by Matthew S. Bajko
Bay Area Reporter
alls to boycott this year’s Human Rights Campaign gala dinner in San Francisco are growing louder as the national group’s July 26 fundraiser grows nearer. The Washington, D.C.-based LGBT lobbyist organization upset many in the Bay Area’s LGBT community last year when it backed passage of a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act stripped of gender identity protections.
The decision has led to protests and no-shows by local elected officials at HRC dinners across the country since last fall. Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese further flamed the controversy this spring when he told transgender leaders in Atlanta that he had misspoke last year when saying HRC would only support a trans-inclusive ENDA.
The agency has defended its position by saying that it will work to educate congressional members on the need to extend job protections to transgender employees. So far, though, HRC has refused to commit itself to only backing a fully inclusive ENDA when a new Congress is seated in 2009.
HRC is interviewing transgender candidates for a newly created position in its diversity department that will focus solely on gender issues. The agency expects to hire the person soon.
“We obviously understand where some people are on the whole issue of ENDA. The only thing we know how to do is to focus on the work we can do to educate members of Congress on transgender issues,” said HRC spokesman Brad Luna. “We want to do the work on our part to make sure the transgender community is part of the movement.”
With San Francisco home to a large transgender community, the protest planned outside the Bay Area dinner is expected to be the largest to date, despite HRC’s decision to allow attendees to opt to give their contribution to the statewide effort to defeat an anti-gay marriage amendment on the November ballot.
Dinner guests can designate up to 100 percent of the ticket price for the gala to the HRC California Marriage PAC, which helps to fund the Equality for All campaign set up to defeat the amendment.
Asked if HRC had made the decision as a way to counteract the calls for a boycott of its event, Luna said, “I can guarantee you no strategic decision-making was behind what we did. We wanted to make a commitment on top of what we have already committed to the campaign to defeat the marriage amendment.”
Amid the ENDA controversy HRC has committed more than $600,000 toward the California campaign to protect marriage rights for same-sex couples. It sent its entire communications team to cities across the state this week to help the media cover the start of the same-sex weddings this month.
“The court’s ruling was an amazing victory and the San Francisco dinner is another opportunity to continue to build financial support to protect marriage this November,” Solmonese is quoted as saying in a June 6 release.
The decision about the dinner funds has had little impact on the mounting pressure to have people boycott the San Francisco event. Community leaders have been meeting since April to plan a picket in front of the Westin St. Francis Hotel where the dinner is scheduled to take place. The Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club voted two months ago to back the protest, and the Pride Committee expressed its displeasure with HRC’s ENDA stance by nominating it for a Pink Brink dishonor this year. (The dubious award ultimately went to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.)
Openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty informed Solmonese earlier this month that, in addition to not attending the gala dinner this year, he plans to host a potluck dinner for the protesters the night of the event.
“I plan to have pasta and wine at my house,” said Dufty, who was part of the host committee for the dinner last year. “I called Joe since he was in town to do the AIDS ride to tell him that I was not going to be on the host committee and that I was not going to the event this year.”
Last week the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club released an open letter in which it announced it also would not be taking part this year in the dinner, at which it usually hosts a table. The club did not use the word “boycott” in its letter, and instead asked community members to “forgo” HRC’s gala event this year.
The club said it made its decision “due to HRC’s ongoing refusal to advocate for federal legislation that protects all Americans from discrimination based on gender identity and expression – as well as sexual orientation.” Alice’s board is calling on people to funnel the money they normally spend on tickets for the event toward an “explicitly trans inclusive organization” such as the Transgender Law Center, or any of the 350-plus local, state, and national organizations listed at http://www.unitedENDA.org.
The club’s letter states that its members and board, “after much consideration,” came to its conclusion and chastised HRC for not working to ensure that all LGBT community members are protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression.
“Unfortunately, last fall HRC betrayed its own legacy and values, and betrayed the LGBT community, when the organization’s leadership reversed its long-standing commitment to inclusive legislation, suddenly advocating passage of a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that, for sake of expediency, deliberately excluded gender identity and expression protections,” reads the letter. “This cynical move left millions of Americans vulnerable to gender discrimination in employment, and implied that, while discrimination based on sexual orientation was unacceptable, bias and intolerance based on gender identity or expression were negotiable. Even worse, HRC’s leadership made its decision in secret, breaching its collaboration with every other national LGBT organization.”
Alice board member Cecilia Chung, a transgender activist, said the board spent the last month tweaking the letter so as not to offend HRC or its board members, while at the same time the club wanted to send a strong message to the agency and the entire LGBT community.
“I hope they will remember that trans people are not a token part of the community,” said Chung, whose birthday coincides with the weekend of the dinner and plans to be out of town.
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, has refused to attend any HRC events since it announced its decision on ENDA. She said she has no plans to attend this year’s dinner.
“I very much hope and believe HRC will clearly and unequivocally take the position that they will only support a fully inclusive ENDA as the only possible way to move forward for our community,” said Kendell. “I certainly believe they will demonstrate that critical leadership. Until they do, I am not comfortable attending HRC events.”
At the same time, Kendell said she believes HRC’s commitment to the anti-gay marriage amendment fight is “genuine, substantial, and enormously important” for the LGBT community to have a chance of defeating it.
“This is a sharp disagreement on ENDA among colleagues,” she said.
Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, said he would not be in attendance at the dinner because he’ll be on vacation in Spain for a two-week trip that’s been planned for a year. He said he did not think the dinner boycott would impact his working with HRC on the amendment fight.
“HRC has been an active part of the campaign to defeat the amendment. We have a long fight ahead of us and I think we will all join hands to fight it together,” said Kors.
The protest of the HRC gala will have little impact on the future relationship between the organization and the Bay Area’s LGBT community, said Luna.
“A healthy discussion is of value. It is never going to be something we hold against people,” he said. “We want to make sure every voice is heard. We do think at some point in time we can move beyond this controversy so we can step up to the plate and do the hard work that needs to be done on this issue.”