universal health care, stem cell research and early childhood education.

Another open question sparking plenty of speculation concerns HRC’s staffing. Will Griffin bring in his own people as he takes the helm? Some staffers — including David Smith, HRC’s vice president of programs — have been working in the LGBT rights movement since the early 1990s. It’s possible other HRC staffers may take Solmonese’s exit as a cue to make their own departure.

Both Solmonese and Griffin were unavailable for interviews for this article. LGBT rights advocates had different takes on their predictions for the leadership style of Griffin compared to Solmonese.

Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, called Griffin a “stupendous choice” and a “passionate advocate … for the range of issues that confront our community,” but characterized the new leadership as a continuation of the work seen under Solmonese.

“We’re not pivoting,” Stachelberg said. “It’s not as if we’ve moved from a leadership style of Joe Solmonese and we’re moving to the leadership style of Chad Griffin. What I think is encouraging about the shift from Joe to Chad is just the leadership that both of them have, the respect that both of them have — not only in the LGBT community, but in the progressive community more broadly.”

Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco-based blogger who has criticized HRC, was skeptical of any change and remained critical of HRC, calling the organization “an elitist social network known more for opening LGBT checkbooks for Democrats” than being interested in engaging with the larger LGBT community.

Among the goals that Petrelis called on Griffin to pursue at HRC were his plan for regional town halls, transparency over board of directors meetings and decisions, greater engagement with grassroots activists and ordinary LGBT people as well as a “commitment to members of the community who don’t want to get married or join the military.”

“The DNA of HRC is not wired to allow one man to change the institutional culture and I’ve heard nothing from Chad indicating that he wants to reform the organization,” Petrelis said. “All I expect of HRC regardless of who the executive leadership team comprises, is fealty to the Democratic Party and a commitment to keep the community from getting too pushy and uppity in demanding fierce advocacy and lasting change from our friends.”

But Stachelberg, formerly HRC’s political director, disputed the notion that HRC had been reluctant to criticize the Obama administration or Democratic leadership when the need arose.

“They’ve criticized the administration when they’ve seemed the most strategic, and they’ve worked with the administration and the Democratic establishment, as you call it, in lots of key ways,” Stachelberg said. “They don’t always agree with the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, and they make that clear. They don’t always agree with how a Democrat in a state operates, and I think they’ve made that clear.”

Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist, said he hopes HRC will focus on the presidential election and making sure President Obama stays in the White House.

“We have a presidential campaign, with, I think, the clearest difference we’ve ever seen between two candidates,” Elmendorf said. “I think there are obviously other priorities in the House and the Senate and the ballot initiatives, but I think that the community — and I don’t speak for HRC — but I hope that its No. 1 goal between now and Election Day is to make sure that Barack Obama wins.”

In the long term, Elmendorf said the LGBT rights movement must reach out to public officials who’ve been on the fence about LGBT support — especially Republicans.

“I think that a lot of politicians, particularly on the Republican side, are behind where the voters are,” Elmendorf said. “I think Barack Obama and gay marriage was hugely important and symbolic. We have to grow that on the other side, though. We have to get some Republicans to step out and show that it’s OK to be on the correct side on our issues, and you can do that and get re-elected.”

Elmendorf said he’s been a fan of HRC under the leadership of Solmonese and doesn’t think anything is wrong with the organization,  but acknowledged that “all organizations need to periodically change leadership and look internally at themselves and see how they can do a better job.”

“The world is changing on our issues and I think every year or two years organizations need to look at how the world is changing and figure out how we can do a better job,” he said.

Griffin has already taken a more aggressive stance in pushing public officials to support marriage equality even before he’s officially assumed his duties. Last month, after Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s “absolutely comfortable” with married gay couples having the “same exact rights” as straight couples — which many media outlets reported as support for marriage equality — Solmonese issued a statement saying he’s “encouraged” by Biden’s comments without explicitly calling it an endorsement.

But Griffin went a step further, telling media outlets that without a doubt Biden’s remarks were an endorsement of marriage equality. In an interview with the Washington Post, Griffin said “only in Washington and only in politics could someone parse the words of what the vice president said” and Biden was “very clear and very direct when asked if he was comfortable with gay marriage.”

