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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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He acknowledges that electoral victories have changed the faces in official Washington, but says that's not enough. "We have friends in the White House and in Congress. What we don't have are legal, legislated protections."

Steve Elmendorf, who has his own lobbying firm, was chief of staff for then-Rep. Dick Gephardt for 12 years and deputy presidential campaign manager for John Kerry. He is openly gay and calls the demands by some activists understandable but unrealistic. "Getting things done in Congress is hard. . . . How hard was it to do health-care reform, immigration . . . climate change? I think Joe and the HRC have done a great job in advancing our interests. Nobody gets everything they want and nobody gets everything as quickly as they want."

Critics, he says, "should focus on the people who are against us.

Jim Messina is the White House deputy chief of staff. He calls the notion that Solmonese should be calling for picket lines "bull[expletive]."

"I've been in Washington 15 years and have seen many different organizations, and I would rate Joe and the HRC as one of the top," he says. "He's been helpful in working for a shared agenda, and been honest when he disagrees, and that's what you want -- someone who gets things done and tells you when he disagrees."

Frank Kameny, 84, is one of the founders of the gay rights movement in America. He wrote his own appeal to the Supreme Court after he was fired as a Defense Department astronomer in the 1950s. He calls himself a strong supporter of Solmonese and the HRC and says that in the fight for equality, the truth is, you need both an inside and an outside game. "You can't conceptualize it as if there's just one way of going about things."

Kameny has picketed in front of the White House, the State Department and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and he has run for Congress.

"Establishing equality and non-discrimination ultimately has to rest in formal law," Kameny says, but to get there "one has to use all the methods, from lobbying Congress and at the state level, to getting very, very noisy and staging demonstrations. . . .

"If there's a knife in your back, you take it out six inches, then another six inches and pretty soon, it's all out. You've got to use every method to get it removed."

Up in the air

From London, where he spoke to a British gay rights group, Solmonese muses about how fraught victories in the gay community can be. How understandably emotional the debate can get when people feel their full rights as citizens are so very long past due. He says he tries to put aside that emotion when he's trying to get to the heart of a lawmaker's resistance.

He thinks he's winning the fight over achieving gay equality, but calls the struggle bittersweet.

"There's my standard answer: that it's the nature of social change, and you can't be the biggest organization in the movement and not expect that people aren't going to aim their frustration at me."

And his nonstandard answer?

"It's hard not to have it occasionally get you down and not have it occasionally hurt your feelings. If I try to filter the constructive from the non-constructive . . . I think it makes me better. And I think it makes all of us do a better job. 'Us' -- 'Gay Inc.,' as it were, the people at the table -- and 'us' -- the armchair activists, bloggers and people who are engaged in civil disobedience. If it's a meaningful exchange, I think it can't help but make you better."

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