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Swing and a miss: critique of my column on Joe S. on CNN makes points, just not regarding my post

(NOTE: Joe Solmonese will be on The Michelangelo Signorile Show at 4:30 PM ET.)

Surf over to read Adam Bink’s “The Scary Rich White Gays,” an interesting, if off-the-mark response to my post, “HRC’s Solmonese: dinner attendees ‘more politically aware’, have ‘better sense of what’s at stake,” and Autumn’s “We Get The LGBT Diversity Of Media Contact Lists.”

As I said earlier the primary problem with the assessment of my post is that it alludes to statements or beliefs that are simply not in my post, but do occur in the comments. I don’t have a lot of those kinds of conversations where a reader conflates my views with that of those in the comments as much these days as I did a couple of years ago; it seems to happen more when the subject matter is controversial and people get riled up. Anyway, I thought I’d take a stab at clarifying the situation, since Adam’s post doesn’t make any distinction between the author and commenters. Before we begin, you’ll see references to Rich White Gays (RWG) as an acronym used by Adam. I’ll use it for simplicity’s sake.

You see, many in the LGBT community (examples here, here and here) have criticized HRC as a group made up entirely of RWGs, and that we should dislike HRC, their money, and their support because of the RWGs. In fact, the HRC headquarters was actually vandalized yesterday for the same reason.

Nowhere in my post do I say all the HRC leadership, membership, or attendees of the annual dinner are all RWGs. However, that it is a factual statement the largest demographic that populated the dinner was RWGs. Offense seems to be taken for even making the observation, nor is the post specifically about condemning RWGs, it’s about broadening attendance to be more inclusive in the wake of Joe Solmonese’s statement to CNN’s Don Lemon.

[W]e’re the largest LBGT organization in the country with nearly a million members. Most of them are small donors and supporters all over the country. And so, I think we absolutely represent the LBGT community.

But I think that — as Hilary mentioned last night on the show — perhaps the crowd at the dinner last night was a little bit more politically aware and had a better sense of maybe, you know, what’s at stake and what needs to be done. Because at the end of the day, what all these fights come down to — and this is where we are in this movement…

He opened the door to class and diversity in that statement that he surely didn’t mean to. If he had been more judicious and not so hell-bent on denigrating the influence or political savvy of the attendees of the NEM he may have chosen to defend the dinner and the organization in a different way. But he didn’t.

What’s curious about some of the angry responses to my post, including Adam’s, is that it’s not a zero-sum game if you add diversity; no one loses access or influence it just increases reach. And as far as trying to link any statements in the post cited (or any prior posts of mine)  to violence is a particularly nasty charge to levy on me, since I have time and again stated that I detest moves like that. And I specifically called out the vandalism on HRC’s building when it occurred, before it was confirmed that it was perpetrated by a gay group. Do some of my readers/commenters feel differently — yes, some do, but that’s their opinion.

More below the fold.Adam breaks his analysis down into sections.

1. Corruption. In any discussion of financial support leading to certain policies, there should be an A->B argument, such as Max Baucus takes millions from insurance companies->his doing their bidding in Congress. Is this the case with the RWGs and HRC? Has HRC been particularly dismissive of poor LGBTers, or people of color, or lesbians/bisexuals/transgender individuals? It doesn’t seem that way. Here in DC alone, I regularly see HRC’s support everywhere in the community for non-RWGs, financially sponsoring everything from Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League brunches to the Mautner Project, an organization focusing on lesbian health. They also were the only LGBT organization to purchase sponsorship at Netroots Nation last year. These are all organizations whose constituencies are predominantly some or all of the characteristics of non-rich, non-white, non-gay male.

Legislatively, last time I checked (aside from the T issue in ENDA, which I and many others supported as a strategic measure), HRC hasn’t been pushing legislation that only benefits, rich white gay men.

Where in my post do I say HRC has been dismissive of poor LGBTs? Nowhere. Where do I see in my post where I say HRC has done nothing for low-wealth communities of color. Nowhere. In fact in my update in response to the, um, vigorous comment thread, I specifically say:

HRC funds many programs that do outreach in the broader, more diverse community with those donations; so complaints that it all goes to administrative overhead and salaries, while it may feel good to rip, doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of the impressive work HRC is and is capable of doing.

