Well it was an interesting 2 hours sitting up there with the heads of major LGBT advocacy orgs today during Mike Signorile’s LGBT Leadership Town Hall. Invited to the panel were National Gay & Lesbian Task Force executive director Rea Carey; National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling; Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese (via BBC uplink, audio only); Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director Aubrey Sarvis; and former Clinton White House advisor on gay rights Richard Socarides.
I know, I know, get to the red meat. No, I’ll start off with some general impressions — one, it wasn’t an HRC bloodbath as you might have imagined, though Joe and I got into a bit of heat over that “repeal in 2010″ fundraiser. Actually, one of the things Mike asked me to discuss was the somewhat strained relationship between the Netroots/grassroots and advocacy orgs. I have a clip of that below (sorry for the crappy video and sound, the camera was on a tripod far away and people blocked it at times, although some kind soul moved it when I was speaking, as you’ll see).
Reporter Jason Bellini was shooting high-quality video for his report, so once that’s up I’ll post it.
One point that I didn’t get to make today (this needed to be 3 or 4 hours long), was that I was there representing netroots advocacy – the one group that doesn’t have the kind of WH access all of the org heads have. This is not me saying I need to be on the inside so much as it’s hard to feel that I am representing any part of movement “leadership” since the White House doesn’t officially admit new media plays a role or has significant influence. The paradox of course is that they monitor my blog and other LGBT blogs with great interest to the point of near obsession.
How do I know this? More than once I’ve posted unflattering or downright angry articles about some BS the WH has released, only to find 5 minutes later my cell is ringing with the WH press office on the other line or a seemingly urgent correspondence clarifying something. Sometimes things get fed to me early. It’s kind of bizarre.
The whole point is that the netroots exists in a netherworld that is at once despised as too extreme or pushing the envelope — and any movement needs to have an element pushing at the margins to get an administration to react and act. Oftentimes this falls to blogs, or more recently we’ve seen direct action tactics like GetEQUAL’s catch the administration off guard. But since new media and grassroots activists don’t have access and are perceived as troublemakers politically uncontrolled allies by some orgs as well the administration, we are kept at arms length because we are those crazy grannies in the attic, as I said today.
So where were the clashes? I’d have to say that as a panelist, it’s much harder to keep track of everything, so it was interesting to read John Aravosis’s take of one portion of the event — that SLDN has been put in the dog house by the admin because it has been openly critical of the manipulation going on. It’s looking petty and juvenile, in my opinion. Leaving SLDN out of meetings with Jim Messina regarding DADT is ludicrous, so HRC was the “good, compliant gay org” invited. Don’t you remember Obama asking people to challenge him to do the right thing? Well, look what it got SLDN.
[O]ne bit of news that I found particularly interesting was that the White House has apparently been ostracizing SLDN, our lead “gays in the military” group. I know far more about this issue than what was said today, but much of what I know was gleaned in confidence, so I’ll only share what was public today (I’m only saying this to let you know that SLDN wasn’t lying, the White House has been playing games with them for a while).
In a nutshell, the White House got angry at SLDN last year for advocating just a bit too strongly (in the White House’s view) for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. You see, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina made clear last year that he wasn’t terribly interested in moving ahead with the repeal of DADT. Aubrey Sarvis, who heads up SLDN, somehow got the notion in his head that Barack Obama was serious when he said that he planned to be our fierce advocate and fight for the repeal of DADT. So Aubry took the White House on, held a protest outside, and ran an ad in one of the big Capitol Hill papers. Unaccustomed to gay rights groups who actually fight for gay rights, the White House decided to cut SLDN off. (Again, I know much more about this story from a variety of sources – the story is true.)
One of the biggest FU’s they gave SLDN was refusing to invite them to a key meeting with Messina earlier this year. That would be the meeting at which Messina made clear, only five days after the President promised in his State of the Union to repeal DADT this year, that he wasn’t very interested in proceeding with DADT this year either. (At the meeting, Messina lectured our groups about the US “being in two wars” – yes, he used the GOP talking point that is often used to oppose DADT – suggesting that somehow our fight for civil rights is unpatriotic, or at best an inconvenient distraction from the important business of our nation.) HRC was at the meeting, but not SLDN, our lead group on the issue. From what we hear, HRC didn’t exactly object to what Messina said.
And we wonder why the DADT repeal effort is so screwed up. The White House cut off our top group on the issue, and only dealt with those they felt they could manage. And manage they did.
