HRC’s Solmonese: Turnout the votes to win in May, November

HRC Prez Joe Solmonese to make Carolinas Gala one of his last before stepping down in March

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: February 18, 2012 in Featured Stories, News

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese has led the charge for equality and has traveled the nation to speak out in support of civil rights for the LGBT community.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Shukar

On Saturday, Feb. 25, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Joe Solmonese will say goodbye. At least, that is, to his Carolinas membership and community. In the fall, HRC announced that Solmonese would be stepping down from his position. His last day is March 31. As of press time, a successor had yet to be announced, but the organization was working on it, led by the talents of such people as the state’s own Joni Madison, co-chair of the HRC Board of Director’s executive search committee.

Our last Q&A with him occurred before the city’s 2008 Carolinas dinner. Much has changed in this country and in this state since then — it only seemed fitting to catch up with the national leader before he bows out.

In anticipation of this month’s dinner, qnotes had the opportunity to speak with Solmonese in January. (His answers have been edited.)

Our last Q&A with him occurred before the city’s 2008 Carolinas dinner. Much has changed in this country and in this state since then — it only seemed fitting to catch up with the national leader before he bows out.

In anticipation of this month’s dinner, qnotes had the opportunity to speak with Solmonese in January. (His answers have been edited.)

Matt Comer:
You’ve been at the head of HRC for a little over six years now. What have you enjoyed most about your experience?

Joe Solmonese:
Three things, really. The opportunity to work not just with HRC, but with the community across the country to become what I really see as a more powerful force for change in this country, whether it’s for really the first time in a very long time to be able to pass laws that help our community from the hate crimes law to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to really having the opportunity to travel around the country and meet folks in a diverse set of communities who are facing all sorts of challenges and to do the work that has been able to meet some of those challenges. Mostly, to have the opportunity to work with the members and volunteers of HRC who, as you all know from being down in North Carolina, is just huge, expansive, passionate and committed about our work.

It seems HRC has done a lot of partnering with people and other organizations during your tenure. Have you stressed that from the top down, that this is not just a national organization, but one that also relies on grassroots support?
Collaboration is essential to social change. We know that from the work within our own community and through the context of history. That includes the collaboration we were a part of to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which included other wonderful organizations like Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and also incredibly committed and brave soldiers across the nation. It was a very unique collaboration to pass that landmark law. In state after state across the country, we need to be good collaborative partners, as well. In New York, in passing marriage equality there, we had a good, strong working collaboration with the governor, who was the real champion of marriage. That also included collaborations with local organizations like the Empire State Pride Agenda and other national organizations like Freedom to Marry. Partnerships are critically important to our success at any level.

You’ll be stepping down and won’t be at the organization in May when North Carolina’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment goes to the ballot. HRC has been very proactive in sending staff here and helping with other resources during the legislative fight last year and even now. This amendment comes in 2012 — the last amendments we saw were several years ago. Do you think the nation has changed enough that this amendment could be defeated in May?
I think it has. Some of that credit goes to HRC, but an awful lot of credit goes to members of the LGBT community who are on the ground in places like North Carolina who are living their lives open and proud and, in doing that, are changing people’s hearts and minds in more significant ways than any organization has the opportunity to. As a community and as an organization we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to take advantage of these kinds of changes and to do everything we can to defeat the ballot measure in North Carolina.

What will you tell audiences at the Charlotte dinner and how will you help to inspire and motivate them to get out and work to defeat the amendment?
They have a strong, committed and passionate partner in HRC. They have a wonderfully committed and expansive organization in North Carolina doing important work on the ground. Public sentiment on this issue is changing at lightning speed. The other thing we have learned, and that I will remind people of, is that ground troops and turnout and voting and participation are as significant as poll numbers. We have to do everything and influence that equation. Sometimes, we look way down the road and things look hard. We base that on poll numbers or public opinion we see today, but we’ve been the victim of that in the other direction. We’ve been ahead in some of these states and our side hasn’t been able to mobilize the ground troops like the other side has and we lost. We’ve been ahead 52-to-48 going into things and lost things 48-to-52.

