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On Trans Issues, The HRC As A Thermometer And Not A Thermostat

Marriage Equality Is One Issue Where The HRC Doesn’t Lead With Regards To Trans Inclusive Messaging

Image: Autumn Sandeen (11/23/2010)If the recent Meghan Stabler marriage story reported at LGBT Weekly has demonstrated anything about the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) leadership on trans issues, it has to this point demonstrated that when it comes to trans issues, the Human Rights Campaign is a thermometer and not a thermostat.

What do I mean by that? Well, let me begin by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. from Strength To Love:

Longfellow said, “In this world a man must either be anvil or hammer,” meaning that he is either a molder of society or is molded by society. Who doubts today most men are anvils and are shaped by patterns of the majority? Or to change the figure, most people…are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.

Transgender people have marriage equality issues just as their lesbian, gay, Thumbnail link: Dana Beyer on the 2011 HRC Director Search, As Quoted In The Washington Bladeand bisexual siblings in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community have marriage equality issues. But, the HRC hasn’t as yet been a thermostat that transforms the temperature of society about marriage equality issues for transgender people, but a thermometer that registers the opinions of congressional leaders and the larger lesbian and gay subcommunities of the LGBT community.

Some relatively recent history regarding the HRC and its 2004 and 2007 actions regarding the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is needed to give an historic backdrop to the current lack of leadership on trans-specific issues related to marriage equality.

In 2004, the HRC became the last national civil rights organization to come out in for a fully inclusive ENDA. What the HRC Board unanimously voted to as policy then was that the organization would not support any version of ENDA that didn’t include gender identity as a protected class.

In September of 2007, HRC Executive Director Joe Solmonese spoke at the Southern Comfort Convention — the largest annual transgender conference in the nation. He appeared to state that the HRC had taken one step past that 2004 policy statement when he stated in a speech to the conference:

We try to walk a thin line in terms of keeping everything in play, and making sure that we move forward but always being clear that we absolutely do not support and in fact oppose any legislation that is not absolutely inclusive, and we have sent that message loud and clear to the Hill.

In late 2007, then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, then chairman of the Education and Labor Committee Rep. George Miller, and Rep. Barney Frank realized had enough support in the House to pass a version of ENDA that included antidiscrimination protections for sexual orientation only prior to a speaking engagement Speaker Pelosi had with the HRC, but not a version of ENDA that included gender identity. So, the three worked together and stripped out of gender identity language from ENDA.

The HRC, as an organization, wasn’t self-aware enough to know how their 2004 decision changed the landscape of LGBT activism. And, the HRC really wasn’t prepared to follow through with the policy change their leadership announced in 2004. So in the fall of 2007, the HRC first backed away from Solmonese’s statement that they would oppose a non-inclusive ENDA, and said that they instead would not support a non-inclusive ENDA. Then by the end of 2007, the HRC’s board voted to support the non-inclusive version of ENDA.

[More below the fold.]

The backlash was significant — over 300 state and national LGBT organizations came together as United ENDA and opposed the non-inclusive ENDA. The HRC angered much of the LGBT activist community, and the organization lost a great deal of credibility that to this day hasn’t fully recovered.

Since the Congressional vote on ENDA in early 2008, the HRC reverted back to their 2004 position or not supporting any non-inclusive ENDA.

Thumbnail link: Press Release: HRC Launches Americans For Marriage Equality (10/19/2011)The HRC wasn’t a thermostat shaping LGBT issues in an inclusive way regarding ENDA at that point in time, it instead was a thermometer of congressional opinion.

Now four years later, the Meghan Stabler story has given the HRC an opportunity to comment on how trans people are part of the marriage equality equation — the organization has an opportunity to publicly own that even though marriage equality issues of trans people overlap significantly with those of their non-trans lesbian, gay, and bisexual community siblings, there are some trans-specific issues related to marriage equality that are trans alone. They have an opportunity to message that.

One of those trans-specific issues is related to legal change of sex. For example, if a trans persona legally changes one’s legal sex in California and heterosexually marries in the state, then if one crosses state lines into Florida, Kansas, Tennessee, or Florida, then the marriage is dissolved because the change of legal sex is not recognized; the marriage is considered a legally disallowed same-sex marriage.

To this point, the HRC hasn’t commented publicly on trans-specific issues in relationship to marriage equality.

On October 19, 2011, the HRC released a press release entitled HRC Launches Americans For Marriage Equality. The only place the word transgender was mentioned in the press release was in the italicized footer paragraph at the bottom of the press release — the same paragraph that’s on the bottom of all HRC press releases:

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.