I’ll have to unfortunately leave you hanging somewhat regarding the confrontation I had with Joe Solmonese over his definitive statement at the HRC Carolinas dinner that DADT will be repealed in 2010. I’m so tired (been up since 3:30 in the AM and don’t have that video processed yet). He couldn’t unring the bell, so his position now is he still believes, not knows, it will be repealed, which clearly isn’t what he’s been telling donors.
I mean really — I can say I believe flying monkeys are going to come out of someone’s bum, but I can’t promise it will happen; those statements are not equivalent. Being sure – or giving the impression a deal is done – is not likely to open the wallets as easily as an tentative “maybe.”
And Dan Blatt at GayPatriot, a site that rarely has anything kind to say about left-leaning LGBT blogs, agrees wholeheartedly with the institutional rot that has held back repeal:
Unlike the Democrats’ health care overhaul, the more time the American people have to consider repeal of DADT, the more they move in the direction of the Administration’s position, or, perhaps, given Mr. Gibbs’ comments yesterday, I should say, the Administration’s ostensible position. With even a majority of conservatives favoring repeal, pushing repeal would seem to be a no-brainer.
As we consider Gibbs’ comments, let us ask if, in the wake of Obama’s election, the national gay organizations ever met as a group and/or with representatives of the then-incoming Administration to plot strategy, setting down issue priorities and time lines. From where I stand, it seems that given “Gay Inc’s” enthusiasm for the Democratic Party, the heads of those organizations just assumed that now the Republicans were out of power, the new powers that be would move swiftly on gay priorities. Guess they based that assumption on the Clinton Administration’s record of accomplishment.
Now, given the disastrous manner with which that Democratic Administration handled the issue of gays in the military, it made sense not to push repeal of the ban in the first months of Obama’s term. Yet, now they seem to keep pushing it back. And back. And back. And then further back.
It should be underscored that perhaps there are members of Gay Inc see the issues clearly, but they may not be the ones in the room where Messina tells them how it’s going down.
UPDATE: there is a fantastic, near-transcript here. A snippet:
Michaelangleo Signorile: What is the relationship between netroots/grassroots and the groups in Washington?
Pam Spaulding: “We’re sometimes perceived as the crazy granny in the attic.” Blogs bring a lot of fear to the institutions and makes them reluctant to connect with blogs. She’s done several state level connections, and we have transparency at the state level, but it is not translating to the federal level.
Michaelangleo Signorile: Do that have a fear of engaging?
Pam Spaulding: Yes because of criticism of them, because they see the anger, but aren’t willing to be transparent. There is a disconnect between whether they are fundraising for the issue or for their own self-sustenance.
Michaelangleo Signorile: How do the orgs respond?
Rea Carey: At the Task Force, the grassroots and netroots are our world. We have a lot of relationships with bloggers. There are so many ways we can engage for those that can’t afford to come to Washington. For example the Queer the Census stickers. They ended up having to print 200,000 stickers thanks to the blogs instead of the initial order of just a few thousand. On ENDA, NGLTF has coordinated on phone banking with 18,000 calls to Congress, helping people who can’t go to Washington or their Rep’s office connect on the issue.
Joe Solomonese: I read Pam’s blog. She has some inherent philosophies and her criticism of HRC is generally constructive. But if she likes something we do, she says so, if she doesn’t, we listen and learn from it. That’s helpful. Not everybody in the blogosphere engages that way. Claims 1 million members (though acknowledges most aren’t donors, but HRC considers sticker buyers donors). Wants to talk about the 6 Senators again and moving them to support repeal of DADT.
Michaelangleo Signorile asks him to name them since he keeps bringing it up.
Joe Solomonese: Jim Webb (D-VA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Scott Brown (R-MA).
…Caller to Joe Solomonese: As pres of the largest national org, if the HRC promises made don’t get kept, how are we going to trust you?
Joe Solomonese. I still believe we are going to repeal DADT this year. We talk about what we are going to push for in the next year and the accomplishments we made in the last year
Pam Spaulding: I filmed you saying that statement. The audience was very firmly in their belief that it was going to happen, that HRC is in the White House. I think the message conveyed wasn’t true that this was a done deal.
Joe Solomonese. I believed then we’re going to pass repeal this year and I still believe that. I think we owe the community on how we’re going to do that. At the end of the day, HRC will decide whether we were right or not.