HRC head gets praise, flak for Obama's gay-rights initiatives

MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Solmonese, Human Rights Campaign president, finds the HRC under fire from activists.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Solmonese, Human Rights Campaign president, finds the HRC under fire from activists. (Judy Rolfe/associated Press)
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By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Within the community struggling to advance gay rights, there is one thing, and possibly only one thing, that everyone agrees on: President Obama's announcement Thursday mandating hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners and enabling them to make critical health-care decisions was a very good thing.

With that announcement, arguably the administration's most significant expansion of gay rights, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese became the man of the moment. His D.C.-based organization, the nation's largest and most prominent gay rights activist group, had worked closely with the White House on the policy change.

That Solmonese has been given much of the credit for the behind-the-scenes educating, advocating, cajoling and schmoozing it takes to get priorities acted upon in Washington is undisputed.

Whether or not he deserves it is hotly contested.

Obama's mandate came after concerted lobbying efforts by gay-rights activists who strongly supported his presidential campaign. And it came after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last year showed the president a newspaper account of a Florida woman who was kept from the deathbed of her partner of nearly 18 years. That very morning, the president ordered work on the policy change to begin.

"I thought about those two women and their story," says Solmonese, 45, of the moment he learned of the announcement. "And about how many other people I've talked to over the last five years who have walked into hospital settings and either had a horrific or a less than a welcoming experience."

But when the directive was issued, Solmonese, currently stuck in London because of volcanic ash, says he couldn't fully give himself over to joy, because he knew it would be followed by strong critical reaction.

He's not talking about conservative groups such as Focus on the Family. Solmonese is not talking about the haters. He's talking about the furious: Gay activists and bloggers who think well-heeled nonprofits like HRC are too appeasing, too accepting of incremental change, too insidery. They have coined a term for their derision: "Gay Inc."

"The HRC entire MO for fundraising -- which they are masterful at, collecting tens of millions -- has to do with their level of access to lawmakers and policymakers," says David Hauslaib, 26, founder of the gay Web site Queerty. "What often gets lost in that conversation is whether they have any power or wield any influence with the lawmakers they take pictures with."

Within many civil rights movements, there is a fundamental disagreement about process: There are those manning the barricades or sending out missives, and those burrowing into the bureaucracy to make change. Those who stand hard on principle and never waver, and those who don't see the greatest good in hard stands. Those who take to the streets or the Internet vs. those who try to figure out how to get those last five votes on a bill.

Joe Solmonese comes down on the latter side.

Finding his way

Solmonese, a 1987 graduate of Boston University, had come out of the closet at 22 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. He needed a strong support network and a family of gay friends to buffer the reaction he thought he might get.

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