Human Rights Campaign responds to ENDA concerns
Human Rights Campaign responds to ENDA concerns
SGN Exclusive interview - HRC President Joe Solmonese

by Liz Meyer - SGN Staff Writer

Now is not a fun time to be Joe Solmonese.

The embattled Human Rights Campaign (HRC) president has taken major blows on op-ed pages and from the other major LGBT rights groups for his organization's decision not to oppose the version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that excluded protection based on gender identity.

While 200 other organizations, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Lambda Legal signed onto a statement expressing their opposition to HR 3685 (which removed the sections from HR 2015 involving gender identity, such as appearance, shared facilities, and dress and grooming standards), Solmonese maintained that his group would not urge Congress to vote against the bill, but rather, would start a massive campaign in the next few weeks to push for a separate gender-inclusive bill.

HRC issued a press release on October 12 stating that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had given the organization her word that she would move a fully-inclusive ENDA ahead "as soon as the commitments to pass a fully-inclusive ENDA are acquired." To this, many nay-sayers replied: "Don't count on it."

Additionally, HRC, which has been criticized in the past for its relationship with the Transgender community, then had to weather the Oct. 3 resignation of Donna Rose, the only out Transgender member of HRC's board of directors, over its ENDA stance.

In her resignation speech, Rose said, "Less than a month ago HRC President Joe Solmonese stood before almost 900 Transgender people at the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta to pledge ongoing support and solidarity. In his keynote address he indicated that not only would HRC support only a fully inclusive ENDA, but that it would actively oppose anything less. That single pledge changed hearts and minds that day, and the ripple effect throughout the Transgender community was that we finally were one single GLBT community working together. Sadly, recent events indicate that those promises were hollow."

I spoke with Solmonese early this week, before Tuesday's news that Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) had secured an agreement from the Democratic leadership to introduce an amendment to H.R. 3685 that would restore gender identity protections to ENDA. The amendment will be considered on the House floor next week, after the sexual orientation-only bill moved through the House Education and Labor Committee on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Solmonese released an action alert to HRC members saying, "Over the past two weeks HRC has stayed at the table and fought for an inclusive version of ENDA. With Congresswoman Baldwin's amendment, the fight continues for another day. With not a moment to spare, now is the time for HRC members and supporters to swing into action. Please call your Representative and urge them to vote in favor of Representative Baldwin's amendment."

We spoke about some of the fall-out from his ENDA decision, which Solmonese called "the most difficult thing I've ever had to do." However, Solmonese stands by his position, saying that he truly believes HRC'S strategy is the one that will achieve an "inclusive ENDA most expeditiously."

Seattle Gay News: How do you respond to charges that going forth with an ENDA bill that did not include gender identity protection was a concession?

Joe Solmonese: Everybody has a different point of view about what exactly is happening on the road to social change. And I think that I am somebody who was watched here in Washington during both the Americans with Disabilities fight and the Hate Crimes debates. You're talking about a whole bunch of new members of Congress who're new to this business, some who look at it as a strategic step in moving towards an inclusive bill. They get re-elected and all of a sudden they come back and they realize they voted for that [a non-inclusive bill]. They're never going to un-vote for that. They're more emboldened than they were the time before, and you add gender identity protection to that legislation. It's sort of the nature of how things work on the Hill. And again, I'm not saying that that's my view, but I think that the Speaker, and Barney Frank and others, their immediate reaction to a vote count problem with gender identity was that we'll do this in three stages instead of one, or in two stages instead of one. I genuinely in my heart believe that that's the immediate place that people like [Representative, D-MA] Barney Frank and [Representative, D-CA] Nancy Pelosi went to. As you know, they have been strong and outspoken advocates for GLBT people their entire careers. You know, I've known Barney Frank for twenty years, and I genuinely believe that's how they saw this. Not as a concession, but their instinctive legislative skill set said to them, 'Okay, if the President's not going to sign this bill, let's get a couple of trial runs on this, let's find out where we are. One of the things that I thought was really interesting on the Hate Crimes bill was you go into these votes and you think that you've got everything locked down and a very clear sense of where members are, and when you walk into that floor and press the button, even then, you get a different outcome. You know, we thought we had 65 members of the Senate on the Hate Crimes bill; we got 60. And in the Senate, where the Republicans are holding us to 60 votes, I can tell you that was a nail-biter.