And the last sentence in that quote that I pulled I hope was meant to be sarcastic, because all pro-LGBT legislation supported by HRC does benefit everyone, not just RWGs. Where is that assertion in my post? Oops, not there. [We could have a long talk about the ENDA debacle and how that backstabbing,  has left some slow-to-heal wounds in the trans community, as Adam noted.]

2. Financial support. Like with its support of SMYAL and the Mautner Project, lots and lots of organizations rely on HRC for financial support. HRC also puts tens of thousands into political support- in direct contributions, sending staff, and other ways- into political campaigns, like the 2005 Maine non-discrimination ballot initiative, this year’s Maine marriage campaign, Referendum 71 in Washington, Prop 8, electing LGBT members of Congress, and more. Yet I know many people who cheer HRC’s contributions to non-profits and political campaigns turn around and make the RWG argument.

But is this different than anywhere else? Many foundation boards are entirely rich and white. Many individual donors who give money in LGBT politics are rich, white and gay. Should the money be rejected because of the race and class from which it comes?

I also view HRC as a kind of aggregator for donors. Is it better there be no HRC Dinner at all, where non-profit executive directors go principally to get access to the RWGs to get additional direct financial support? Is it better for a non-profit like SMYAL to not get any money from HRC, and for its tiny staff to spend even more time and resources on development work, rather than helping underprivileged youth of color?

Who said to turn down the financial support of RWGs? Not me, and not in that post. We obviously cannot change the distribution of wealth in this country, nor did I call for that. What I called for was some creative thinking about how to make events and boards more diverse. That doesn’t always equal money. This limited ability to think outside the box reminds me of a schoolmate of mine who has well-to-do parents. Because her parents have a difficult time with emotional support and speaking frankly about their relationships to their children, they find it a lot easier to simply write them checks, sending them as occasional gifts in the mail for “the vet bill” or some such. They are just a bit crippled and clueless how to handle affection or emotional connection.

Maybe this is about a lack of ability to think outside the box. That is certainly what I would rather believe than HRC, or any organization based on equality, would rather have its management and board look less like the community it serves out of discomfort with an alternative model.

3. Hypocrisy. At the same time folks trash HRC’s RWG demographic, they celebrate RWGs. Bruce Bastian is a classic example. Bruce, a Utah native and former Mormon missionary, co-founded WordPerfect and is on Fortune 500’s list of richest people in the country. He is widely respected as one of the most inspiring and generous donors in the LGBT movement. I see praise heaped upon him in many quarters, as I should.

Bruce has also given millions to HRC. He is on the HRC Board of Directors. I went to the HRC Dinner last year, where he was the guest of honor, feted and given an award.

If anything, Bruce is the Rich White Gay incarnate, but he is praised, while the organization doling out his money to causes we all hold dear is demonized as “you’re rich, white and gay, so you suck!!”. Huh?

Hmm. That’s interesting. Adam spent this entire section talking about Bruce Bastian; he’s mentioned nowhere in my post. Don’t know him, have never quoted him. So there’s nothing to analyze there. Perhaps Adam can attribute the commentary to someone who discussed him so the hypocrisy charge addressed appropriately. I’ll just move along to…

4. Diversity. In a perfect world, every foundation and political action group and non-profit would be a mix of races, classes, and colors. I would hope that HRC and lots of other  groups are more diverse- economically, racially, and in terms of sexual orientation. That’s not the case, and I don’t think that will ever be. So why are we making race-based and class-based attacks on organizations that support the rest of the community? It’s not like HRC is the only one. I live in DC, one of the gayest cities in the country, with a majority-black population. Yet I go to events all the time- benefit galas, LGBT performing arts, sporting events, political group meetings, bars, you name it- that are almost entirely middle-to-upper-class, white and gay. I have friends who tell me the same in other cities. Yet I don’t hear the kind of vitriol thrown at the sponsoring institutions like I do HRC.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the financial makeup of the LGBT community, but I don’t think the class, economic, and sexual orientation structure of HRC- or the other events I mentioned- is because they’re some kind of racist, classist, LBT-hating group. I think it’s because there aren’t exactly tons and tons of rich LBTs or people of color, particularly POCs who are “out”. Is this HRC’s fault?

