Rebecca Juro

An Open Letter To Joe Solmonese

Filed By Rebecca Juro | September 08, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: ENDA, HRC, Joe Solmonese, transgender

Dear Joe,

I've heard you might be posting on the Bilerico Project again, so I'm writing this in the hopes that you'll read it and respond.

First and foremost, before you read any further, let me say this: I'm not about to bash you again. I've done plenty of that, and while we can argue as to whether it's deserved or not, that's not the purpose of this letter. No, I'm putting all that aside for the moment because I want you to hear from me, one of your loudest and most vocal detractors, why I go after you and HRC as often and as enthusiastically as I do, why so many of us are furious with you and why we make that fury known on the blogs with such volume and venom.

I think it'll help to illustrate the point I want to make here if I tell you a little about myself that you probably don't know. In that vein, here's a tidbit you might find hard to believe but is nonetheless absolutely true. I first came out trans and began living as a woman in 1997, and a couple of years after that I attended my very first Pride event in Philadelphia.

While at the street festival that day, I bought my very first LGBT-identifying thing to wear, an HRC t-shirt. I kid you not. This was a very huge deal for me, having hidden my true gender identity all of my life and by then was well into a six-year stretch of unemployment precipitated by my own stupid mistake of telling my last boss of my impending transition. I was well-liked and on a short list of candidates for promotion, but less than two weeks later I was out of a job, just like that. No reasons given, no disciplinary issues, just coming into work one day to hear "You're fired. Pick up your check Friday."

I was terrified of public ridicule and exposure before I worked up the courage to go to Philly for Pride and present myself openly as an out Queer-identified transwoman for the very first time in my life. That HRC t-shirt I bought that day was a rite of passage for me, a public declaration of my identity and my pride in myself, and I wore it with pride...for a while.

After a while, though, it wasn't so easy to muster that pride anymore. Month after month and year after year went by with no job interview making it past the first five or ten minutes, and with some even asking me to leave immediately when I appeared for my interview. In every case, I was told, either by the demeanor of the person I interviewed with or directly, in so many words, "We don't hire people like YOU!"

I don't know if you know what it's like to be unemployed for six straight years, Joe, but I can tell you it's not fun, and on top of that it makes you angry and bitter as hell. I was lucky in that I have family that kept a roof over my head and food in my stomach but beyond those essentials and a computer with an Internet connection, I had nothing at all, and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. No entertainment aside from that which I could get on TV and online, no offline social life whatsoever, no car, no access to public transportation, no nothing other than the small amounts of pocket cash I acquired from friends and family at birthdays and holidays. That's it. That was my life for six long years.

I had to do something to keep myself from going insane with boredom so I started writing, which eventually evolved into political commentary as I became more educated about our community and what it really means to be a transperson socially and politically in this country. I developed community connections, first with fellow transpeople and later with gays and lesbians as well. I discovered and fell in love with LGBT-oriented radio, eventually teaming up with a fellow transwoman, Marti Abernathey, to create and host our own Internet radio show for transgender people.

Over this time, the more I learned about HRC and their positions on employment rights for transfolks and support for transpeople in general, the more disenchanted with the organization I became. Perhaps at the time I was a bit too naive to understand how an organization like HRC which says it supports the rights of transgender people could do so little to support us in reality. So I talked to people, a lot of people, those who'd been around a lot longer than I had, and the vast majority all told me essentially the same things: "Don't trust Congress, don't trust GenderPAC, and don't trust the Human Rights Campaign. They'll tell you they support us, but in reality they only care about themselves.".

It was easy to believe these things. After all, this advice was not only given to me often as a baby transactivist, but it was clearly backed up by what we saw going on in Washington. People made accusations against HRC and Congress and these accusations were almost always proven to be correct sooner or later. After a while, I always believed the worst of HRC when I heard it because it almost inevitably proved to be true.

So, enough about myself, it's time to get to the point here. My story is by no means unique. In fact, I'd venture to say that probably most transitioned transsexuals can tell a version of it from their own lives. Devastatingly long periods of unemployment, blatant bigotry and discrimination on and off the job, being treated like a mental defective or gutter trash when you show up for an interview, and on and on.

I'd ask you to take a moment, Joe, and imagine, just for a moment, that you lived through something like this as an integral part of your coming out process. What do you think it would have done to you? How would you perceive an organization like HRC which supports and endorses enacting laws which protect others from discrimination but not yourself? How would you see your government when even those you'd expect to be among the first to support you and your equality are just as eager as the rest to enact anti-discrimination laws that leave you and those like you unprotected while protecting everyone else?

Honestly, Joe, how would you feel if this had been your life? And if you can be honest in that assessment, then I suspect that you can also understand why so many transpeople and our allies feel the way we do, about you and about the organization you lead.