I look at that Hate Crimes vote, and I think, 'Gosh, we were counting on 65 members of the Senate to vote on that. We got 60. Now, if we were to go back and do a re-vote on the Hate Crimes bill in the Senate, which who knows, we may have to if the President vetoes it, the first place I'm going to go to is those five people who didn't vote what we thought they were going to vote. And I'll want to know what happened between the last conversation we had and the vote. So you've got many different layers of ENDA. You've got people who are there on the corporate regulation piece, they're there on the religious exemption, they're there on sexual orientation, but they're kind of newly struggling with gender identity questions.

You've got people who say they're fine on everything. If you gave me an inclusive bill, and you asked me to go to the floor and vote on it, I'm with you. If the Republicans offer a motion to recommit, where they take some piece of the bill and they extract it out and demand a free-standing vote, and of course, you know, the tactic is, you find the thing that's potentially problematic, so the Republicans extract out a free-standing motion to recommit and ask people to vote on the gender identity question. That member who has just said to me, 'I am with you on the final passage vote for an inclusive bill.' What about a motion to re-commit on gender identity? They say, "not so much."

To me, it's the complicated process of, "What is the way to most expeditiously get to a gender inclusive bill?" Do you take that road that I just sort of laid out, which is what I think what the members of Congress think is the most expeditious approach. Or, do you say, and I don't necessarily think there's a right or wrong, but I think it really illustrates the debate in the community, 'We're not ready. We're not ready to go. We don't have everybody 100 percent of the way there, so we're going to pull the bill. We're not going to vote.' As you know, the nature of Congress is there are probably a hundred pieces of business before Congress that are going to take a week's worth of debate that's sort of in the hopper right now. So we go through '08 elections, we go through '09. Here we are in October of '07 debating it, and then you get up to October of '09, and maybe you go into 2010 and then we're into the elections, and maybe it flips into 2011, right? There's the potential that ENDA flips to 2011. So, in 2011 we've been having all these conversations with all these members about the whole package. 'You're going to be good on gender identity, if it gets extracted out, you're going to vote the right way, you're going to do this, you're going to do that.' And so we've had all this time to educate and move members, but we would still be walking into that vote for the first time. So the question is, in 2011, everything has been in the abstract. Every conversation with every member has been an abstract conversation. And now it's real. You've been saying to us for a really long time, buddy, that you're with us. And that you're [not] going to extract out gender identity, you're going to hold the line, we've educated you, and you've told people in your district. But you don't really know until they go to the floor and cast the vote. Now, that's not a right or wrong. It's not like, you know there are people in the community who'd say, 'I still believe I'd rather do that and take the risk that in 2011 and we get the vote for everybody than a scenario where we get protections passed for some people in '07 and other sin '09.' And you ask yourself, which is the right way you have to go? Now, if you're guided by what you think might get us there fastest, you might say, 'Gee, let's do a two part strategy,' or you might say, "Gee, why can't we come back to this in '09? Why do we have to wait 'til '11?' Well, maybe we could, but now we've basically said to the Speaker of the House, who committed to do ENDA, 'Hold the bill.' Well, you know, other things get in the way, there's not a track record on ENDA, they haven't had that experience. So there's really no right or wrong answer on this. You could talk to ten different people out in the community, and you add to that people who say, 'Well, let's just take a vote on a non-inclusive bill and get something for somebody.' I, by no means, buy or accept that strategy, but there are some people in the community who say progress is progress. So there are lots of different points of view. I happen to think that's wrong, but I think there are lots of different roads to go down.

