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October 13, 2009

HRC's Solmonese: dinner attendees 'more politically aware', have 'better sense of what's at stake'

Posted in: Uncategorized

UPDATE: see more commentary at the end of the piece.


Those are his words, not mine. Joe Solmonese said them to CNN’s Don Lemon in an interview on Sunday that hasn’t received much play, and there are some interesting nuggets that reveal more about thinking inside the org than he probably meant to share.

It’s rare to see the whole diversity/class/power dynamic that vexes the LGBT movement opened up since it’s a third rail topic that tends to give some with privilege a case of defensive agita. It’s likely this unintentional level of candor won’t be seen again any time soon.

LEMON: Joe, I got to ask you this. We had a panel last night, Dan Savage, Michelangelo Signorile, Dan Choi, Hilary Rosen on. And some of the folks who are on that panel said that the HRC doesn’t represent the masses of gay people in the country, that it is, you know, one certain group.

Do you think that the group — how do I put this — that there is a lack of diversity within the HRC, and if it were more diverse, that that might help the cause?

SOLMONESE: Well, I think that — you know, I know that — I think it was Michelangelo who was making some sweeping comments about the number of people in the room and who was in the room, although he did start by saying he couldn’t get into the room. So, you know, I sort of take that with a grain of salt. But we’re the largest LBGT organization in the country with nearly a million members. Most of them are small donors and supporters all over the country. And so, I think we absolutely represent the LBGT community.

But I think that — as Hilary mentioned last night on the show — perhaps the crowd at the dinner last night was a little bit more politically aware and had a better sense of maybe, you know, what’s at stake and what needs to be done. Because at the end of the day, what all these fights come down to — and this is where we are in this movement…

A couple of things are quite notable. Lemon asks about the diversity issue within HRC. Solmonese can’t answer that question without either fibbing or going down a really uncomfortable path, so Joe chooses to answer the question in terms of paid membership, so he can reference the multitude of small dollar donors. Those donors weren’t at the dinner, nor are they in leadership positions or on the board of the advocacy org.

The real boo-boo, however, is the claim that the crowd attending the annual dinner is more politically engaged, more boned-up on the issues, and even more incredibly, know more than you folks out there — living in places where you have no rights whatsoever — about what is at stake. Well, those who opened their wallets to see the fabulous Lady Gaga and the cast of Glee (after all, the dinner sold out before the President’s appearance was billed), surely are in touch with the issues more than you are. Joe said so.

But seriously, there obviously were committed activists in that room, people who deeply care about those without the access and power to effect change in the same way they can. It’s too bad that they get scooped up in the criticism of HRC’s poor handling of the diversity issue. By raising the value of the attendees as “the players” who know better, he’s essentially confirming all of the worst stereotypes. Those skeptics outside of the LGBT sphere who saw that non-diverse audience that night are even less likely to support LGBT issues (more on that below).

Adele Stan, in a piece worth the click, “LGBT Activists Criticize Obama’s Speech for What Wasn’t There, But Miss a Very Big Thing That Was“, she points out that the real landmark comment the President made that went unnoticed – he made the connection between the black civil rights movement and LGBT rights.

[E]ven more importantly, completely overlooked by activists as they battle for marriage rights was a critical turning point: In anticipation of the criticism he clearly expected to receive, Obama compared the movement for LGBT rights to the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

Now, I’ve said this before, I’ll repeat it again — it’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago. (Applause.) But I will say this: We have made progress and we will make more.

This is not a statement without some risk for Obama. It’s a comparison often met with resentment in the African-American community — a comparison few have the moral authority to make. The nation’s first African-American president is one of them.

On one level, that’s correct – that needed to be said. On another level, it’s not enough. If you want to see how much impact that statement really had in the aftermath of that speech, surf over to a blog I respect a great deal, Jack & Jill Politics (“A black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics“), where there is a plethora of politically informed, educated black netizens who are tapped into the progressive blogosphere. The President’s comparison went in one ear and out of the other for way too many of the commenters.