Obama came out for same-sex marriage days later and Biden’s remarks have since been interpreted as an endorsement of marriage rights for gay couples (prompting Biden reportedly to apologize to the president for stepping out ahead of the president). Following Obama’s endorsement of marriage, Griffin issued another statement through HRC calling on members of Congress to follow the president’s lead.

“The American public has expressed interest in where their elected officials stand on the issue of marriage for gay and lesbian couples,” Griffin said. “The president has had the courage and integrity to speak out for marriage equality. Now is the time for members of Congress to do so too.”

Shortly thereafter, some public officials followed suit, including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D).

John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said Griffin has already demonstrated considerable skill as an activist, but said keeping up his effectiveness will be challenging after he officially assumes his new duties.

“Chad has proven himself an effective activist with proven political smarts,” Aravosis said. “The challenge for Chad will be maintaining his scrappy effectiveness while at the helm of a large organization not always known for being nimble and edgy. I think it can be done, but he’ll have his work cut out for him.”

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Chris

    June 7, 2012 at 10:00 am

    This article was really scraping the barrel to get a quote from a ‘blogger’ like Petrelis. Such a shame – he is a broken record and has-been.

  2. Fred

    June 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    NOM – A $12-15 million organization gives $425,000 to their cause in North Carolina.

    HRC – A $40 million organization gives $250,000 to its cause in North Carolina.

    Why is our group – with a budget 3X as large – doing far less? This was the identical pattern in ME, which took place in a year where nothing else was as important and where only one other race competed for HRC’s money. HRC gave our side a few hundred grand while NOM funded 2/3 of their side’s campaign. They simply will not commit their resources. They prefer to hoard and to spend lavishly on events and real estate.

    Also, of significance: they will not retain outside lobbyists. They prefer to hire their own, thus padding their payroll. But the reason effective interest groups retain outside lobbyists is because those lobbyists can be changed as needed – as control of Congress changes or as legislation shifts from one committee to another. HRC is locked into the people it hired years ago whether those people have relevant connections or not.

  3. El Dorado

    June 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    You bitches have better brace for really hard times on our issues if Romney gets into office. While Governor of Massachusetts, Romney wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal calling on all state Governors to oppose gay marriage and endorse a constitutional amendment against it! Romney crusaded against gay marriage and will likely spend alot of time fighting against it!

    The Supreme Court is in play again as an article pointed out several justices are getting closer to 80 years of age and there could be more than one opening. Romney has nominated Robert Bork to be head of his committee for Constitutional Amendment. Bork is very hostile toward gay issues and has a score to settle since we helped scuttle his chances to get confirmed to the Supreme Court.

    All these signs show Romney to be very hostile and dangerous to gay rights issues. It’s highly doubtful Romney would ever endorse anything we ask for including ENDA!

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N.C. lieutenant governor compares gays to cow feces, maggots

“If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said

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North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson (Blade file photo)

WINSTON-SALEM – Speaking to parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem last Sunday, November 14, North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson attacked the LGBTQ+ community in remarks caught on the church’s livestreaming video on YouTube.

Robinson said in his sermon that he questioned the “purpose” of being gay; said heterosexual couples are “superior” to gay couples; and that he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren why two men are kissing if they see that on television the Charlotte Observer reported.

The state’s Republican Lt. Governor then went on to compare being gay to “what the cows leave behind” as well as maggots and flies, who he said all serve a purpose in God’s creation. “If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said.

Democratic lawmakers expressed their outrage on Twitter:

According to the Observer, “The video was distributed Friday by a pastor at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, the day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance. A protest rally was held Friday in front of Robinson’s office, but organizers also read the names of transgender people who have been killed.

This man’s theology and religious practices are not only flawed and a perversion of the Christian tenets; he places countless people at risk of violent attacks and even murder every time he opens his mouth,” said Vance Haywood, senior pastor at St. John’s, in a statement.

