Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese announced he would resign over the weekend, ending a near-seven-year stint at the helm of the inside-the-Beltway gay activist organization
Solmonese’s tenure was marked by a handful of victories, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a large increase in membership. But it was also dotted with growing discontent between the organization and grassroots LGBT activists, who saw the HRC’s lobbying style as inefficient, incrementalist, and at times counterproductive.
The HRC is one of the wealthiest lobbying groups in the nation, drawing in more than $45 million in donations in 2009 [PDF]. As a Beltway organization it focuses on national laws, endorsing congressional candidates who purportedly support equality, and issuing a list of gay-friendly businesses.
Some gay activists contend they aren’t getting their money’s worth. Following an HRC gala in North Carolina, Campus Pride founder Shane Windmeyer speculated about how helpful the earnings—$700,000—would be if reinvested in community efforts:
Imagine if the Charlotte Lesbian & Gay Community Center had a budget to pay for professional staff salaries (director, assistant director, programs coordinator) comparable to HRC staff salaries … Ask yourself: Would HRC’s Joe Solmonese work for under $35,000 a year as CEO? What type of quality of a director would HRC get? Would HRC be as effective if they ran solely on volunteer support without any staffing?
Whether we admit it or not, HRC has become a political fundraising machine—at the peril of others within our own LGBT and ally family.
Other activists are frustrated at the slow progression of the HRC’s professed agenda.
The first two years of Obama’s term, with a Democrat-dominated Congress, seemed like the perfect time to push LGBT rights.
But the only fruit of those two years was federal-level hate crime legislation in the form of the Matthew Shepard Act. And the HRC’s only other claim to federal-level change is the repeal of DADT, which owes as much to the confrontational style of LGBT veterans like Lt. Dan Choi as it does to insider lobbying.
Even with the end of DADT, transgender people cannot serve in the military—and many of them see the HRC as an organization that does not care about transgender people.
One particular dust-up came with the HRC’s attempt to push the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007.
While Solmonese has iterated a commitment to an act that includes protections for gender identity, the HRC supported a version of the bill that excluded transgender protections. Two members of the HRC Business Council resigned in protest, and transgender activists cited this as the latest example of the organization throwing them under the bus.
Monica Roberts, a transgender rights activist, wrote on her blog:
The drama between the transgender community and HRC (which sadly flared up last week after Rep. Frank introduced a non-inclusive ENDA) is a forty-year-old stew flavored with historical hatred, arrogance, political miscalculations, communication failures, misunderstandings, mistrust, and Machiavellian duplicity.
Solmonese may not have been directly responsible for these problems—or for the handful of successes HRC can claim—but he presided over them.
He has also been a staunch apologist for the Obama administration’s glacial pace on LGBT rights legislation, stating at the height of the DADT repeal waffling that he would refuse to judge Obama’s record until 2017.
So how can the HRC move on in a more progressive fashion?
That question presumes that the group wants to change direction and regain some relevance to the LGBT grassroots.
If it does—if the organization is ready to forsake insider clout and fancy galas, and use its extensive network and fundraising juggernaut to achieve LGBT equality in more than just marriage—the perfect opportunity has arisen.
The first step might be replacing Joe Solmonese with someone who is transgender, a person of color, and/or from a working class background, to grant the organization some needed perspective.
Then, the HRC could extend the fight beyond just marriage by prioritizing a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, fully repealing DADT once and for all (including for transgender individuals), fully supporting LGBT candidates for public office, and fighting AIDS discrimination and lack of care—particularly since HIV cases have jumped among young gay black men in the past year, and remain disproportionately high amongst young gay men.
Solmonese’s resignation might allow the HRC to learn from its critics, working with grassroots organizations for a “pincer-like” approach to LGBT issues: Lobbying at the top, and pressure from the grassroots at the bottom.
But that’s only possible if the HRC allows this to be an opening for growth and change, not more of the same.