[Editor's note: This guest post is from Monica Helms, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association.]
Since this article will find its way to various non-trans-specific blogs, I should begin with describing what an Educational Initiative is and a little history behind them. The EI was a creation of long-time activist, Angela Brightfeather when she was the Chair of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition’s Activism Committee. Her idea came about in 2001, when the transgender community was having difficulty convincing the Human Rights Campaign to support inclusion in ENDA. Déjà vu all over again?
An EI is NOT a protest in spite of what many may think. It is a true, educational opportunity to allow transgender people to speak directly with HRC’s supporters and put a face on an issue that many have no idea about. The original purpose came out of anger and a hope to put a dent into HRC’s income at a place that they get their most money, at their local dinners.
EIs are no longer that. They have evolved into a way to educate a large gathering of G&L people at one time and to gage the local support the transgender community has. We no longer see affecting HRC’s income as a viable goal in achieving rights for the transgender community. Revenge is not a tactic that a more mature transgender community will follow any longer. Those who still focus on revenge only are becoming more and more relegated to the fringes of transgender activism. It is a tough lesson for me to learn.
Some may think that it is not worth the effort to educate HRC, but we are not doing EIs to educate the organization. It is focused on the people who support HRC and if they are better educated with the facts, then they can help to guide HRC to a position that will benefit all LGBT people together.
It’s almost like working with the laws of physics. If we knew that an asteroid was going to hit Earth while it was billions of miles away, then a small bump to it that far out will cause it to miss Earth all together. An EI is like making tiny bumps to HRC that will eventually change its course in the future to a more beneficial direction.
In 2002, the transgender community held Educational Initiatives in various cities and we were being heard by HRC. In Atlanta that year, the HRC dinner happened to be on the same night that the Southern Comfort planning committee was in town for their regular pre-conference planning. We rented a suite at the same hotel where HRC had its dinner and when people came out, we handed them a flyer asking them to gather in the suite to discuss transgender issues.
In the course of the evening, we had over 200 people in the suite, many of them had no idea about the things transgender people faced. We opened their eyes that night, as others did in different cities across the country. That evening in Atlanta, HRC’s Executive Director at the time, Elizabeth Birch, came up to the room and spoke with us for 3 hrs. She spoke to the trans activists in other cities as well. Interesting enough, two years later, HRC’s Board voted to support a fully inclusive ENDA. We truly know that the EIs contributed to that, along with what others did back then. Too bad it didn’t take the board long to change their minds.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the new HRC dinner season. It is important to note that the protest at the HRC National Dinner this past October was not an Educational Initiative. Some cities, such as Austin and Philadelphia, have had an EI already, but no one did anything at Phoenix dinner this year.
This past Saturday, February 16, 2008, HRC planed the biggest dinner in the Carolinas, the one at Charlotte, NC. People all over the three-state area gathered at this dinner. North Carolina just so happened to be the state Angela Brightfeather lives in, so she took it upon herself to plan the EI in Charlotte. It should be noted that Angela had a heart attack in December and had her carotid artery opened up a couple of weeks ago to clear out some blockage. In spite of this, she was still able to make it to work this event.
Saturday started with a panel discussion where Angela, myself and Pamela Jones from Charlotte spoke to about 25 young individuals from various universities in the Carolina area. HRC had put together a special training session for the leaders of the LGBT groups in those schools, in exchange they would get a free admittance to the dinner. The group wanted to get information on transgender issues and had invited us to speak some time back. This was one of the highlights of the day for us.
Angela had about 1000 handouts ready to give to people as they came out of the dinner. About six of us gathered at the appropriate time, ready to catch them as they came out of the doors. It had been prearranged and pre-approved, but as we started to set up, we were told we couldn’t be there. After speaking to the person who had given Angela permission to hand out flyers at the doors, we were told that we had to move to a different location. The dinner was on the second floor of the Charlotte Civic Center, so we positioned ourselves at the escalators and stairs where the people would exit.
Later, we gathered back in the suite to talk with all the people who came up. We noticed that unlike his predecessor, Elizabeth Birch, Joe Solmonese didn’t come up to talk with us, nor did he talk to the transgender activists in Austin and Philadelphia. We keep hearing HRC wants to win back the transgender community, but Solmonese’s apparent attitude of not wanting to face transgender activists will not help matters. Dialogue can only take place if both parties are willing to speak. He needs to know that, in spite of what has happened, some of us are willing to speak with him. Solmonese should learn from the actions of Birch.
Speaking of Solmonese, I had a chance to run into him at the lounge area of the hotel. I had been talking to some of the people there then sat down for a moment when he walked by. I went up to him and said, “Hello, Joe. Nice to see you.”
He asked what I was doing and I informed him I had been educating people on the reason transgender people should be protected. I then noticed he was holding an empty glass, so I asked, “Joe, could I buy you a drink?”
“No. I’m done and I’m planning on going back upstairs.”
“Well, I was hoping to get you a glass of Southern Comfort . . . on the rocks.”
He chuckled and said, “That’s actually pretty good, Monica.”
We talked for a little more and I informed him I would see him again in Atlanta in May for their dinner. As he was leaving, I said, “I’ll tell Donna you said ‘Hi’.”
Overall, I would say it was a successful event. There is one thing I would have done different. I would have not given people a comprehensive sheet of paper with a lot of information on it. It overwhelmed them and they didn’t read all of it to see the room number to come up and speak with us. Instead, I would have given people a small piece of paper with an invitation to come up to the suite for refreshments and conversation. The heavy duty information would have been given to the people who came to the room.
There are more dinners all over the country, giving other activists a change to educate the G&L people in their area. The more little nudges we can give HRC, the closer they will move to changing their minds once again.