HRC president discusses Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, legislative agenda with EDGE
As lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to debate the possible repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, offered a pragmatic assessment of the Obama administration’s record on LGBT-specific issues during its first year in office.
"The president’s tenure for our community has been marked by what I think are sweeping victories and unnecessary heartbreak," he told EDGE in an interview less than three hours after the country’s top defense officials called for the military to lift its ban on openly gay and lesbian troops. "That’s just the nature of this relationship. On any given day, it’s going to be our sentiments are going to go from gratitude to frustration."
Indeed, Solmonese pointed to the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to federal hate crimes statutes last fall, the White House’s defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and its decision to invite the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural convocation as examples of sweeping victories and unnecessary heartbreaks. But he was quick to single out the Bush administration’s record on LGBT issues as a primary source of impatience and, at times, outright anger many activists continue to express.
"It’s important to recognize our community’s frustration is a result of nearly a decade of inaction; nearly a decade of being in a defensive mode," Solmonese said. "It took nearly eight years to nearly ruin this country; it’s taking longer to put it back together."
2009 proved a mixed bag on LGBT-specific issues. Voters in Maine approved a referendum that overturned a law that had allowed gays and lesbians to marry in their state. The New York State Senate struck down a measure that would have allowed same-sex couples to tie the knot. And the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8. On the flip-side, Nevada became the 17th state to extend some form of legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples when its domestic partnership law took effect in October.
"We look everywhere," Solmonese said as he praised the Nevada activists who successfully lobbied their legislators to support the measure. "We don’t look at simply blue or red states on how to bring change to this community."
Solmonese described Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s election late last year as another milestone.
"It’s historic and important to the community she happened to be a lesbian," he added.
Solmonese also singled out U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-N.Y.] for the prominent role she continues to play in the DADT debate. Gillibrand is scheduled to speak at the HRC’s annual New York dinner on Saturday, but Solmonese compared her to the late-U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy [D-Mass.] for her ability to "look across the landscape and identify the people who are in the need of the most help."
"She has, in a very historic way, taken on the cause of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and LGBT issues," he said. "She has been incredibly thoughtful on it and incredibly courageous about it. She is one of the very few people on the hill who reaches out to me - on her own."
Gillibrand, who succeeded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate in Jan., 2009, faces a potentially difficult election campaign this fall. Solmonese further acknowledged the marriage defeat in Albany and the New Jersey State Senate’s vote against nuptials for same-sex couples last month were set-backs. He added, however, should keep fighting.
"One of our biggest challenges, whether the New York marriage fight or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in Congress, is to keep our eye on the prize and not lose sight of the fact of the fact of how difficult this fight will be," Solmonese said. "But when we win, it’s historic and it’s permanent."