Activists upset with HRC’s stance on trans-exclusive ENDA
by Matt Comer . Q-Notes staff
Unlike this National Transgender Advocacy Coalition protest of the national HRC dinner in Washington, D.C. in October, It’s Time-North Carolina plans to hold a non-
confrontational educational effort.
CHARLOTTE — For several years, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Carolinas Gala has attracted about 1,500 people to the Queen City for the Carolinas largest LGBT fundraising event. While this year will offer the usual mix of exciting activities before and after the extravagant dinner on Saturday, Feb. 16, attendees will notice one thing that is very different from previous gatherings.
Many transgender, former HRC supporters won’t be attending the main event this time. Instead, they’ll be standing outside the Charlotte Convention Center.
In what they are calling an “educational initiative,” members of the informal activist, news and networking group It’s Time-North Carolina will be passing out fliers and other materials to inform Gala attendees about HRC’s history and actions regarding the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and their treatment of the transgender community.
Last October, transgender activists and their allies in national, state and local LGBT advocacy organizations banded together in the United ENDA Campaign to confront what they saw as HRC and U.S. House leadership’s attempt to write a portion of the community out of protections guarding against employment discrimination.
When Q-Notes first covered this situation, we spoke to activists, spokespeople and congressional offices to get a sense on where everyone stood.
At the time, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) had proposed a new strategy for ENDA, splitting protections into two different bills. The first of those bills (H.R. 3685), protecting only lesbian, gay and bisexual members of the LGBT community, passed the House on Nov. 7. HRC came out in support of the bill after hundreds of other organizations had condemned it.
The second bill (H.R. 3686), including protections for transgender citizens, still sits in committee. It is an unfortunate reality that transgender activists said would happen. According to It’s Time-North Carolina organizer Angela Brightfeather, there is plenty of historical evidence that these “We’ll come back for you later” bills are never enacted.
“If you are going to come back for us like you say, then point to some place where you were actually able to do that,” Brightfeather told Q-Notes. “We have a number of states that had bills changed to be non-inclusive [of transgender people] and they never came back. One of the best examples is New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. Thirteen years later, we’re still waiting on people to come back for us.”
While acknowledging that all the blame for this ineffective strategy can’t be placed on HRC, Brightfeather said the group has a responsibility to do what is right because of their role as a powerful and influential national organization.
“HRC not only sets a standard for themselves, they also set a standard for groups across the states,” she said. “The idea of ‘we’re coming back for you’ has propagated all the way down to local grassroots movements. Even in Winston-Salem, N.C., we just recently saw a non-trans inclusive employment policy pass.”
HRC President Joe Solmonese told Q-Notes in an exclusive pre-Gala interview that his organization is doing all it can to educate members of Congress.
“The first and most important action we have to do is education,” Solmonese said. “For the first time ever [in fall 2007], House members, especially dozens of freshman members, really had to focus on the many aspects of this bill, like corporate regulation and the religious exemption.
“Now that we have that behind us we have a much better sense of where members are on the passage of the overall bill and we are now beginning the process to get a better sense of the plans we need to put in place with these individual members and their districts, to move them in the direction of supporting protections for gender-identity. If there is a disparity in support for sexual orientation and gender-identity, then we need figure out where that gap is and a way to close it.”
Solmonese said that HRC is working toward this through its efforts in states and local communities and particularly in corporate boardrooms.
“We are continuing to explore new ways, new programs and new benefits that are being tried in corporations to make that a better experience for transgender workers,” he said. “Obviously, Corporate America is so much further ahead of Congress and America, in general.”
But Brightfeather and her colleague Robbi Cohn aren’t buying it.
“Solmonese has suggested that we haven’t educated society and LGB people about transgender issues,” Cohn told Q-Notes, “but that just couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Brightfeather, who first started organizing for It’s Time-North Carolina 10 years ago, said transgender groups have for years held educational initiatives similar to the one to take place at this year’s Gala.
“This certainly isn’t the first educational initiative we have done,” she said. “Our first was in Raleigh, four years ago. We were tired of hearing about ‘education’ when we knew that part of the educational process had to happen with HRC and its own members. We decided to meet with them and talk about the issues. The best place to do it was at the dinners and galas. We started in Raleigh and moved to different cities and states, and then to the national dinner in Washington, D.C.
“We were included in [ENDA]. It took long and hard work from the early 1990s to 2004. And now, it has only taken them three years to figure out a way to take us out of it. The educational process so many say we need to do had been going on for years. Now it’s been stopped.”
Brightfeather said the transgender community is going back to “square one” with the fight over ENDA. Once again, they’ll take up their educational initiatives and re-do the same process they started years ago. Their main point: HRC’s theory of incrementalism won’t work.
“We understand politically exactly where HRC is coming from,” Cohn said, “But expediency isn’t made any more palatable or viable just because Solmonese thinks it is. I’d just like to talk about incrementalism and why it isn’t a viable option. He needs to show us some good results if it is as viable and successful as he claims.”
Members of Brightfeather and Cohn’s group will stand outside the convention center before and after the dinner, speaking to HRC members and supporters. They hope to be able to pass out fliers and informational papers explaining the ENDA issue from their point of view. In the evening, they’ll host a hospitality suite in the Westin Charlotte Hotel, giving Gala attendees an extended chance to meet transgender activists, leaders and community members.
“We don’t awant to invade any space and we don’t want to be confrontational,” Brightfeather said. “This won’t be an active protest and we don’t want to be known as ‘those radical trannies.’ In our own Gandhian way, we want to be able to educate others about our problems with HRC.”