I'm sure you've also noticed that while we call out the Democrats quite frequently for their failings, we seem to have a special level of antagonism and outright rage reserved for HRC that we don't display toward anyone else, not the Dems and not even the right-wing hatemongers. You might think that's unfair, but there's a very good reason for it, and it can be boiled down to a single sentence:

We expect you to know better.

Anyone who follows politics knows that politicians, no matter who they are or what political party they hail from, cannot be trusted to reliably fulfill the promises they make. Sure, we get plenty angry at Barney Frank and the rest for treating us badly, but we expect to be sold out for political gain by politicians. We don't feel that same level of intense anger toward the politicians because we don't really expect them to keep their promises.

It's different for HRC though, and it's different because HRC has been telling us it's different for years now. Until very recently the Democrats never claimed to support us, but your organization proactively took on the role of speaking for us in Washington. HRC told us they represent us and fight for us. They told us they were on our side, that HRC is our voice in Washington. They promised us that HRC would not support any legislation that didn't include all of us.

But then, the very first time those commitments were tested, the very first time HRC was called upon to really stand up and act as our advocate, you guys folded like a house of cards. Again Joe, if you were one of us how would you feel about HRC and the promises the organization had made to represent your interests and support your rights?

I've heard that you've said you understand why we're angry, but I really don't think you do, because if you did, if you really, truly understood why we feel so betrayed by HRC and why your statement at Southern Comfort and what happened just days afterward so enraged transpeople as well as other fair-minded LGBT's and progressives, you'd be doing things differently.

Once again, it's all in those six little words: We expect you to know better.

The truth of it is, Joe, even all of that is only part of why we're so eager to publicly rip you and HRC to shreds. The other part is not about your actions as much as it is about your behavior. Instead of seeking to open a dialog and work toward a solution that would benefit all of us, HRC has chosen to circle the wagons, cut itself off from communication with the rest of the greater community, and continue to ignore the clear will of the majority and do whatever it feels like doing, apparently with little or no regard for how it affects the rest of us. It's not just that we don't like what you're doing, it's that the way you're doing it is arrogant as hell.

You don't work with the community, you don't talk to us, you offer carefully selected, ultra-clean business leaders like Diego Sanchez to Congress as representatives of who our community is, but you never really tell the rest of our story, do you? Diego is a wonderful person and an excellent example for anyone, trans or not, but does he really represent and reflect the real rank-and-file American transgender community?

Given the statistics we all know so well, it's fair to say that it's highly likely that success stories like Diego's are the exception not the rule and they offer Congress a completely misleading picture of what's really going on out there. I'd bet that there are far more transpeople who go to work every day wearing a blue-collar uniform than a business suit (that is, those of us fortunate enough to have any employment at all).

It's important to present people like Diego as examples of our best, but when you fail to also present those who represent the everyday reality most of us actually live in as transpeople you not only do a disservice to our community by portraying us inaccurately but you also send a message that the vast majority of us aren't good enough to be recognized and heard.

When you refuse to enter into a public dialog with us on these issues which are so critical to every aspect of our daily lives you send the message that HRC feels no responsibility to be accountable to the rest of the community for what it does on our behalf. It's hardly surprising that most of us see you as arrogant and interested only in self-promotion since that's exactly the message you're sending us by your actions, or perhaps more specifically, your lack of action. And yes, once again, we're as angry as we are and we see you as we do because we expect you to know better.

A few weeks ago, I wrote to Brad Luna to invite you on my radio show. I got back a polite but firm denial then, so I'm going to make you the same offer now, publicly, for all of our readers to see. Come on my show and let's get into the issues. Let's talk about why HRC has acted as it has, why you continue to actively support a non-inclusive ENDA in opposition to not only the will of most of the rest of the American LGBT community but also a significant number of members of Congress, including the man most likely to become our next President.

When I had Hilary Rosen on my show, I asked her what she thought about your promise at Southern Comfort and she responded that you had no business making such a statement in the first place. I want to ask you about that too, and I also want to ask you about the future. What happens with ENDA next year and how will HRC fit in? What plans does HRC have to help ensure that the next ENDA to be voted on will be fully inclusive? How will things be different when Barack Obama is in the White House?

Yes, I'll ask you tough questions and expect answers, but I don't want you on my show to attack you, I want you on because I think we deserve some answers. If and when I really want to bash you and HRC publicly I certainly have no shortage of media venues in which to do so, but doing so on my show would serve no more useful purpose than doing so in this letter would, and as someone who has a radio show of your own I'm sure you understand my reasoning.

I encourage you to follow the link above and listen to my interview with Hilary Rosen. As I would with you, I did not shy away from asking her tough questions, but always respectfully and cordially as you will hear. Furthermore, as I did with Hilary Rosen I make you the promise that my callers will not be permitted to bash you either. I have rules against that sort of thing on my show, and they will be just as strictly enforced for your appearance as they have been for any other guest I've ever had on my show.

