HRC leader stands by non-inclusive ENDA decision

'Learned the degree of pain' from community

by Todd A. Heywood

Capitol Correspondent

ANN ARBOR -

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington D.C., told BTL last week that he and his organization stood by their decision to support a non-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act bill on the House floor, but they had underestimated the pain such an action would cause.

"What we learned obviously was the degree of pain that it was going to cause in the community," Solmonese said during a wide ranging 45 minute interview.

"For all of the rational arguments about this as a building block towards something bigger, the sentiment particularly in the transgender community that this was code for - you know- 'we are leaving you behind.""

Solmonese said he still supports the strategy HRC employed when the House announced it would bring the bill out of committee without gender identity protections in it. That move caused a major fracture in the LBGT community across the country, with transgender activists pointing to Solmonese's own statement at a gathering in September 2007. During the Southern Comfort transgender conference, Solmonese told those gathered that HRC would not support a non-inclusive ENDA.

But that changed in a few short weeks when the House moved a non-inclusive ENDA from committee to the floor for a vote. At that point, Solmonese said, HRC had to support the bill. It was a matter of "choices" he said, and pointed out that you don't want a bill to fail on a vote.

"In that context, did I think then that it was best for the community that the bill pass? Yes," Solmonese said. "Do I still support that position? Yeah. What was best for our community was that the bill pass rather than fail. Sometimes it is hard for people to see the whole picture, but sometimes you are faced with choices."

"I think when you are in the group that has to wait it, doesn't feel very good," said Jackie Simpson, director of the Spectrum Center of the University of Michigan. Simpson was speaking as an individual because she said there were too many opinions on the inclusive ENDA matter to speak for the organization or the University. She said she personally did not support the move by HRC, but also believes that HRC is not against the transgender community. "It's hard to stomach. It's easy to intellectually rationalize why its important to move forward."

Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for Triangle Foundation, a statewide LBGT rights organization, directed his comments to the United ENDA group, composed of over 300 LBGT groups supporting passage of an inclusive ENDA.

"We want HRC to join United ENDA. We are not running around like a bunch of naive people who don't understand lobbying," he said. "We believe there is a way to get an inclusive ENDA. It's not transgender that is the problem, it is the political will. There is no reason for a noninclusive ENDA."

Julie Nemecek, a transgender activist who serves on the board of Michigan Equality, another Michigan LBGT rights organization, said she remains angry with HRC. She was in attendance at the Southern Comfort conference when Solmonese promised support for an inclusive ENDA.

"He lied to our faces," she said in a phone interview. "You don't divide up civil rights issues. It's entirely inappropriate and just plain wrong."

What else did HRC learn from the action? Several things according to Solmonese.

"What do you we know? We know that there is - on the heels of this vote - a gap of about 48 seats in the House between people who support a fully inclusive bill and people who support a sexual orientation only bill. What we know and what we are doing now is there are 48 different campaigns that need to be run in those districts to move those individuals and that is what they are doing."

Solmonese said the results also forced representatives onto the record.

"But again when you put something on the dockets and you force people to go to the floor to vote for it, all of these people who have only functioned in the abstract or answered questions in the abstract now have to get real about it," he said.

Asked how HRC was going to rebuild trust in the community, Solmonese was clear.

"The only way, and the best way and the only way we can make ourselves relevant in this issue or any issue is through our actions," he said. "It has to be through our actions and not our words."

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