Thursday, August 14, 2008

HRC's Joe Solmonese discusses ENDA, Obama on Fire Island

There remains often intense debate within the movement for LGBT rights as to whether the Human Rights Campaign actually advocates on behalf of LGBT Americans--or is even a relevant force on Capitol Hill and around the country. The organization is, for better or for worse depending upon a person's perspective, remains the largest LGBT organization in the United States with an estimated 800,000 members and a $40 million annual budget.

HRC President Joe Solmonese was quick to point out this fact during our recent interview in the Fire Island Pines. We discussed, among other topics, Barack Obama, the prospects of marriage for same-sex couples in New York and the continued fallout over his decision to endorse a trans-exclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act last fall. The full article from EDGE is below.

Known among many as one of the cradles of the movement for LGBT rights, both the Fire Island Pines and neighboring Cherry Grove routinely draw some of the country’s most influential activists and elected officials. And Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese is the latest to make the trek to the beach.

He spoke to several supporters in the Pines on Aug. 9. Solmonese stressed one of his organization’s biggest priorities are to elect Barack Obama, pro-LGBT candidates in both the U.S. House and Senate and to secure marriage for same-sex couples in New York and other states.

"This is critical," he said.

Solmonese told EDGE in an exclusive interview earlier in the day he feels Fire Islanders remain a critical force in the movement in New York and around the country as activists in the state and around the country expand their efforts to extend nuptials to gays and lesbians.

He asserted their influence will only increase as the state and others move towards the possibility of allowing marriage for same-sex couples in the coming years.

"Someone may be here in the Pines and visiting from [Los Angeles], but the fight for marriage equality is about the next step towards marriage," he said. "It’s not just about New York."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick overturned a 1913 law on July 31 that prevented gays and lesbians from other states from marrying in the Commonwealth. California became the second state to allow nuptials for same-sex couples to marry after a landmark state Supreme Court ruling took effect in June.

Anti-LGBT organizations successfully collected enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot this November that would prohibit marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Solmonese expressed confidence this issue will not galvanize the electorate as it did during the 2004 Presidential election. He pointed to Iraq, the slumping economy and high gas prices as the issues on which he feels voters will focus.

"The electorate is so [singularly] focused on these issues and it won’t allow a candidate to change the subject," Solmonese said. "That’s good news."

He further criticized presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain for his opposition to the federal hate crimes bill and other pro-LGBT legislation. Solmonese stressed he feels Obama would work to ensure their passage if elected to the White House.

"Barack Obama is the key to all that happening," he said.

Appointed to head the HRC in March 2005, Solmonese’s most controversial decision remains his endorsement last fall of a version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act without transgender-specific protections. More than 350 LGBT and allied organizations from around the country formed the United ENDA Coalition as a direct challenge to HRC’s decision. Solmonese maintains a trans-inclusive ENDA simply did not have enough support on Capitol Hill.

He conceded the subsequent debate over ENDA has been challenging for not only his organization but the entire movement. Solmonese maintained, however, the HRC remains committed to securing Congressional support for a trans-inclusive bill.

Solmonese further categorized United ENDA’s mission as "trying to kill the bill." Solmonese added more trans people have come to the HRC to see what they can do to help advance a trans-inclusive version of the bill.

He conceded, however, ENDA still faces a difficult road.

"Our community needs to understand... nothing gets done in a one- shot deal," Solmonese said. "That’s never been a way we’ve built complex and sweeping legislation in this country."

Despite persistent criticisms over its ENDA stance, Solmonese remains confident the HRC continues to have a positive impact on the lives of LGBT Americans. The organization counts roughly 800,000 members and has an annual budget of $40 million. And Solmonese said his membership remains enthusiastic about HRC’s mission and work in Washington and around the country.

"It’s important to remember these 800,000 [people] who continue to respond to what we ask them to do," he said. "There’s an awful lot of people who support us."

Solmonese further maintained a positive outlook towards his organization and its mission.

"Despite all the chatter... in the community, we remain singularly focused on the work ahead," he said.

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