At HRC Gala, Pelosi Shines, While ENDA's on Everyone's Mind

The 11th annual national dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., on Saturday was expected to be a time of outright celebration, with the organization honoring Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for her instrumental role in passing both hate-crimes legislation and, it was hoped, an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that protected the entire gay, lesbian, and transgender community.

BY keleveld

October 08 2007 11:00 PM ET

The 11th annual
national dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in
Washington, D.C., on Saturday was expected to be a time of
outright celebration, with the organization honoring
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for her instrumental
role in passing both hate-crimes legislation and, it
was hoped, an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that
protected the entire gay, lesbian, and transgender
community.

But by the time
of the gala event, while a transgender-inclusive
hate-crimes bill had indeed passed both houses of Congress
and was headed for the president’s desk,
passage of a trans-inclusive ENDA was still up in the
air, with the LGBT community divided about it and the
House leadership scratching its head.

Joe Solmonese,
president of the Human Rights Campaign, began his speech
that evening by saying, "All right, let’s talk
about the elephant in the room -- and for a change, I
don’t mean the Republicans. There are
protesters outside this auditorium who feel great despair.
There are people inside this auditorium who feel the same
way. Let me just say I welcome their declarations..."

But as Solmonese
addressed the sold-out crowd of more than 3,000 guests,
some of the very people he was speaking to --
transgender members of the community -- turned their
backs in defiance and perhaps even in disgust.

Meredith Bacon, a
transgender woman, was one of them. "I find it
difficult to respect somebody who has promised something to
me face-to-face and then seems to be backing away from
that promise as fast as he can," said Bacon, a
professor of political science at University of
Nebraska–Omaha, who also sits on the board of
directors at the National Center for Transgender
Equality.

Bacon admitted
the situation is extremely complicated, noting that
Solmonese is a personal friend and that HRC has done great
things for the transgender community over the years.
But Solmonese has declined to oppose legislation
introduced by out congressman Barney Frank that would
protect people from being fired on the basis of their sexual
orientation while relegating protections for
transgender people to a separate bill.

Frank introduced
the separate bills two weeks ago, noting weak support
for the original trans-inclusive bill that he had
cosponsored with Rep. Tammy Baldwin. While over 300
queer organizations have opposed splitting the bill,
some contend it is better to pass the sexual orientation
bill now while the votes are there and then work
toward passing the gender identity bill later.

But Bacon took
issue with that strategy. “As a professor of
political science who has been studying this for a
long time, there’s no such thing as incremental
civil rights,” she said. “If we have only a
gay and lesbian bill and a second bill for trans
people, there is absolutely no historical precedent
for that kind of gradualism.” Asked if she had any
guess for how long it would take to pass the trans bill
separately, Bacon did not hesitate: “Fifteen
years.”

Indeed, about 75
transgender people greeted attendees of the dinner
outside the Washington Convention Center with signs that
read, “United We Stand, ENDA For All.”
Many of them wore stickers with a slash through the
trademark HRC logo -- a bold yellow equal sign set upon a
blue backdrop.

The
protest’s organizer, Ethan St. Pierre, said it had
been put together in about three days. “We
realized how important this dinner is,” he said,
adding that his group, the National Transgender Advocacy
Coalition, has protested HRC offices for inclusion two
other times in the past couple years.

Mara Keisling,
executive director of NCTE, was also at the protest
“in total solidarity” with the effort.
In the course of a two-minute interview with her, two
different people handed her donations for the NCTE,
one in the form of a check, another a $20 bill.

She was careful
to note that NCTE is a small organization with 3 1/2
full-time employees and a modest annual budget of about
$300,000, and that expenses have gone “through
the roof” in the past several weeks.
Nonetheless, she said, “it’s been absolutely
remarkable; we’ve had more spontaneous
donations over the last week than we’ve had in the
history of our organization.”

But no one that
evening was more aware of the controversy than Joe
Solmonese. “I make a solemn vow to you tonight that I
will do everything to harness the power and the
passion and energy in order to achieve a fully
inclusive ENDA,” he told the crowd during his speech.

In a separate
interview with The Advocate, Solmonese said
that “every decision” he’s made has
been driven by his desire to pass a trans-inclusive
bill in the most expeditious way.

“They have
been gut-wrenching decisions, but I believe that HRC is in a
very unique place in this fight,” he said, referring
to the organization’s powerful connections on
Capitol Hill. “We have constituencies and
responsibilities that a lot of other people don’t in
terms of keeping that door open to our congressional
allies.”

Asked if HRC
would ever oppose a sexual orientation–only bill,
Solmonese said, “I don’t want to get put
in a box on this. To me, this is an enormously
complicated situation and, as Congressman Frank and the
congressional leadership have pointed out, there’s
kind of a bigger strategy.”

Asked if opposing
a sexual orientation–only bill would compromise
HRC’s relationships on the Hill, he answered,
“Unquestionably. We would absolutely not be at
the table, and I am committed to being at that
table.”

But Professor
Bacon didn’t buy that argument. “They need us
as much as we need them,” she said, referring
to Democratic congressional leaders. “We are an
important part of their national constituency. In terms of
moving the Democratic agenda, a united LGBT community
is necessary.” But who else would the
transgender community vote for -- Republicans?
“We’ll still support Democrats but maybe
not those particular Democrats,” said Bacon.

Despite the
controversy surrounding the event, the only disruptions
during the evening’s ceremony came when several
antiwar protesters were ushered out of the auditorium
during Solmonese’s speech, yelling, “Stop
funding the war.”

House speaker
Nancy Pelosi was welcomed to the stage with a standing
ovation as the National Equality Award Recipient and keynote
speaker of the night. Both a video biography of the
speaker and the person who introduced her trumpeted
her “unwavering commitment” to the AIDS
epidemic. When Pelosi was first elected to represent San
Francisco in 1987, she pledged to speak out for her
constituency on AIDS during a time when nearly all
public officials dared not discuss the disease.

Once onstage,
Pelosi herself recounted the story of her very first words
on the House floor when she was introduced as an incoming
congresswoman. Though she had been coached by her
colleagues to say nothing at all, she resolved to
thank her family, the people who had voted for her, and to
add just one thing. “I told my constituents when I
came here, I would tell you that I came to fight
against AIDS,” she recalled saying to a stunned
audience.

After her
remarks, her colleagues wondered why she chose to mention
AIDS at her first introduction to the Congress. She
told them, “I said that because I came to
Congress to fight against AIDS,” she recalled to a
room that erupted into cheers and applause.

Pelosi went on to
note several pro-gay achievements of her current
caucus: passing a trans-inclusive hate-crimes bill and the
fact that the Federal Marriage Amendment is now
entirely “off the table.”

As for the
elephant in the room, “I give you my commitment as
speaker of the House that I will fight for the most
inclusive ENDA possible,” she said.

That harried
fight will take place over the next two weeks or so. Though
no one has uttered a firm date publicly, Pelosi’s
office put out a press release saying they would delay
action on ENDA until the end of October.

In the meantime,
members of Congress are being asked to support an
inclusive ENDA by their constituents, professional
lobbyists, and the staff of other Congress members who
favor the trans-inclusive version. The National Gay
and Lesbian Task Force and NCTE are keeping track of
changes in support.

The magic
number needed is 217 votes -- the original inclusive
bill had 171 cosponsors. Keisling declined to estimate
where the vote count stood, since heavy lobbying took
place on Friday and Monday is a holiday for many
people.

HRC also deployed
more than 100 members of their board of governors on
Friday to lobby Congress members for the trans-inclusive
bill. (Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate)

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