And I, in my heart, keep coming back to the same place. What do I feel in my work experience, in my life experience, in my personal relationships with members of Congress and the personal conversations that I have had? Of the 200 people out there of all the different groups that have come out in opposition to this bill, I don't think any of them have had as many one-on-one, personal, intimate conversations with members of Congress as I have. So I had to ask myself the question in understanding all of the wrath that it might bring upon me: 'What, in my heart, do I think with all of this information, will bring us to an inclusive ENDA most expeditiously?' And that's why when we made a decision at HRC about, you know, it's not so much what to do, because neither we, nor Equal Rights Washington, nor the Task Force, nor anybody else sort of drive what to do. What we're really being asked to do is react to what Congress attempts to do. So when Congress, when Nancy Pelosi, and Barney Frank, and George Miller and others said, 'This is what we're going to do: we're going to move forward on a non-inclusive bill, and then we're going to come back, and we're going to build on this success and build towards an inclusive bill, and the timing might be such that, by the time we've voted on this thing two or three times, we'll have a president who's been in office for a little while and is ready to sign it.' So it is part of a thoughtful strategy. So HRC, the Task Force, and everybody else, is charged with, 'Okay, well, how do you react to that?' and as you saw, most groups came out in immediate opposition to it. They took the central question that was before them, 'How do you react to a piece of legislation that's non-inclusive?' and they said, 'Well, we oppose it.' Now, most of those groups don't score Congress. Most of those groups don't keep Congressional scorecards. Most of those groups don't have that kind of relationship that we do. So, in the language of the Hill, if you say to a member of Congress, 'We're opposing a piece of legislation,' it means two things, at least to HRC it does, because of the way it functions. It means that you are going to work to defeat the bill, you're going to communicate with your membership and say to e-mail Congress, call your congressman, tell him not to vote for that bill. And you'll see, like, PFLAG sending emails saying, "Vote against the bill, tell your congressman not to support this bill.' You actively work against the bill. There's the expectation that you're going to do that if you're true to your word and you "oppose" the bill. The other thing you're expected to do if you oppose the bill is that you would characterize it, and for HRC's purposes that would be in the form of our Congressional scorecard, as a negative, as having done a bad thing.

We haven't said we're going to push the bill as is. We've never said that. We do not support that. What we're saying is we're not going to stand in the way. We're not going to try to defeat this bill.

So, having said all that, I'm having conversations with all these members of Congress, the most supportive members of Congress on inclusive legislation, the greatest allies out there on working on inclusive legislation. They say to me, 'Joe, I want to be really clear here. No one's going to work harder to get this bill passed and have this be an inclusive bill. But at the end of the day, if I'm handed a sexual orientation only bill to vote on because that's what comes out of committee, I'm going to vote for that bill. And I'm going to vote for that bill because I'm going to be open to the idea that Barney and others are putting forward; that it's a stepping stone to what I really want. So I'm going to vote for that bill. You, as an organization, cannot characterize that action on my part as a negative thing. So, you can't oppose the bill and score that against me. Because (a.) I'm voting on the bill I've been handed, and (b.) I'm open to the possibility that this is kind of a two part thing. I want to keep it moving. I want to show that I'm one of the ones that will vote for a Gay bill, and then I'd love to move other members to vote for a better bill.' So that's a piece of information that nobody else is faced with. You don't have that dynamic existing if you're any other group out there. So we have to take all of those facts and say, 'What does the community expect of us?' They expect that member of congress that's going to do that is going to be there for us to come back and fight another day. If we score that member of Congress badly, and say, 'That was a bad thing, you've lost your 100 percent score,' if we're going to be true to our word in opposing the bill, we're going to work to defeat it and then characterize your actions as a bad thing. If we do that, then we're going to come back to that member of congress and we're going to say, 'Now we're going to talk to you about same-sex partner benefits, or Gays in the military,' or a myriad of other issues; they are going to have a different perception of what it means to have a positive working relationship with us because we were unwilling to see what they thought of as a well-intentioned thing to do, and we characterized it as a bad thing. That is the thing that most struck me. It was not my relationship with the Speaker or with Barney. It really struck me that so many of these members who were so supportive of the inclusive bill, said, 'Joe, you're in a different place from everybody else. You score and mark and characterize and talk about everything we do. And if we do something that we think is a well-intentioned move to get us to a better place, you can't characterize it as a bad thing.' Now, it's really funny, people have said this to me, they said, 'Well, Joe, why you didn't just oppose the bill, and then not do any of those things. Just go stand with everybody else.' People say we're giving Congress a wink and a nod. We're not being clear about our opposition to the bill and somehow that sort of tacitly saying it's a wink and a nod to support the bill. What I'm saying is that we're trying to be consistent. So to the people who say, 'Oh, Joe, just oppose the bill, why can't you just take a principled stand? Just don't send those press releases. Don't give them a bad mark.' Well, that would be inconsistent. And now what I'd be faced with would be that we'd oppose the bill, but we don't do any of the stuff expected when we oppose a bill. Well, that would put all of the consistency of our rating system in jeopardy and it would say we were saying one thing and doing another. So it was a very difficult decision to come to, to say that we're a very different organization from everybody else because of the way that the community expects us to deal with Congress, and as a result, we're going to take a different position from everybody else. And every single day that goes by, I would rather feel that we're taking the position that ultimately the community would expect us to take, and take the criticism in the short-term, so that you know, if and when a non-inclusive bill passes, the morning after that bill passes, when all those well-intentioned members who now are ready to do the work to move towards an inclusive bill, look for an institutional partner and look for the resources to do it, I want to make sure that we're that group of people.

