Donna Rose on Why She Resigned as the Only Transgender Member of HRC's Board

Though Donna Rose resigned as the first and only transgender member of the Human Rights Campaign’s board of directors on Wednesday, she has no hard feelings toward the organization. “I really believe that the board feels as though they have the best interest of the LGBT community in mind even though the end result doesn’t appear that way,” she told The Advocate, adding that work she has done with HRC has provided some her “proudest” moments.

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October 04 2007 12:00 AM ET

Though Donna Rose
resigned as the first and only transgender member of
the Human Rights Campaign’s board of directors on
Wednesday, she has no hard feelings toward the
organization.

“I really
believe that the board feels as though they have the best
interest of the LGBT community in mind even though the end
result doesn’t appear that way,” she
told The Advocate, adding that work she has
done with HRC has provided some of her
“proudest” moments.

But on Monday,
HRC’s board met for four “very
emotional” hours, according to Rose, and issued
a statement saying it would not advocate for passage
of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that did not
include protections against discrimination based
on both sexual orientation and gender identity.
The original, trans-inclusive ENDA was split into two
separate bills last week by Rep. Barney Frank, an out
member of the House of Representatives, because he feared
the inclusive bill lacked the votes for passage.

The HRC
board’s statement posted Monday read, “HRC
will not support the newly introduced sexual
orientation only bill.” But the real controversy
erupted around what wasn’t said -- HRC’s
statement never indicated that it would oppose passing
the “sexual orientation” only bill.

“I could
not fulfill my obligations as a board member to support that
tepid stance,” said Rose.

Most insiders
believe the creation of two bills will lead to passing the
non-inclusive ENDA through both chambers of Congress perhaps
this year (though President Bush may very well veto
it), while leaving the “gender identity”
bill to languish for an untold number of years. A
noninclusive ENDA was passed in New York, for
instance, in 2002, while five years later, its gender
counterpart (GENDA) still has an uncertain future.

Ever since Frank
split the bill last Thursday, LGBT activists have been
moving at warp speed to reverse the course of Congress,
which was scheduled to markup the substitute ENDA in
committee this week on Tuesday. By Monday about 90
organizations had signed on to a letter urging House
leadership to delay action on the substitute bill.

Meanwhile
communication from HRC had fallen into somewhat of a time
warp relative to other LGBT organizations. The
community’s most influential lobbying group
remained conspicuously absent from the aforementioned list
as it was originally posted on The National Gay and Lesbian
Task Force’s Web site Monday morning.

And Rose said she
felt “stranded” last week by the
non-communication even as others in the trans
community looked to her for answers.

Rose first became
aware that the original bill was in jeopardy last
Wednesday upon receiving a phone call from a trusted beltway
insider. Later that evening, she spoke to HRC
president Joe Solmonese.

“My
question was, ‘What were we going to do about
this?’ Because I understand that we
can’t tell Barney Frank or anybody else what to
do,” Rose said of her phone conversation with
Solmonese. “He really didn’t have a
clear strategy at that point,” she added.

Rose said she
didn’t hear anything more from Solmonese, HRC board
members, or staff until she decided to walk over to
HRC’s headquarters late Thursday afternoon. On
the way, she learned the board meeting, originally
scheduled for 6 p.m. last Thursday, had been canceled and
was rescheduled for Monday evening. “It gave me
the feeling that they were trying to put me on the
sideline while all this was going down,” Rose
said.

At HRC, Rose got
an update from the vice president of programs, David
Smith, in person. “At some point he asked me what I
felt was the right thing to do. I told him we
needed to support the fully inclusive version and to
oppose anything less,” said Rose, adding that Smith
indicated HRC was not likely to oppose a bill that was
gay-friendly.

Following that
discussion, Rose said she called a board cochair to
express disappointment that the board meeting had been
canceled.

“I felt
like this was an emergency and we at least needed to have a
discussion about what was going on, even if we
weren’t being asked to make a decision. I
didn’t feel that the board leadership felt the same
sense of urgency and, in fact, that they felt it was
important to wait for things to play out before we had
a board meeting to discuss them.”

Rose made a
follow-up phone call on Friday but said she was told they
were going to let the staff work things out before any
action was taken.

