This was originally going to be a column defending the Human Rights Campaign. I had grown tired of people taking cheap potshots at them over inclusion (or not) of transgender Americans in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The gratuitous, invective-laced attacks appeared vicious, personal, counterproductive and designed to damage the organization – and hence the overall interests of GLBT people.
Further aggravating me were churlish remarks on Internet chat rooms where supposedly professional activists would say things like, "HRC has no right to speak for me and does not represent the gay community." Well, the truth is, they do speak for you, by virtue of the fact they are the largest membership organization and have a $30 million dollar budget. This affords them a unique platform and by claiming their voice is irrelevant, it only hurts the status of the entire GLBT cause on Capitol Hill.
Whether you like it or not, HRC has built the best – or at least most financially viable – mousetrap. America is a free country, and if HRC detractors think they can do better – there is nothing stopping them from marching up to Capitol Hill and making it happen.
Now that I have taken a swipe at the irrational HRC haters, the organization has earned some legitimate criticism on their handling of the ENDA debate. They have made an absolute mess of the situation and damaged their reputation and credibility as an honest powerbroker.
For starters, Executive Director Joe Solmonese told a packed room of transgender people at the Southern Comfort Conference in September that HRC would oppose any version of ENDA that doesn't include protection for transgender people. This was followed by an Oct. 2, 2007 press release – posted on the blog Pam's House Blend:
"Since 2004, HRC has had in place a policy that supports only a fully inclusive version of ENDA and the Board of Directors voted to reaffirm that position," wrote Solmonese. "Therefore, we are not able to support, nor will we encourage Members of Congress to vote against, the newly introduced sexual orientation only bill."
Yet – today we come to find that HRC circulated a letter on Capitol Hill – along with other civil rights groups – asking members of Congress to support a non-trans inclusive bill. The letter said, "we urge you to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and to oppose any floor amendments or motions that would undermine its protections."
Reasonable people can disagree on whether HRC should take this incremental approach or wait for a more inclusive bill. I sided with a more inclusive bill for three reasons:
1) We owe transgender Americans much for their activism and it is the right thing to do
2) The transgender community is too small and does not have the money or votes to gain protections on their own.
3) Bush is going to veto ENDA anyway, so we should use this as an opportunity to educate America on transgender Americans.
The other side, led by Rep. Barney Frank, believes that we should seize the moment and pass a bill that has been stymied for 30 years. This, of course, is a difficult debate, and Frank's position is not without merit.
What is unacceptable, is for HRC to tell a packed house of transgender people that they will stand up for them – and then pull the rug out when the going gets tough. The promise of inclusion should never have been made unless HRC intended to keep its word.
In full spin mode, HRC is claiming that they are simply adjusting their position to new facts on the ground – meaning they polled Congress and they won't pass a trans-inclusive bill. This explanation is alarming, in that one would think HRC would have taken a "whip" count on their signature piece of legislation before they ended up getting whipped. Had they no idea of where Congress stood before making such flowery promises at the Southern Comfort conference? And, if they were aware of the vote count, why did they offer promises they did not intend on delivering?
It was sad to listen to Solmonese dissemble on Mike Signorile's Sirius satellite radio show about how he was for a trans-inclusive bill before he was against it – and unable to answer the simple question: "Why should we believe any of your future grandiose statements about equality?"
HRC needs to learn to take a position and stick to it – or they can expect chronic detractors to stick it to HRC. A little honesty will go a long way in defusing battles that damage the entire community and divide our collective energies. There are those – like myself – who appreciate HRC as our voice in Washington. However, the organization is at its best when this voice is not coming from both sides of its mouth.