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

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; C01

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.

Friends suggested he attend an HRC dinner. Solmonese calls the experience transformative. "I was struck by the size of the audience, and more than anything, really, the elected officials," he says. "I remember the mayor was there. Candidates running for office. Geraldine Ferraro was the speaker. I was struck that they all had come seeking the support of the community, to make their case to the community."

He went on to work as a deputy policy director for Emily's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women running for office, and 12 years later left as CEO, in 2005. He then became president of the HRC, which turned 30 this year. The 750,000-member nonprofit lobbies, educates lawmakers and raises money for gay-friendly political candidates.

At Emily's List, "I'd learned a great deal about the potential power that any committed constituency group has to make change in the electoral process," Solmonese says. "I was thrilled to be able to take the lessons . . . and bring them to an organization that was helping me and members of my own community."

A bruising decade spent fighting AIDS and the results of the 1994 elections, which brought many anti-gay lawmakers to leadership positions in Congress, "caused our community to become dispirited," Solmonese says. "We were out in the cold for a very long time."

He worked for change primarily through the system. In 2006, HRC spent $4.1 million on elections; by 2008, the figure had increased to $7.3 million. "It's one thing to have pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people in Congress," Solmonese says. "It's another thing to have them feel that the community was a central part of sending them there." When Obama became the Democratic presidential nominee, Solmonese says they put full resources of the HRC behind him.

He cites last year's passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a key legislative success; a few years before, it had been undone by a veto threat from President Bush. He also points to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, expected to come to a House vote soon, and recent testimony to Congress by top military officials to advance the president's goal of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as key breakthroughs.

It is that seat-by-seat, vote-by-vote progress that his critics miss, Solmonese says, that betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how work gets done in Washington.

Both sides of the aisle

Hauslaib, for one, is tired of waiting. Working within the system has left holes, he says: There's been no repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" or of the Defense of Marriage Act. There's been no passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

He thinks it speaks to the ineffectiveness of the large gay advocacy groups, especially the HRC -- "critics, and Queerty is among them, believe that they don't have any force or conviction behind their demands."

What works, according to Hauslaib (who says Queerty has 750,000 visitors a month), are the grass-roots activists, gay blogs and mainstream media telling stories of gay disenfranchisement and demanding accountability. "It's not to say that the HRC deserves zero credit, but it would be a gross mistake to put the hospital visitation memorandum completely in their corner. . . . If anyone has been lax in pressuring the White House, it's the HRC."

It's a complaint echoed by San Francisco blogger Michael Petrelis, 51, who writes the gay/AIDS blog Petrelis Files. "What I say is Joe Solmonese is not the fierce advocate we need. The fierce advocate would start with a picket line" at the White House, which is not what "Gay Inc." does, he says.

" 'Gay Inc.' means there's an elite, the A-gays, where they get good six-figure salaries, they have fabulous clothes, and they are interested in perpetuating their jobs more than gay liberation," Petrelis says.

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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