It’s fair to say that The President needs to repeat that link in equality movements in front of other, non-LGBT audiences over and over to make it stick. In those comments at J&JP you’ll see:

* Criticism of the complexion of leadership of too many of our orgs with this dinner a nationwide televised display of the gap in race and class  alienating commenters in the thread, feeding the stereotypes quite nicely;

* black gays called house negroes/having house negro syndrome;
— it matters not if you have a long record of challenging the lack of diversity in LGBT leadership and political inclusion and representing the community on-air; you’ve revoked your black card.

* the claim that gays have all the rights that they need and deserve, because they see the snowstorm at the public events, and it follows that all gays are white and have money and don’t show up for social justice issues affecting POC. And that means homos need to “get to the back of the line” for rights.

I feel sorry for the poor gay brother in the comments there who can’t get a break.

As I told a much more diverse audience at NC Pride:

For blacks and other minorities who have to learn how to integrate in the dominant culture out of necessity, they are often feel frustrated and defensive hearing the lack of knowledge exposed when whites make the tentative steps to engage. The honest truth is that, outside of working alongside people of color, there's a lot of social self-segregation going on (on both sides).

What this lack of cross-community dialogue means for out LGBTs of color is that one has to be willing to put yourself out there to be attacked, over and over for addressing homophobia in communities of color knowing that few, if any, white LGBTs are going to come forward to have your back.

I see it time and again, with the excuses ranging from "I'll be called a racist" or "it doesn't feel safe to do this" or "it isn't my place to do it. " Well if you're waiting for it to be safe, it isn't going to happen.

So it is in this environment that black LGBTs have a difficult choice about whether to come out, though more and more are. Fearful of losing social connections, friendships and emotional shelter provided by their faith community if they come out, black gays and lesbians in the church are intimidated.

They fear the judgment of those in the pews and the pastors spewing anti-gay bile from the pulpit. Some of these minority LGBTs simply cannot envision stepping out of the closet because they don't see a welcoming largely white LGBT community on the other side of the door.

And the reaction in that thread tells you how bad this problem is.

So it’s in that context that Solmonese’s comments are a tragic, confirmed truth that just slipped out in the interview. Our movement needs to address how our largest LGBT organization can represent the reality of LGBT America, because its representative just let everyone know that in HRC’s reality, the right mix – the most effective mix – of people in the LGBT equality movement attended that annual dinner. I’m not sure how the rest of us rate other than as a small dollar GAyTM. Maybe Joe will tell us the next time he’s on the air.

UPDATE: I know you all are venting your anger in the comments, but you’re missing the point. This isn’t about destroying HRC; in order to have the level of influence it has on the Hill, and given where the distribution of wealth exists in this country, you’re going to get a demographic like that at the dinner. The main problem here is not that there’s something inherently wrong with being wealthy, the problem is that those with wealth, like those in many demos, tend to naturally self-segregate. It’s the whole class issue. It’s not first nature to ask themselves — “is it important to make a place for those we normally do not socialize with, activists not of wealth who are integral to the LGBT rights struggle to our events?” When it’s raised in an assertive posture as many of you have expressed, there is often a backlash defensiveness akin to (“those ingrates, they don’t know what we’ve done for them”); so serious discussions about how human nature and class/diversity issuse are true problems to solve turn into flamethrowing.

There are truths on both sides. If you don’t like how things are managed in your name, get into the game and not just be a keyboard activist. I have. Despite little free time with a full-time job and this blog, I do work locally, I give what I can to causes, I visit schools to talk to LGBT youth — that’s just as important as anything I write here. I may not have the money to drop for a dinner ticket, but I give to my local equality organization, participate in workshops and panels, and try to make a difference that way too. You choose where your dollars go.

HRC funds many programs that do outreach in the broader, more diverse community with those donations; so complaints that it all goes to administrative overhead and salaries, while it may feel good to rip, doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of the impressive work HRC is and is capable of doing. If you started another organization by scratch, it’s likely you’d end up with something that looks much like HRC. What could be different is the outlook of the people running the place — are there ways to be inclusive of fresh ideas and perspectives that doesn’t require a large sum of money to earn a place where the decisions are made? If not, why not? It’s apparent that Joe Solmonese’s unfortunate comments broadcast to the world revealed how he sees the world of LGBT leadership, influence and visibility. In the wake of the comments it would be good to hear whether the organization plans to respond to the viewpoint of its face of the movement expressed in that interview.


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