Robinson is expected to run for the governor’s chair in 2024. In another video of the sermon captured the Lt. Governor ranting in transphobic terms his opinion of the Trans community:

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (Twitter Video)

Video of remarks made by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

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LGBTQ elder care facilities open nationwide, but discrimination persists

Advocates say seniors face challenges despite groundbreaking advances

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The Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing facility opened this week in Los Angeles. (Blade file photo)

Marsha Wetzel, an out lesbian, shared her life with her partner of 30 years, Judith Kahn, at the couple’s home in Illinois until Kahn died in 2013 of colon cancer.

As is the case with some same-sex couples who never married, Kahn’s family took legal possession of the couple’s home several years later, forcing Wetzel, who suffered from severe arthritis, to move into the Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a retirement and assisted living facility in Niles, Ill.

According to a lawsuit filed on her behalf in 2016 by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, when word got out that Wetzel was a lesbian after she disclosed her sexual orientation to a fellow resident, she was called homophobic slurs, spat on, and assaulted on several occasions by other residents of the facility. The lawsuit, which later resulted in a court ruling in Wetzel’s favor, charged that officials at the Glen St. Andrew facility illegally failed to take action to prevent Wetzel from being subjected to abuse and threats by fellow residents and retaliated against her when she complained.

Lambda Legal announced one year ago, on Nov. 20, 2020, that Wetzel passed away at the age of 73 of natural causes after a landmark 2018 appeals court ruling in her favor affirmed that residential facilities such as the one in which she lived are legally responsible for the safety of tenant residents.

“Marsha spent the rest of her days in a senior living community where she was out and affirmed,” said Lambda Legal attorney Karen Loewy, who represented Wetzel in the lawsuit.

Advocates for LGBTQ seniors were hopeful that the 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruling in the Wetzel case would speed up the gradual but steady advances in the rights of LGBTQ elders in long-term care facilities and in society in general.

A short time later, the New York City-based national LGBTQ elder advocacy group SAGE expanded its programs providing cultural competency training for the nation’s long-term care residential facilities. And in some cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, LGBTQ specific retirement and long-term care facilities began to open to provide LGBTQ elders with a wide range of “wrap around” services in addition to a safe place to live.

But LGBTQ elder advocates were taken aback in October of this year when news surfaced that transgender U.S. Army veteran Lisa Oakley, 68, was denied placement in more than two-dozen long-term care facilities in Colorado in 2020 and earlier this year.

“When they found out I was transgender, a lot of the facilities didn’t want me,” Oakley told USA Today. “A lot of transgender people, I’m sure, face the same thing,” she said. “We’re humans, just like everybody else.” 

Oakley told other media outlets her ordeal in trying to gain admission to a residential care facility began in October 2020, when she became unable to care for herself due to complications from diabetes. Her first choice was a facility in her hometown in rural Craig, Colo., where she had lived for the previous 25 years. She believes that facility turned her down because of her gender identity.

A social worker who assisted in Oakley’s applications for long-term care facilities said the facility in Craig said Oakley would have to be placed in a private room, which was at the time unavailable, “because she still has her ‘boy parts’ and cannot be placed with a woman” in a shared room. 

Many other Colorado facilities to which Oakley applied for admission, according to social worker Cori Martin-Crawford, cited the COVID pandemic as the reason for not accepting new residents. But as COVID related restrictions began to subside, other facilities continued to deny Oakley admission.

With Martin-Crawford’s help, Oakley finally found a facility that is LGBTQ supportive in Grand Junction, Colo., which is nearly three hours away from her hometown of Craig, where she had hoped to remain.

LGBTQ activists expressed concern that the discrimination that Oakley faced took place in the state of Colorado, which has a state law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Experts familiar with long-term care facilities for older adults have said many private elder care facilities can get around state LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws by claiming other reasons for turning down an LGBTQ person.

Michael Adams, the CEO of SAGE, told the Blade that the wide range of programs and initiatives put in place by SAGE and other groups advocating for LGBTQ elders in recent years have resulted in significant changes in support of LGBTQ seniors.