SGN: Some opponents of the movement to pass the non-inclusive bill have suggested that the most conservative of the Republicans in the House wish Representative Frank had pushed an inclusive bill because it would've made it easier for them vote against. Was this idea a consideration in your strategy?

JS: I don't think you get a lot of people, if you watch the Hate Crimes bill debate in the House, I don't' think you get a lot of people on the right who said, 'You know, I can support Hate Crimes protection for Gay people but not Trans people.' I don't think you get a lot of people on the right who sort of parsed it like that. If you watch that Hate Crimes bill debate, they didn't even know the difference! They used the wrong words, they used the wrong imagery, they were all over the map. I think it's not so much they wanted Barney to introduce the bill because it would've made, let's say you're saying, a more stark difference between what Democrats stand for, what Republicans stand for, something like that. I think it's more that it goes back to the original point, if he'd put gender identity in the bill, it would have given them their motion to recommit. It would've given them, they understood that even among Democrats, there was a difference between support for sexual orientation and support for a motion to recommit. And the language for the motion to recommit is like a wedding. Right before the vote, the person in the chair says, 'Is there any other business?' and the minority party says, 'We want to add veterans and seniors and all this stuff to the Hate Crimes bill," and if it doesn't pass it goes promptly back to committee which means it essentially kills the bill. So what you're asking is the majority party to do then is say, 'Wait a minute, before we go to a final vote, we've got to take a vote on this issue, this thing that they've extracted out of the legislation.' So I think the reason they wanted gender identity is perhaps because it would give them the subject matter of their motion to recommit. And they knew that in extracting it out that it could potentially be a problem for the Democrats. But I don't think that the right is so ideologically focused on sexual orientation versus gender identity that they see one as being worse than the other. Maybe there are some moderate Republicans. I just think that, when you move to the right, they don't really distinguish. Watching the Hate Crimes debate was when it was it was really interesting because you thought to yourself, 'You know what? They're much more tactful than ideological in this.' If someone were to say to me, 'I think people hate Trans people more than Gay people,' I can't make any sweeping assumptions about members of Congress, but I did view during the Hate Crimes debate, that they really didn't parse it out that way. They lumped us all together in their condemnation.

SGN: Has it been difficult, getting this flak from a lot of other groups for HRC's stance? You guys really were the only ones to take this position.

JS: It's the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. It's been incredibly difficult for me. But the thing is, the easy thing for us to do would have been to oppose and to walk away. But in my heart, I still believe that taking a slightly different tact, staying at the table, particularly with those well-intentioned members of Congress, not the leaders, who say, 'Gosh, Joe, I'm with you on the gender identity piece, but if I'm given a bill that doesn't include it, I still want to vote for it,' it's those people, the masses on the Hill, that I want to be able the morning after this vote to say to them, 'Okay, you know what? We were consistent, we respected your point of view that this was the way to an inclusive piece of legislation, and because we respected that point of view, because we're not going to mark that against you, are you going to work with us now over the next year to 18 months to move this toward an inclusive bill?' In my heart, I felt like that was an incredibly difficult thing to do, and I and the organization have come under a great deal of attack for it, but I still stand by it, I still go to bed every night knowing that in my heart I'm doing what I think is moving our community towards an inclusive bill in the most expeditious way. That is at the end of the day what guides me.

I just keep saying that we're all going to get there at some point, and the thing is, there's no danger of the President signing the bill. It's funny. Some people say to me, 'My God, if the President's not going to sign this, why are doing it?' and I think just the opposite. If the President's not going to sign the bill, let's just go through this and have two or three votes on this and get everything right.