Pam Spaulding

HRC's Solmonese: dinner attendees 'more politically aware', have 'better sense of what's at stake'

Filed By Pam Spaulding | October 13, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: HRC, HRC gala dinner, Joe Solmonese, National Equality March, Obama's big speech, politically aware

Those are his words, not mine. Joe Solmonese said them to CNN's Don Lemon in an interview on Sunday that hasn't received much play, and there are some interesting nuggets that reveal more about thinking inside the org than he probably meant to share.

It's rare to see the whole diversity/class/power dynamic that vexes the LGBT movement opened up since it's a third rail topic that tends to give some with privilege a case of defensive agita. It's likely this unintentional level of candor won't be seen again any time soon.

Transcript and more after the jump.

LEMON: Joe, I got to ask you this. We had a panel last night, Dan Savage, Michelangelo Signorile, Dan Choi, Hilary Rosen on. And some of the folks who are on that panel said that the HRC doesn't represent the masses of gay people in the country, that it is, you know, one certain group.

Do you think that the group -- how do I put this -- that there is a lack of diversity within the HRC, and if it were more diverse, that that might help the cause?

SOLMONESE: Well, I think that -- you know, I know that -- I think it was Michelangelo who was making some sweeping comments about the number of people in the room and who was in the room, although he did start by saying he couldn't get into the room. So, you know, I sort of take that with a grain of salt. But we're the largest LBGT organization in the country with nearly a million members. Most of them are small donors and supporters all over the country. And so, I think we absolutely represent the LBGT community.

But I think that -- as Hilary mentioned last night on the show -- perhaps the crowd at the dinner last night was a little bit more politically aware and had a better sense of maybe, you know, what's at stake and what needs to be done. Because at the end of the day, what all these fights come down to -- and this is where we are in this movement...

A couple of things are quite notable. Lemon asks about the diversity issue within HRC. Solmonese can't answer that question without either fibbing or going down a really uncomfortable path, so Joe chooses to answer the question in terms of paid membership, so he can reference the multitude of small dollar donors. Those donors weren't at the dinner, nor are they in leadership positions or on the board of the advocacy org.

The real boo-boo, however, is the claim that the crowd attending the annual dinner is more politically engaged, more boned-up on the issues, and even more incredibly, know more than you folks out there -- living in places where you have no rights whatsoever -- about what is at stake. Well, those who opened their wallets to see the fabulous Lady Gaga and the cast of Glee (after all, the dinner sold out before the President's appearance was billed), surely are in touch with the issues more than you are. Joe said so.

But seriously, there obviously were committed activists in that room, people who deeply care about those without the access and power to effect change in the same way they can. It's too bad that they get scooped up in the criticism of HRC's poor handling of the diversity issue. By raising the value of the attendees as "the players" who know better, he's essentially confirming all of the worst stereotypes. Those skeptics outside of the LGBT sphere who saw that non-diverse audience that night are even less likely to support LGBT issues.

Adele Stan, in a piece worth the click, "LGBT Activists Criticize Obama's Speech for What Wasn't There, But Miss a Very Big Thing That Was", she points out that the real landmark comment the President made that went unnoticed - he made the connection between the black civil rights movement and LGBT rights.

[E]ven more importantly, completely overlooked by activists as they battle for marriage rights was a critical turning point: In anticipation of the criticism he clearly expected to receive, Obama compared the movement for LGBT rights to the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

Now, I've said this before, I'll repeat it again -- it's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago. (Applause.) But I will say this: We have made progress and we will make more.

This is not a statement without some risk for Obama. It's a comparison often met with resentment in the African-American community -- a comparison few have the moral authority to make. The nation's first African-American president is one of them.

On one level, that's correct - that needed to be said. On another level, it's not enough. If you want to see how much impact that statement really had in the aftermath of that speech, surf over to a blog I respect a great deal, Jack & Jill Politics ("A black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics"), where there is a plethora of politically informed, educated black netizens who are tapped into the progressive blogosphere. The President's comparison went in one ear and out of the other for way too many of the commenters.

It's fair to say that The President needs to repeat that link in equality movements in front of other, non-LGBT audiences over and over to make it stick. In those comments at J&JP you'll see:

* Criticism of the complexion of leadership of too many of our orgs with this dinner a nationwide televised display of the gap in race and class alienating commenters in the thread, feeding the stereotypes quite nicely;

* black gays called house negroes/having house negro syndrome;
-- it matters not if you have a long record of challenging the lack of diversity in LGBT leadership and political inclusion and representing the community on-air; you've revoked your black card.