So, there it is, Joe. I've laid it on the line. If you and HRC really want to work toward a resolution to this conflict and unite this community, the first thing that needs to happen is for us to start talking to each other, not just a few chosen people behind closed doors, but out in the open, in public, in a venue accessible to everyone. If you want to work with the community, you have to engage with the community. Closed-door meetings just aren't going to cut it. If you really want to change hearts and minds, you have to speak where you can and will be heard by those you seek to appeal to or it's all just shouting in the dark.

We expect you to know better, but nothing we've seen or heard from you as yet tells us that you do. If you want us to believe otherwise, you need to tell us why we should. I'm offering my show as a public venue to begin that process and I hope you'll accept. As it has been for some time now, the next move is yours, and I hope you'll take advantage of this offer.

If you want to speak for us, you also have to speak with us. It's my hope that now, after all that's gone on, that you finally will.

I look forward to your response and to speaking with you.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Juro


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Becky,
You said you were not going to bash Joe or HRC, but I got the impression you were not able to avoid it. Don't expect me to be upset with you, because this is a good letter with many important questions. Sadly, we cannot mention HRC without some form of bashing seeping in.

Bil,
Becky gave a little bit of her background and there was a mention last week of a posting that would be designed for people to tell a little of themselves, specifically the trans readers, etc. There should be a limit to the size of the comments because we don't want to see them as long as Becky's open letter.

Hey, at least Becky is able to respect my wishes of blogging on other trans topics worthy of consideration other than HRC. *frowns really hard*

After all, with so many different subject matters on trans life available, why bother with variety? One single subject matter each and every time is as comforting as shampooing your hair! Lather, rinse, repeat.

Especially since I asked that we at least let Joe return to start a dialogue about topics not related to ENDA - of which there are many that would be of interest to the rest of our readers. I don't know about anyone else, but if I were Joe, I'd probably reconsider reconsidering after seeing yet another hit piece go up right away as soon as the topic was broached.

And as the leader of the nation's largest LGBT organization, I'd be prompt to comment on that post complaining about how I won't go on her radio show after her constant barrage of non-stop attacks. After all, it could get picked up and quoted all over the internet by activists angry with my recent decisions. That's a productive use of time!

*sigh*

We'll never get anywhere if we can't even start a dialogue with some basic ground rules that everyone can respect - especially those who want to participate. No negotiation has ever been won by constantly attacking the other side. A constant defensive position doesn't make one open to conversation.

Personally, I'd rather spend my time on the two posts with almost 100 comments each discussing other aspects of queer life other than this post about Becky's radio show.

I Don't Know Nothin'

What IS the LGBT community? Who are we?

Bil,
You should be proud of those two posts you initiated. They were very enlighting, and two of the best I have seen here.

"Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you."

Bil is right... there is much more to hate on HRC for than just ENDA. It's time to mix it up around here. Suggested topics:

- Sells sweatshop-produced crap.
- Rewards corporations with gross human rights and environmental violations through the Corporate Equality Index.
- Sucks resources out of local communities and away from local grassroots organizations.
- Functions as an assimilationist monster aimed at silencing and eradicating outsider queer culture.
- Uses harmful, imperialist rhetoric to advocate overturning DADT.
- Out of touch wealthy and privileged leadership with no accountability to the hundreds of thousands of people it claims to speak for.
- And the list goes on!

Frankly, I don’t see what having Joe blog here will bring other than press releases cross-posted from Back Story and more legitimacy for an organization that deserves far less.

There you go, Nick. Mix it up a little at least. Thanks for the ideas; they'd all be good blog posts and more than just the same post over and over again.

Bil I would have hoped by now that you realize that by a huge majority T identified people don't believe HRC represents them so how about being realistic and drop the T and call HRC what it really is the largest lgb organization.Then we can look for the largest inclusive lgbt organization and give them the crown of the largest lgbt org.I would think that would be the right thing to do by the T's and whichever is deemed the real largest lgbt organization.It's not HRC's decision to call themselves the largest lgbt organization it's the peoples especially those they falsely claim to represent.

a huge majority T identified people don't believe HRC represents them so how about being realistic and drop the T and call HRC what it really is the largest lgb organization.

You think HRC is bi-inclusive?

LOLZ. Good one...

Bi-sexuality isn't my area of expertise so I'll take your word for it and promise my support should you wish to remove the "B" as well.Then they can be the largest LG organization or get sued by the appliance maker and become the largest nothing organization.That would work for me

If we're being honest here, we might as well just slash the L off as well.

And really we should also cut out any part of the G that represents marginalized gay men such as sex workers, people of color, poor or working class queers, non-citizens, and of course everyone who intersects at all those points and more!