When the meeting
did take place on Monday, Rose was given the opportunity
to speak first.

“My point
of contention was and is that this entire experience
isn’t simply about the political discussion or
the pragmatism of passing a piece of legislation,
it’s about the way this has galvanized and united
the community in ways we’ve never seen
before,” said Rose. “And if we perceived
ourselves as leaders in that community, it was our
responsibility to align ourselves as a united community
rather than to be the only organization to choose a
position of neutrality on something so
important.”

Rose fully
believes that HRC and the board think the best strategy is
to take a neutral stance in order to leave the door
open for discussion with House leadership.

“That by
taking an aggressive stance in opposition, that would then
close opportunities for further discussion in terms of
getting a fully inclusive ENDA on the table and
through Congress,” she said.

She also said she
thinks Rep. Barney Frank pulled the original bill less
because of the iffy vote count than “the fear about
having a bruising discussion on the floor -- what
about transgender people in workplace, in schools,
what about this, what about that?”

But Rose would
rather risk having that discussion or not passing a bill
at all than to advance noninclusive legislation that she
feels is totally inadequate.

In the
resignation letter she posted Wednesday, she wrote,
“Transgender is not simply the
‘T’ in GLBT. It is people who, for one
reason or another, may not express their gender in
ways that conform to traditional gender norms or
expectations. That covers everyone from
transsexuals, to queer youth, to feminine acting men, to
masculine appearing women. It is a broad label
that cannot be confined to a specific silo of
people. It is anyone who chooses to live
authentically. To think that the work that we are doing
on behalf of the entire GLBT community simply benefits
or protects part of us is to choose a simplistic view
of a complex community. In a very real way, the T
is anyone who expresses themselves differently. To some it
is about gender. To me, it is about
freedom.”

After making her
resignation public around noon Eastern time Wednesday,
she had not yet spoken to Solmonese or HRC staff members as
of Wednesday evening. But one board member had sent an
e-mail asking her to reconsider her resignation. She
said she had also received “hundreds” of
e-mails from people across the country grateful for
her representation of them, leadership, and taking
what they considered a principled stand.

“My
resignation isn’t so much out of anger toward anyone
or anything -- I truly care about the
organization; I have put myself on the line on for it
more times than I care to remember,” she said. Rose
has been an HRC board member for two years and has
spent much of her time building bridges between HRC
and the trans community.

She said some her
doubting friends started to come around last month
after Solmonese traveled to the trans-centric Southern
Comfort conference in Atlanta to address the
transgender community.

“In front
of 900 transgender people, he had made a pledge that HRC
would not only support only inclusive legislation, it
would actually oppose anything less,” said
Rose. “I had people coming up and telling me that
they finally believed. So When Joe spoke and made that
commitment, it was loud, clear and
unmistakable.”

Of course, that
same community now has not a single voice on the board of
one of the most prominent LGBT rights organizations in the
nation.

“Logic
would tell me that I still have work to do there, that my
voice on that board is far more effective than on the
outside looking in,” said Rose. “But in
the same sense that I expected the organization to take a
principled stand on a very important issue, I
couldn’t hold myself to a lesser
standard.” (Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate)

Update: HRC board of directors cochairs Lawrie
Demorest, and Henry Robin, issued the following statement
about Rose's resignation.

"The entire HRC
family is deeply saddened by Donna's decision to leave
the board of directors. Donna has given a tremendous amount
of time, energy and passion to this organization, and
we are forever in her debt.

On Monday, the
HRC Board of Directors voted to affirm its 2004 decision
not to support a version of the Employment
Non-Discrimination Act that does not explicitly
include protections based on gender identity. We do
not support the current version of ENDA that is being
considered by the House, and are not advocating for it
on the Hill.

Donna maintains
that HRC should have gone further in its opposition to
the legislation and the strategy put forth by Speaker Pelosi
and Rep. Frank.

We respect
Donna's decision, and wish her only the very best. We hope
to find a way to work together in the future, to pass
a complete ENDA that provides employment protections
to all members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender community.

HRC is heartened
that Donna will continue her work as a member of HRC's
Business Council, and we look forward to working together to
pass a complete ENDA and continue to make corporate
America more fair and equal for GLBT employees."

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