* the claim that gays have all the rights that they need and deserve, because they see the snowstorm at the public events, and it follows that all gays are white and have money and don't show up for social justice issues affecting POC. And that means homos need to "get to the back of the line" for rights.

I feel sorry for the poor gay brother in the comments there who can't get a break.

As I told a much more diverse audience at NC Pride:

For blacks and other minorities who have to learn how to integrate in the dominant culture out of necessity, they are often feel frustrated and defensive hearing the lack of knowledge exposed when whites make the tentative steps to engage. The honest truth is that, outside of working alongside people of color, there's a lot of social self-segregation going on (on both sides).

What this lack of cross-community dialogue means for out LGBTs of color is that one has to be willing to put yourself out there to be attacked, over and over for addressing homophobia in communities of color knowing that few, if any, white LGBTs are going to come forward to have your back.

I see it time and again, with the excuses ranging from "I'll be called a racist" or "it doesn't feel safe to do this" or "it isn't my place to do it. " Well if you're waiting for it to be safe, it isn't going to happen.

So it is in this environment that black LGBTs have a difficult choice about whether to come out, though more and more are. Fearful of losing social connections, friendships and emotional shelter provided by their faith community if they come out, black gays and lesbians in the church are intimidated.

They fear the judgment of those in the pews and the pastors spewing anti-gay bile from the pulpit. Some of these minority LGBTs simply cannot envision stepping out of the closet because they don't see a welcoming largely white LGBT community on the other side of the door.

And the reaction in that thread tells you how bad this problem is.

So it's in that context that Solmonese's comments are a tragic, confirmed truth that just slipped out in the interview. Our movement needs to address how our largest LGBT organization can represent the reality of LGBT America, because its representative just let everyone know that in HRC's reality, the right mix - the most effective mix - of people in the LGBT equality movement attended that annual dinner. I'm not sure how the rest of us rate other than as a small dollar GAyTM. Maybe Joe will tell us the next time he's on the air.

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Or maybe clue us in next time he is asking for money.

Angela Brightfeather | October 14, 2009 12:11 AM

This is a fact. People who attend HRC dinners and spend hundreds of dollars every night they are there, some literally thousands of dollars, know exactly whateveer it is polticially that HRC wants them to know, and little else.

This has been proven time and time again, and tomorrow, if you were to attend an HRC dinner and conducted a straw pole of people coming out of dinner and asked them a mix of political questions, they would either quote the last HRC brochure that was mailed to their home or sent to them on the internet, or drawe a big blank. One thing they do not do is to form their own opinions and bring them to the dinner with them and be affective, let alone express them openly.

I have personally picketed HRC dinners and have done a straw pole of sorts, the first time that Trans people were written out of ENDA.

When handing out brochures that stated that HRC was not supporting Trans people to be included in ENDA, guest after guest questioned why not. One after the other said they had no idea. Almost uniformly people said they did not know that HRC was doing that or that it was their position also.

I will grant that at a national dinner the percentage of politicial awareness might reach a level of 50 to 60%, but that also is counting many, many HRC people who work at HRC and attend the dinner in order to fill seats and as a perk of the job. So, of course, the level of political awareness is higher there than at the local dinners held in other cities and with lower tier speakers.

Very little about that crowd or the mix seen there and their level of political knowledge has changed over the last 10 years.

What I believed back then and still do today, is that the only way to change HRC and it's polciy of incrementalism which serves them and acts as justification for their existence, is to hit them in the pocketbook. You see, as long as the issues are alive and well, they can make money and keep on feeding the process as well as their pay envelopes every Friday. In other words, if you want to get their attention, step up the picketing at the dinners and boycott the local dinners unless there is some real progress with HRC working with, instead of having to dominate or crush, every other GLBT rights group in DC that wants a place at the political table.

Start to funnel the funds to groups like NGLTF who were front and center when it came to things like forming United ENDA. Give your money to PFLAG and encourage parents and relatives of GLBT people to gather and exercise their political awareness.

There are a lot of good organizations that need your money and will do the lobbying for free and help to organize it for you and at the same time will not teach you how to be a parrott reciting a mantra or denigrade you as a polticial neophyte.

Right now, there are so many things that HRC is doing wrong that it's hard to list all of them. But the one thing that really outdistances every other thing is that they refuse to listen and to open themselves up to everyone who is not a Rhodes Scholar or has a million in the bank. they are a political monopoly in a community of diversity. How weird is that?

Money talks and people walks. That is HRC's version of equality.

"perhaps the crowd at the dinner last night was a little bit more politically aware and had a better sense of maybe, you know, what's at stake and what needs to be done. Because"..,they have so much more money than most of the protestors.

Not so good at winning the masses, are we Mr Solmonese