The press release talks about videos that the HRC is going to produce regarding marriage equality. From the first paragraph of the press release:

The Human Rights Campaign today launched Americans for Marriage Equality, a public engagement campaign featuring prominent Americans who support committed gay and lesbian couples getting married. The campaign will draw from a cadre of supportive professional athletes, film and music celebrities, political and civil rights leaders– and will have a special emphasis on Republicans, African-Americans, Latinos and elected officials. The campaign can be viewed at

If the language of the first paragraph of this press release is a “closed group” definition of which groups are going to be represented in the videos, then the HRC would show itself again to be an thermometer and not a thermostat for shaping LGBT issues in an inclusive way within the LGBT community, or within broader society.

And this comes to the point of the videos: Is the point of the videos to win specific marriage equality battles in individual states, and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the federal level, or is the function of the videos to move society within a greater struggle to achieve the uplifting and equality of all of the entirety of the LGBT Community? My guess is that the HRC and it’s donors for this project are more interested in winning individual battles than taking a longer view of winning the greater struggle of acceptance and equality for the entirety of the LGBT community. Therefore, my guess is that they’ll leave trans people out of the messaging for marriage equality because it won’t help them, and might actually hurt them, in achieving victory in the near term individual battles.

Leaving trans people out of the marriage equality messaging wouldn’t make the HRC evil, but it would indicate that when it comes to trans-specific issues regarding marriage equality, the HRC would show itself again to be an thermometer and not a thermostat on trans-specific issues.

Beyond Marriage Equality, The HRC Has Opportunity To Become A Thermostat By Example For Trans-Specific Issues

The HRC is actually two organizations that most folk tend to think of as one organization: the HRC and its sister organization the HRC Foundation. Joe Solmonese is the executive of both. While the HRC Foundation has a recent history of significant progressive work on transgender community issues — such as on faith and workplace issues — the HRC hasn’t taken a real lead on transgender political issues. In my opinion, the HRC is a thermometer on transgender issues — not a thermostat.

There is an opportunity for the HRC to change course on transgender issues. Right now, the HRC has a search committee assembled to select a new executive director for both the HRC and HRC Foundation. This is because Joe Solmonese leaves his positions at the HRC and HRC Foundation next March.

Here are some ideas on what the HRC could do to become more of a thermostat on trans-specific issues than a thermometer; to demonstrate by example what it is to be a leader on transgender people and issues.

  • Hire more transgender staffers.The HRC and the HRC Foundation together have a staff that numbers approximately 150. Only one staffer on the HRC’s website is identified as transgender. Here are some ideas of where transgender people, or people specifically focused on transgender issues, could be added and send a message of real change in direction on transgender issues:

Policy. An organization that identifies itself as the largest LGBT civil rights organization needs a T voice in the voice in their policy setting department.

Field Organizing. The HRC currently has a number of regional field organizers that are dispatched to help organize volunteers for state and local legislative action, whether these are legislative votes or for LGBT issue-specific initiatives or referendums. Adding just one transgender issues field organizer that could be dispatched nationally for trans-specific legislative action would add to the organization’s skillset, as well as demonstrate to transgender community that the HRC credibly applies resources to transgender political issues. And of course, play a more significant role in improving the lives of transgender community members.

Department Management. The HRC needs to demonstrate to the LGBT community, as well as the business community, that there are transgender people eminently capable of being workplace supervisors and managers.

  • Update their healthcare policy to include transition. Currently, San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon, Multnomah County, Oregon, and a number of Fortune 500 companies have more progressive healthcare policies for transitioning trans people than the HRC does. The HRC, as the managers of the LGBT Corporate Equality index, should set the should set by example a very high bar of what best policy should include for trans-specific healthcare benefits — not letting municipalities and some Fortune 500 businesses set a better example than the HRC itself does.
  • Devote more resources to transgender issues. According to Dana Beyer — the executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, and a former member of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Board of Governors — the HRC spends more on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) than on passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA would effect more transgender people than DOMA. Significantly more HRC resources are devoted to marriage equality than basic civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Diverting a small, but significant amount more of the HRC’s resources towards basic civil rights protections for transgender people, especially through a field organizer specifically assigned to work on gender identity and expression issues would be a significant way for the HRC to gain credibility with transgender community — as well as having a new tool in the toolbox to create real change for transgender people’s ordinary equality.

Dana Beyer stated the following in a Washington Blade article discussing the selection of a new executive director for the HRC and HRC Foundation:

Many of us are hoping HRC will change its direction on some of these issues under a new president. But the president is really nothing more than a reflection of the board of directors. If the board of directors doesn’t want to change the direction of the organization, it doesn’t matter who the next president is.

The HRC’s search committee for their new executive director, and the full HRC board, has an opportunity to become a thermostat on transgender issues. Only time will tell if the organization takes a lead on transgender issues, or takes the tack of “staying the course.”

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Autumn Sandeen

Autumn Sandeen