The need to get voters out to the polls — do you see that as a general challenge, not only to the LGBT community, but also to the entire progressive movement? That, sometimes, we fail to turn out our folks?
I do. We have the added challenge of turning out LGBT people, not just to vote, but also to work on what needs to be done, as well as bringing in a broader coalition of people. That becomes a challenge. How many of us have friends or family members who love and support us and are committed to us as LGBT people and our families, but somehow that love and support doesn’t translate into the way in which they vote? How many have a parent or an uncle who says, “I completely support my gay nephew and his partner, but I vote for this guy because I like his position on taxes or I want to take home more money in my paycheck at the end of every week?” We’re doing better at that. We’re bringing homophobia to the level that racism or religious intolerance has in this country. Slowly, but surely, people are becoming unwilling to do that anymore.

Turning now to what was a major, divisive moment for HRC when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was considered and gender identity left out of the bill in 2007. Many people in the transgender community and their allies in the LGB community felt a little stunned with HRC. I get the sense here locally in Charlotte that the gap has been bridged over the ensuing years. Has that been your experience — that HRC has worked to gain back the trust of the transgender community?
We’ve certainly done that and we have wonderfully-committed members of the steering committee and the volunteer infrastructure in North Carolina who have stuck with us. And, there have been real leaders in the community in the Carolinas who, right from the beginning in 2007, were willing to come to the table and continue to be engaged in a dialogue. It was a procedural decision we made. It was not a decision that the bill should become law, but that it should be voted on really as a building block that should get us where we should be. I understand and regret it created a fair amount of pain within the community and a degree of division. What I have is that is we should be evaluated by our actions and not by our words. We have done a great deal of work, not just to reach out and engage in dialogue, but to put our resources, money and our actions where they count and to do work especially around access to healthcare. The only way we raised the bar for the Corporate Equality Index this year was around healthcare access for transgender workers. We’ve created a wonderful program here, Back to Work, designed to improve employment opportunities for unemployed or out-of-work transgender people. I hope that if our relationship with the transgender community is improving it is because we’re not just talking the talk, we’re walking the walk.

At the 2009 Carolina Gala, you told a short story about how good it felt, after the election of Barack Obama, to get into a cab and tell the driver to take you to the White House and “step on it.” What has your experience with the Obama Administration been like since then and how does it compare to your work with the Bush Administration?
We had virtually no working relationship with the Bush Administration — none at all. It was an absolutely adversarial relationship. The work we were doing was trying to defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment, which the Bush Administration was pushing. That’s what really defined it. I literally did that — I jumped into the cab, I was late going to the White House and I had this a-ha moment where I realized I’ve never done this in all the time I’ve lived in Washington. I’ve gone to the White House on a fairly-regularly basis over the past few years. I think we’ve had an incredibly positive and collaborative working relationship with the White House. It’s really been almost a partnership. We’ve had almost constant contact and dialogue with the White House both on things we’ve worked together on like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and on some issues where, historically, we really did not have common ground like the administration’s position on the Defense of Marriage Act and we’ve seen that change.

As you leave HRC and hand the reins over to someone else, what do you see as opportunities and challenges for our movement?
Well, I think the greatest challenge for the movement is the outcome of these elections. I think it is vitally important we do everything we can to reelect President Obama. If he is not reelected, I think the consequences will be dire. The challenge is to ensure, regardless of the outcome, that there is a path forward for every member of our community and that the Human Rights Campaign and the person leading it is as visionary and creative as possible in charting those paths forward. We go back to something like the ENDA — we were able to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and pass the hate crimes law and, still, we are challenged by the passage of ENDA. Yet, every day in a number of creative ways we are finding ways to safeguard and empower LGBT people in the workplace. Building on that model is going to be essential to the next leader.

Is the Charlotte dinner going to be one of your last local or state dinners?
It will be one of my last dinners and it also happens to be one of my favorite. Our friends in the Carolinas just seem to know how to celebrate and have a good time like nobody else. It’s a real weekend experience, a real destination dinner. I look forward to it every year. Our volunteers in the Carolinas are just extraordinary. It’s one of the things, actually, I’m sad about. People say to me, “Gosh, you work seven days a week and are on the road three out of four weekends a month,” but I enjoy that the most and it’s one of the things I’ll miss the most. The Carolinas community is so special to me and it is so special to HRC — it’s actually very meaningful to me that it’ll be one of the last few dinners I’ll attend.

Where do you see your life taking you now?
I’ve given some thought to what I’ll do next. I haven’t decided how I’ll spend all of my time, but I know I’ll spend a fair amount of time between now and November working to reelect President Obama. : :

— Matt Comer is a former editor of qnotes.