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

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

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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.

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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