Lots of meat here. You know, you don’t need a perfect world to achieve more diversity in leadership, you simply need people committed to achieving it. It’s that simple. What it does require is thinking of addressing it in non-traditional ways, something that clearly hasn’t entered the minds (for whatever reason, I won’t speculate) at HRC.

Before this “politically unaware” “fringe left Internet blogger” offers a couple of unsolicited suggestions, I would like to address the “why pick on HRC” issue, when one could charge other orgs with similar diversity problems. It’s pretty simple — HRC is the largest LGBT organization, and its primary function is to lobby Congress on our behalf. End of story. That role, along with the contacts and media relationships, makes it the go-to LGBT org if a politician or reporter wants to know the pulse of the community regarding politics. It’s the truth.

To have such a disconnect that HRC’s head is drawing specious distinctions about whom is qualified to be on the inside at that dinner based on the premise that money=political savvy is problematic on its face.

How does the organization address the political savvy of an activist out there in a Red state that lobbies their legislature to effect change and who keeps up to date with what machinations are going on in Congress? Are they of less value to the HRC because they are poor as a church mouse? Less worthy than someone who is of great wealth who simply writes a check and shows up to big galas to see the celebrities and meet old friends on the high-end party circuit? That’s what Joe said — this is ludicrous on its face. And that’s just taking a broad stroke.

In the real world there are a wide range of economic circumstances and levels of political awareness in any population or group. So where is the cutoff for legitimacy in Joe’s World? That’s what my post is about, not condemning RWGs. Surely when he goes on Mike’s show he’s going to have to explain what he was trying to achieve in that interview with Don Lemon, because at face value, he’s done more to damage the rep of his organization in the last week than any commenters or diarists on a blog could. It’s been an embarrassing week between this interview and the mind-boggling 2017 e-blast.

Anyway, as I was reading the reactions and comments about Joe Solmonese’s statement, I took a few minutes to think about ways to address the diversity problem, since I think we can all agree that leadership that is more like the LGBT population at large is a healthier organization than one that is largely homogenous — or at least one would hope that would be desired in 2009. A couple of ideas to ponder…

1. How about saving a couple of seats on the board as elective posts? Right now, you have to have $$$ to get into the game and on a board.  These positions could be selected by membership in a vote, perhaps regionally, to identify activists with promise in terms of leadership. This does two things — identifies talent and grooms them at a very high level in our movement. Surely any organization would benefit from this more grassroots approach to representation. A presence and a voice from another socioeconomic perspective can save an organization from committing grievous, PR mistakes because of the blind spots that are common in groups that are too homogeneous. It’s almost never out of malice, the errors in judgment are because of being in a bubble of ignorance or insensitivity that can easily be corrected by simply engaging on a peer-level with someone who is not like you, as opposed to relating to someone you are in a paternalistic role with.

2. How about making space at the (dinner) table? Surely some mondo goodwill and PR could be gained if some of those “captains” who buy a whole table at a gala could participate in a matching donation to buy four $250 seats for activists of note around the country who cannot afford the ticket but who are just as politically savvy and successful as the rest of the people in the room. They could be selected by the board (or an HRC committee) that would bring the work they do that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in a forum that has such a high profile. This could motivate so many people out there to get active.

3. Have a table captain host one activist that they sponsor? This would earn HRC tons of good publicity and goodwill as well, and encourage those with means to get to know and learn about an activist in the field effecting change. HRC could provide a list of activists that these donors could connect with, and everyone benefits — particularly those with wealth who want to do more than just write a check, but not necessarily do canvassing or the field work and then find there’s not much between that appeals to them. Building person-to-person relationships on that level toward a common goal certainly builds more bridges to understanding.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. But I thank Adam for raising the issues he has, for expressing the frustration of some of the RWGs who saw only negativity rather than my call for opening constructive dialogue because of the noise filter, and Joe Solmonese’s very poor, very public approach to handling the stress points in our community in his role President of the Human Rights Campaign.


NOTE: I haven’t read this post yet since it just went up, but I’ll point you to HRC Back Story, where Joe Solmonese says “The Last Thing We Should Do is Wait.” Come back and comment.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding