Tense meeting with HRC over ENDA
by Cynthia Laird
The transgender president of the San Francisco Police Commission bluntly returned the Equality Award she received from the Human Rights Campaign during what was described as a tense meeting last weekend between members of the Bay Area trans community and HRC President Joe Solmonese.
"It no longer symbolized equality to me," Commission President Theresa Sparks told the Bay Area Reporter upon exiting the two-hour meeting, held January 5 at the LGBT Community Center. "It's a matter of their integrity and not following through and my own integrity."
Sparks said that she could no longer stand to even look at the etched glass award when it was on her credenza. She received the award in 2004.
The San Francisco meeting was the latest in several efforts by HRC, the nation's leading gay rights organization, to mend fences with the transgender community after the fallout over the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
While HRC had previously gone on record as supporting only an ENDA that included both sexual orientation and gender identity protections, it abandoned that position once Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) and other lawmakers on Capitol Hill determined there were not enough votes for the inclusive ENDA to pass out of the House of Representatives. Once the controversy erupted in late September, HRC stood silently on the sidelines for several days before finally issuing a statement that reaffirmed its 2004 position of supporting a trans-inclusive ENDA, but said that HRC would not lobby members of Congress against voting for the new version of the bill that contained protections only based on sexual orientation.
It was that sexual orientation-only version of ENDA that passed the House in early November. The legislation now moves to the Senate. The Washington Blade reported last week that Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) wanted a vote on ENDA in 2008, but Solmonese told the B.A.R. Monday that he was unsure when a vote would take place.
Last Saturday's meeting was closed to the press, but several participants met with the B.A.R. afterwards to discuss the session, which was attended by about 30-40 transgender leaders and allies. Most characterized the meeting as angry and tense.
"I've had enough of him," Mikayla Connell, president of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee board, said upon leaving the meeting a few minutes before it concluded. "It was very unsatisfying. While Joe apologized to the transgender community in private, I didn't see any change in their strategy regarding a trans ENDA. They continue to support ENDA as it is, which makes the apology very hollow."
According to others who attended the meeting, Solmonese began by apologizing for the way the ENDA journey began and for the lack of clarity regarding HRC's position on the issue. Additionally, Solmonese acknowledged that he "misspoke" when addressing the Southern Comfort conference last year when he pledged that HRC would back only trans-inclusive legislation.
In a phone interview Monday, Solmonese confirmed those comments.
"I thought it was a very hard meeting. There was a great deal that people in the room wanted to say and wanted to express," he said. "There were some heated exchanges, and some thoughtful and substantive exchanges."
Added Sparks, who spoke after the meeting let out, "It was a very honest meeting. It was a very emotional meeting. It was a very balanced meeting."
But, she added, "I hope Joe Solmonese and HRC got the message that we're not happy, we believe we've been betrayed and question whether to trust HRC going forward."
Jamison Green, who until recently served on HRC's business advisory council, attended the meeting and said there was much frustration from those in attendance and that while he was glad he went, he was "pissed off."
"My thoughts were confirmed," he said, adding, "I'm still optimistic that we'll recover from this as a community and we need to engage HRC in this process."
On Monday, Solmonese outlined the complicated procedure that surrounds legislative votes. For the trans-inclusive ENDA bill that was initially considered, things stalled when supporters were trying to tally votes for the motion to recommit, which occurs when the minority party has an opportunity just before the final passage to "recommit" a bill, effectively killing it by sending it to committee.
According to Solmonese, lawmakers ready to vote on ENDA were not willing to vote on the motion to recommit and that's when it became clear the votes were not there for the gender identity portion of the bill.
Solmonese said that there are anywhere from 48 to 50 House members who need to be "moved" into the column of supporting gender identity inclusion in ENDA. About 30 of those are new members of Congress who were first elected in 2006 and face re-election this year.
He also said that had HRC abandoned ENDA, which was the position of the roughly 300 LGBT organizations that formed the United ENDA Coalition, it could have been until 2011 before another vote was taken.
"That's how I evaluated it. We are very much at the beginning of the ENDA process," Solmonese said. "In spite of all the criticism, we started a process. Now, we build on that in a more expeditious way than if we walked away."
But some meeting attendees don't agree with HRC's strategy. Ben Lunine, an attorney with the Transgender Law Center, recounted his comments. "I got up and said, 'Joe, I believe you, that you're trying to do the right thing. But the strategy that it's better to win now, and that that's better for the transgender community later, I disagree with and think it's wrong.'"
Lunine questioned how long a wait it would be before an ENDA bill containing gender identity is passed.
Solmonese said, however, that no one in the LGBT community is being protected by ENDA now, since it still needs Senate passage, and even if that happens, President Bush is unlikely to sign the bill.
"To me, it's not that we left anyone behind, but [there's] the feeling of being left behind," he said. "It's that feeling of left behind rather than the reality of left behind because no one is being protected now – gays and lesbians – and won't be for a really long time."
Solmonese said that he came away from the meeting with the knowledge that HRC has much to prove to the transgender community.
"It was made very clear to me that an explanation of tactics and strategy does nothing to put to rest the feelings and fears that people are left behind. The only way I and HRC can put those fears to rest are by actions. We're doing that work and continuing to move those numbers."
As for Sparks's award, David Smith, HRC vice president who also attended the meeting, is in possession of it, Solmonese said. Smith told Sparks Saturday that he hopes that the award can be re-presented to her.
"My response was, I hope that happens as well," Sparks said.
Full disclosure: Cynthia Laird is the domestic partner of Vicky Kolakowski, who attended the meeting as a board member of the Transgender Law Center.