Re length of postings --

I'm another one who occasionally posts something lengthy. In Rebecca's defense, history and background -- whether they're personal or general -- can be important. Sometimes a writer needs to have that longer length to get the point across. Hopefully readers will find a long post interesting enough to read to the end. In Rebecca's case, the story was compelling and I did.

However, Monica's comment about length is a legitimate concern. Sometimes, in the interests of keeping readers' attention sharp, it's a good idea to keep the prose short. So -- if there is a growing consensus on the Bilerico editorial team that length of some or all postings should be limited, this should be very do-able to establish.

As someone who writes for the print media, I am accustomed to being told that the sky will fall on me if I turn in a commentary that's (say) 50 words over a 750-word limit. Any Bilerico bloggers who might get invited to write an op-ed for a major newspaper, for example, will find themselves being told ahead of time what the word limit is. It's not a bad challenge to have -- there's always a way to say what you want to say within the limit. Only on the Web do we get to roll out yards of unlimited wordage. Print media have to worry about page layouts, etc.

So if Bilerico were to tell me that there is now a word limit, no problem. My word-count feature on the tool bar can tell me if a new piece I'm doing is in compliance or not.

Here are my suggestions for an approach that hopefully everybody could be comfortable with:

1. Bilerico can put up a notice that there's now a word limit on all postings, or certain postings.

2. Authors will know in advance what the deal is, and write accordingly.

3. Since all postings (exclusive of comments) go through editorial review before being posted, any that are over the limit can be identified.

4. Authors can be notified and given the opportunity to cut. If they don't feel up to the task, the ed team could look for a few block cuts, and the author could approve them.

5. To authors -- I know that it's hard to cut. Every word feels like your heart's blood. But I have learned to look at cut material as what they call "outtakes" in Hollywood. Film outtakes are always good for the "director's cut" or the DVD full of "bonuses." You can file your cuts away for use in another piece. Or you can do a Part 2 or follow-up.

The point is, no sentence of our deathless prose efforts needs to be wasted.

I have no problem with long posts. My encouragement would be to add in subheadings, pictures and blockquotes to break things up a bit and make it easier to read on a computer screen. Breaking up paragraphs into smaller chunks also helps with readability (and is something I edit for often!).

I tend to enjoy long, thought out posts as long as they are easy to read on the screen. I think Monica is talking more about the really long (and not formatted) comments we get on some posts.

Yes, I was. Specifically, I was bringing up a subject that was broached last week when it was suggested that we need to get to know each other better and that it would be nice to post a little background. Bil said it was a good idea and said he would get to it sometimes this week. What I was trying to say was that when that post is finally up, then it would be nice if the commenters don't go crazy describing themselves. It shouldn't be an open invitation to bring out the narsasis in our personalities. This is my way of reminding Bil about that comment last week and his response to it.

Angela Brightfeather | September 8, 2008 2:32 PM

Just a ahort post.

How did we get from Becky's invite to arguing about the length of posts? Nice spin though.

Is there a reply from Joe Solomonese I have missed?

How about any post from HRC? Or are they in the same mood to communicate as Sarah Palin right now?

Good point, Angela. We should take it back on topic.

(But I loved the Sarah Palin giggle. Do you work for one of the late night talk shows? You should with lines like that!)

Monica, yeah I agree. It's really hard to avoid bashing at least a little HRC when talking about them and trying to explain why we're pissed off at the,, even though I made my best effort to keep the piece moderately toned and thoughtful.

Bil, I agree we should have a wider range of trans relevant topics, but the reality is that ENDA and workplace rights the most talked about issues because they're the issues that most directly and significantly affect our everyday lives.

Also, I'd remind you that while I haven't seen most of Nick's suggestions taken on directly, I myself and others have certainly written about this one before:

"Out of touch wealthy and privileged leadership with no accountability to the hundreds of thousands of people it claims to speak for."

Patricia, thanks for the kind words. Coming from a writer of your stature it really means a lot. I totally agree with you about self-editing. I've never been very good at it, especially when I'm happy with what I've written already. It does feel like killing my children (and being single, never married, and highly unlikely to produce any offspring, the words I write are about as close to actual children as I'll likely ever come).

When I've done op-eds for the Washington Blade and other papers they usually have an 800 word limit and I often find myself feeling constrained by that. I deal with it, of course. When one wishes to be published in commercial media, one does what one has to in order to make it happen. That said, count me as one of those who doesn't want to see a word limit imposed here at TBP. I enjoy the freedom to write as much as I feel I need to in order to get my point across and I would be loathe to have to give that up.

Sorry, Rebecca, I didn't mean to imply that you weren't aware of, or haven't talked about, the issues that I mentioned!

Thanks for this heart-felt post, Rebecca. It's good to know a little more about your background. Being unemployed for that long is no fun, isn't your fault, and should be a situation that's at the fore-front of LGBT activism.

And you had family and friends to help. Many people aren't so fortunate.