I was completely flummoxed by the Human
Rights Campaign's gala in Los Angeles last Saturday - lots of tuxes and spots of inspiration but no real take-away message, except something about The Big Picture.
This is a critical election year but no one waltzed out jazzed about who's doing what to win the presidency or congressional races. And the critical effort to stop an antigay marriage constitutional amendment from making the California ballot this November only got a fleeting mention.
Joe Solmonese did confirm, however, that HRC will give congress members who voted against the sexual orientation-only ENDA bill a negative score - albeit with an asterisk.
First, the gala. About 1000 people showed up, I'm told, but it appears that only two electeds were there - keynote speaker Sen. Ron Wyden and West Hollywood Mayor John Duran. That's pretty strange for a political organization in a hot political year.
It may have something to do with the program. In 2006, HRC featured former Vice President Al Gore who essentially espoused marriage equality, and, in 2007, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a presidential candidate, keynoted with rival Dennis Kucinich in the audience.
This year - with all due respect to the Honorable Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a long supporter of marriage equality - he seemed to be stopping by on his way home and his keynote was a well-worn cheer for equality, albeit spiced up with references to the new catch-phase "fierce" with Project Runway winner Christian "fierce" Siriano sitting in the audience waiting to present an award to Bravo.
Even the honorees - local heroes - didn't seem to know why they were being honored. Sweet Anne Hathaway said as much in her remarks, noting that being gay in her family was no big deal. And the others did not seem to have any direct connection to HRC or actually anything overtly political.
The one attempt to connect the dots was met with a sudden uproar of chatter. Shirley Riga had just finished her incredibly moving story about how her wife had been seriously injured in an accident and how the hospital recognized their Massachusetts marriage so Shirley could make healthcare decisions, including removing life support. Afterwards one of her spouse's daughters challenged Shirley since there was no will. Shirley was choking back tears and you could hear a pin drop as people felt her anguish.
Then an HRC Board member took the podium and pitched hard for money. It took a second for folks to adjust - but when he started talking about the Federal Club - the room burst into chatter. It felt like he was exploiting Shirley's heartbreak.
In his remarks, Solmonese stressed The Big Picture and the long march to equality. But even he seemed tired of making the point, sounding at times almost like he was giving a stump speech with some local names thrown in.
Solmonese talked about how HRC worked on the inclusive hate crimes bill, then began "the long legislative process" toward passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
These were historic events. A number of hurdles, as you know, made it impossible to move those bills any further this session. But we began the process after many years of operating in a purely defensive mode.
Now for a number of reasons, many people in our community don't view these stepping stone accomplishments as monumental - even very important. They are feeling dejected angry and impatient. And given the way we began our journey toward the Employment Non-Discrimination Act - I understand every day that some members of our community are feeling forgotten or left behind.
But it is easy to understand why. In some ways we are the victims of our own success. We thought, well in 2006 we worked hard and smart and that work paid off. So when the hate crimes bill fell short - and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act began in a way that none of us were happy with - it created a sense of anxiety and anger within the community.
But I have to ask - when did we all get so impatient? When did we all say to ourselves - OK, that civil rights thing - I'll give it a year, maybe two - then everything should be done.
Let me be clear - No: we are not done. This is called the grueling, blinding middle of the fight. And the middle of the fight is the hardest part. (Applause)
And I understand. It is hard to see The Big Picture from here. It is hard to keep faith. It is hard to realize that all the things that we want, that we know we can achieve - may not happen in a timely or a smooth fashion. You know sometimes - and I know this well - the fight for our rights feels like hell. But as Winston Churchill so aptly said - when you are going through hell, the most important thing you can do is keep going. (Laughter)
Later I asked Solmonese about how HRC would score congress members who voted no on the sexual orientation-only ENDA bill, since so many politicians tout their HRC rating in their campaigns.
We are going score an up or down vote on whether they voted for the bill or not because that is what we said we were going to do when we started this.
We felt - when the bill came out of committee and on to the floor - we felt very strongly that that bill on the floor - regardless of what you felt about the hundred other incarnations that the process went through - that bill on the floor should pass. And so we are going to score it accordingly.
Now those people like Jerry Nadler and others who voted against the bill - we're also going to note on the scorecard the reason they voted against the bill was that it did not include gender identity, not like a right wing member who voted against it because across the board they don't support GLBT issues. We will note it accordingly. We're still going to score it as the vote - if you didn't for vote it, it'll be characterized as a vote against it.
While there is no question that we are solidly advocating for an inclusive bill, there are many roads to go down in the direction of that bill and regardless of what you think - I believe, the leadership believe, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights believe, Sen. Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, John Lewis - all of our allies in the struggle for civil rights evaluated this situation and said, as this bill goes to the floor - it is critically important that it pass.
I know it's a complicated process the way these things work. But if we were going to say that to members - and scores of members voted for that bill - they said, you know what - I see this as a building block. I see this as something we want to work towards. I see it as laying down a foundation upon which we can build. You know, people like Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Kathy Castro - really progressive, committed to gender-identity members who, when faced with that decision, said I will vote to pass that bill. It doesn't mean I don't support gender identity. It doesn't mean I think this is the end of the road. I think it's the beginning."
I don't know how asterisks are tallied in the final percentages.
In his speech, Solmonese acknowledged the work being done to combat the proposed antigay marriage constitutional amendment in California and talked briefly about how HRC is part of the Equality For All coalition pushing a unique "Decline to Sign" campaign to interfere with the religious right's paid signature-gathering effort. Later he told me that HRC has contributed $100,000 to the Equality for All coalition and has four staff members on the ground in Orange County helping out.
But frankly, Solmonese missed an opportunity to educate audience members, especially those from the corporate world, about how important this battle is.
Here's what Solmonese said, in part:
And at HRC we understand that what happens at the state and local level impacts America as well. Equality California, here in this state, at every turn, has fought all attempts to ban same sex marriage in this state and is in fact moving this debate in a positive pro-active direction every day.... Join HRC and our partners in Equality for All and become involved in the decline to sign campaign. We have five weeks left to block our opponents from putting a discriminatory marriage ban on the ballot here in November and your help will make history."
What he didn't say is that Focus on the Family and other antigay religious and right wing groups are pouring money into the state, hoping that a win for them in California will take up where Karl Rove left off.
What he didn't say was that those antigay forces have roughly 650,000 signatures right now and may well reach the 1.1 million needed by April 17. One cannot scoff at their collecting 100,000 signatures a week!
And, for some reason, Solmonese did not mention the fact that the California Supreme Court is now considering a consolidated marriage case that - if the court rules in favor of marriage equality - could pave the way for a marriage equality bill passed by the state Legislature and this time signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to follow the court or the will of the people through an initiative.
So if the court rules favorably and if a marriage bill is signed into law, look for California to become the focus of frustrated and angry antigay activists who would love to see an antigay marriage constitutional amendment succeed here.
Now knowing more about that might have gotten the Los Angeles audience more politically jazzed because a victory or defeat in California will, as Solmonese said, impact America as well.