“It is the case now that in almost all states there are one or more elder care facilities that have been trained through our SAGECare program,” Adams said. “But it’s nowhere near what it needs to be,” he said. “It needs to be that there are welcoming elder care facilities in every single community in this country” for LGBTQ elders.

Adams was referring to the SAGE program started recently called SAGECare that arranges for employees and other officials at elder care facilities throughout the country to receive LGBTQ competency training. The facilities that participate in the program are designated “SAGECare credentialed,” and are included in SAGE database lists available to LGBTQ elders looking for a safe facility in which to reside.

SAGE spokesperson Christina Da Costa provided the Blade with data showing there have been 136,975 professionals trained at a total of 617 SAGECare credentialed organizations nationwide. Out of 617 organizations, 172 are residential communities. Also, out of the total of 617 are 167 Area Agencies on Aging, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, Senior Centers, and senior Ombudsman offices.

Da Costa said 278 of the credentialed entities that have received the SAGECare training throughout the country are “other aging focused nonprofit and for-profit businesses.”

According to SAGE, there are 12 SAGECare credentialed elder care facilities or service providers operating in the D.C. metropolitan area, with two located in D.C. One of the D.C. facilities is Ingleside at Rock Creek, located in Northwest D.C., which is a residential facility. The other is Options for Senior America, a company that provides in-home care services for seniors, including seniors living in D.C.

A SAGE list of the D.C.-area SAGECare credentialed facilities shows that three are in Rockville, Md.; two are in Gaithersburg, Md.; and one each are in Bethesda, Md.; Arlington, Va.; and Alexandria, Va. The list shows that one of them that provides services to elders in the D.C. area is based in North Carolina.

SAGE has a separate list of the 15 elder care residential facilities in the U.S. created specifically to serve LGBTQ residents. 

None are in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. However, SAGE says it has been working in cooperation with Mary’s House for Older Adults, a D.C.-based LGBTQ organization that advocates for LGBTQ seniors and is in the process of opening LGBTQ elder residential facilities in D.C. and others in the surrounding suburbs.

Mary’s House founder and CEO Dr. Imani Woody couldn’t immediately be reached to determine when the organization expects to open its first residential facility. 

While a residential LGBTQ elder facility has yet to open in the D.C. area, activists note that in addition to Mary’s House, services and amenities for LGBTQ elders in the area are currently being provided by the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive health center, which also has a legal services branch.

Adams of SAGE said the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center opened the nation’s first LGBTQ elder residential facility over eight years ago called Triangle Square. He said the L.A. Center opened a second LGBTQ elder residential facility a short time later. And this week, the L.A. Center announced it has opened a third LGBTQ elder residential facility in Hollywood that is part of a larger “intergenerational campus” that will bring together LGBTQ seniors and LGBTQ youth. 

SAGE, meanwhile, operates two LGBTQ elder long-term care residential facilities in New York City, one in Brooklyn called the Stonewall House and one in the Bronx called Pride House. 

The other U.S. cities with LGBTQ elder residential facilities include: Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco (which has two such facilities), San Diego, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, and Islip, N.Y.

Adams said the LGBTQ elder residential facilities range in size, with the largest – New York’s Stonewall House – having 143 apartments that can accommodate 200 residents. He said others vary from 40 or 50 residential units to 120.

Advocates for LGBTQ elders point to what they consider another important breakthrough for LGBTQ elders this year in the release of a joint SAGE-Human Rights Campaign Long-Term Care Equality Index report for 2021. Adams said the report is the first of what could become an annual report and rating and scorecard for long-term care elder residential facilities and other elder facilities. 

The 2021 report includes a self-reporting assessment of elder care facilities that the facilities themselves completed through a questionnaire in which many disclosed they have LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies for elders around admission to the facility and for practices by staff for those residing in their facilities.

The report includes a chart showing that 158 elder care facilities in 31 states responded positively to the outreach to them by organizers of the Long-Term Care Equality Index.

“We are thrilled to be working with SAGE and to be working with the Human Rights Campaign who are developing the Long-Term Care Equality Index,” said Nii-Quartelai Quartey, who serves as senior adviser and LGBTQ liaison for the American Association of Retired Persons or AARP.

“There is a great deal of work that we’re doing in the area of LGBTQ older adults nationwide,” Quartey told the Blade. “And AARP has been engaged with the LGBTQ community nationwide for many years now,” he said.

“In recent years, we’ve turned up the volume in working more closely with organizations like SAGE and Lambda Legal and the Victory Fund Institute, the Center for Black Equity, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and the Hispanic Federation.”

According to Quartey, a recent AARP study of LGBTQ elders called Maintaining Dignity shows that longstanding concerns of discrimination remain despite the many advances in support for LGBTQ seniors in recent years.

He said a survey that was part of the study found that 67 percent of the LGBTQ elders who responded, “were concerned about neglect in a long-term care setting.” Over 60 percent feared verbal or physical harassment in a long-term care setting and over half “felt forced to hide or deny their identity” as an LGBTQ person, Quartey said.

Another recent survey of LGBTQ elders conducted by SAGE asking them how they feel about the use of the word “queer” in descriptions of LGBTQ people yielded findings that came as a surprise to some, according to Adams. A large majority of those surveyed from across the country said they are “comfortable at this point using that word and reclaiming that word, which is different from what we had heard historically,” Adams said.

He said in response to those findings SAGE will now as an organization gradually shift to using the term LGBTQ instead of its past practice of using LGBT.

Although Congress has yet to pass the Equality Act, last year under the Trump Administration, Congress acted in a rare bipartisan way to approve the required five-year reauthorization of the U.S. Older Americans Act with new language supportive of LGBTQ older adults. President Trump signed the legislation.

The language includes a mandate for outreach to and reporting about services provided to LGBTQ older adults in federally funded programs. It also opens the way for LGBTQ older adults to be designated in a category of “greatest social need.” Under that category, older adults receive a higher priority in the allocation of resources by the federal government.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go to get over the finish line,” said the AARP’s Quartey. “And aside from passing legislation federally and on the state and local level, we absolutely need to continue the hard work of changing hearts and minds,” he said.

Longtime gay activist and writer Brian McNaught, whose latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray – Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives,” was just released, says his own very informal survey of LGBTQ elders found there is a need for intimacy that may be too controversial for the establishment LGBTQ elder groups.

“I’m a SAGE volunteer and the 81-year-old man with whom I was working after his husband of 47 years died, said after his grieving process, ‘I want to be hugged and kissed. Does that make me a bad person?’”

McNaught told the Blade he assured the man those feelings do not make him a bad person. McNaught said the man’s comment prompted him to conduct further research, in which he found that some gay male elders in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area who often need assisted living support would like to patronize gay bathhouses or seek the services of an escort agency. He said he determined that any LGBTQ elder group providing such services would trigger “a huge uproar of protests” and most likely a loss of funding.

“We don’t want to talk about sexuality and aging,” McNaught said.

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Former VOA director nominated to head U.S. Agency for Global Media

Previous CEO’s actions threatened LGBTQ internet freedom

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(Public domain photo)

President Biden on Monday nominated Amanda Bennett, the former head of Voice of America and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

“I am honored by this nomination,” Bennett told Voice of America. “If confirmed, I will be so proud to work with all the dedicated journalists at USAGM who are doing the critical and difficult work around the world of upholding and demonstrating the value of a free press.”

The agency operates independently from the U.S. government and oversees five different entities that include Voice of America, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. The fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials, privacy enhancement and security tools like encryption.

These tools have been integral in preserving internet freedom for LGBTQ people abroad, especially in places where it’s unsafe or illegal to be LGBTQ.

Bennett, 69, was named VOA director in 2016 and resigned from her post in June 2020 after conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s CEO during the Trump administration.

Under Pack’s tenure, several technology freedom experts said the former CEO thwarted the Open Technology Fund’s efforts abroad by freezing funds. Pack also ignored a House subpoena for an oversight hearing that was meant for him to address mass firings, withholding congressionally approved funds and other questionable activities.

Pack stepped down at Biden’s request in January, and the president named Kelu Chao, a VOA veteran journalist, as Pack’s replacement and interim CEO.

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