Rebecca Juro

Into The Lion's Den: The NYC HRC Gala

Filed By Rebecca Juro | February 09, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement
Tags: HRC, LGBT advocacy, politics

It really wasn't quite as dramatic as it sounds, but it was, well, educational.

On Saturday night, I attended the New York City Human Rights Campaign gala at the Waldorf Astoria as press representing Bilerico Project. Basically, my job that night was to get some shout-outs for the Bilerico Project and, maybe, if possible, ask a few questions. hrc.jpgI had high hopes, but the reality was a bit different - exactly like and yet at the same time completely unlike what I had expected an HRC event like this to be.

Despite the caustic history of HRC's relationship with the transgender community and my own participation in fanning those flames, I'd resolved to keep an open mind when covering this event and not go into it with any preconceived notions based on the events of the past. I promised myself that I'd report and comment on this event based exclusively on what I actually saw, heard, and experienced while I was there.

I arrived at the Waldorf and made my way to the press check-in table, and got my press tag. I was welcomed by Michael Cole-Schwartz, HRC's Press Secretary, a very nice man who I'd exchanged emails with in the past. We chatted for a few moments, and then he left while I stayed in the welcoming area until it was time to move into the next room for the introductions and and press availabilities.

While there I was also warmly welcomed by Fred Sainz, HRC's VP of Communications and Marketing. As I had Michael, I thanked Fred for allowing me to come to the event as press, knowing that I had, to put it mildly, not been kind to the organization in my commentaries over the years.

The Press Pit

Soon afterward, I and the rest of the press were escorted into the press pit area, which was an area close to the stage where the introductions would take place, cordoned off by velvet ropes. I had a brief encounter with a host and his cameraman from some gay entertainment website I'd never heard of who seemed to believe that the entire right side of the press pit was their private studio. I politely made it clear that I was there to film as well, and I intended to get my shots. After a brief exchange, we agreed that I would stay out of their way when the media stars were doing interviews, and when the political folks I wanted to talk to were there, they'd stay out of mine.

While waiting for the introductions to begin, I spent some time checking out the crowd. The first thing I immediately noticed was that unless there was someone who I hadn't seen or was so passable as to be completely undetectable, I was the sole transperson there. This was at least partially confirmed for me when I asked some of the HRC folks directly if, in fact, I was the only transperson attending this event. None of them seemed to know of any other transpeople who had been invited or were expected to attend.

The second thing I noticed was that while I and most of the press folks in attendance were kept strictly confined within the press pit area, this rule was not enforced for all of the media covering the event. Certain "special" media folks were apparently allowed to roam freely as they wished, and one was even allowed to set up for interviews in an area about ten feet away from the pit to catch those being introduced before they went to the stage and were then were supposed to make themselves available to those of us in the pit.

Unfortunately, some of those being introduced, such as Congressman Jerry Nadler, apparently thought that the entire press availability was the single Credit Suisse interviewer who had been allowed to station herself closer where the honorees were coming into the room without any challenge from any of the HRC volunteers who were carefully monitoring and herding those of us who stepped even so much as a stray foot outside of the marked pit area, and who didn't come anywhere near the press pit to speak with the rest of us as they stepped off the stage and out of the room.

While pretty annoyed by the way it was done, I was not personally offended by this as it was all of the press folks in the pit, not just me, who were denied a chance to speak to certain guests who the "special" media were given free access to. At the same time, though, I did feel it was the result of poor planning and event administration, and frankly, unfair to those of us in the press pit who had made the trip to this event to interview these folks and had waited patiently through the introductions for the access we had been promised.

I was able to get a shout-out for the Bilerico Project from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and one from Richard Socarides, who also answered a poorly-phrased question from me about what we should be doing now politically. The other person I was most hoping to catch, Congressman Anthony Weiner, didn't show for the press availability.

I expressed my interest to Fred Sainz in asking Joe Solmonese a question or two, but although he was all around the press pit area escorting honorees to the stage, it didn't happen. I can't say for certain if it was intentional or if it simply just happened to work out that way coincidentally, but Solmonese seemed to give the area where I was standing a pretty wide berth, never coming close enough for me to attempt to ask him a question. Given what I've written about Joe Solmonese in print and said about him on my show, I'm neither surprised nor offended by this, even if it was intentional. Were I him, I probably would have avoided me too.

The Balcony

When the introductions were finished, those in the pit who chose to stick around for the dinner speeches (it seemed several left once the downstairs press availability was over) were led up a couple of flights of stairs toward a balcony area overlooking the dinner seating area. As I gingerly ascended the stairs in my pumps and ankle-length skirt, I thought to myself that this might prove to be the very first time since I'd been commenting publicly about transgender-relevant topics and issues that I'd be putting my name on a commentary that was fully complimentary to the Human Rights Campaign. This too, however, was not to be.

To this point, even with the annoyances of missing a few guests I would have liked to talk to and way it seemed that the rules established for media coverage at this event didn't seem to be being applied to all media equally, I really didn't have very much to complain about. Just about everyone I'd personally encountered, HRC folks and guests alike, had been wonderfully gracious and welcoming.

I hadn't gotten even the slightest hint of transphobia, or of being uncomfortable with my presence in any way, and of course, I'd been on the lookout for it. In fact, I was so impressed that I couldn't help but wonder if the HRC powers-that-be had gone out of their way to ensure that I'd be well-treated while I was there. It was only a few minutes later, however, when I discovered that if that actually were true then there was at least one HRC volunteer who didn't get the memo.

When we reached the balcony area, our HRC escorts directed me to one of the several openings that overlooked the dinner seating area and stage. I set up and took a few establishing shots as we waited for the program to begin. I recorded a bit of ice skater Johnny Weir's speech, and was in the process of recording Christine Quinn's speech, when one of the volunteers came up to me and insisted that I was not allowed to be where I was and had to move immediately.

The Jerk

I protested that I was in the area where the HRC escorts had directed me to. The volunteer responded "No, they didn't.", basically calling me a liar, and apparently felt it was so urgent and critical to remove me from an area that was completely unused and vacant other than myself and my purse and equipment that he couldn't even allow me the simple courtesy of allowing me to finish recording Speaker Quinn's 3-minute speech before moving.

Suddenly, I found myself faced with exactly the kind of elitism and condescension I'd been concerned I might face at this event before I arrived and had been so pleasantly surprised to discover had been totally absent during the opening ceremonies downstairs. I stayed in the area this jerk of a volunteer had directed me to, taking a few establishing shots and noting, not without a little internal humor, that during the short film featuring the brands of HRC's major corporate donors, the company which by far received the largest round of applause when their brand appeared on the huge flat screens above either side of the stage was Morgan Stanley.

Sometimes, stereotypes are stereotypes for good reason.

Whenever I took my eyes from the stage and looked around the area I was in, The Jerk was there. He was never close enough to say he was breathing down my neck, but certainly he was hovering, almost always within my visual range whenever I looked away from the stage. I was already not happy that The Jerk had ruined my recording of Speaker Quinn's speech, and it now seemed he had elected himself my personal policeman for the evening.

I can't say I know that this was because I am a transwoman, but I can say with certainty that after our first exchange he knew I was a transwoman from my voice, and I can also say that I was the only member of the press in the balcony area who he singled out for such intense scrutiny.

Having already reached the point where I was now about three seconds away from telling The Jerk where he could shove his officious, self-superior attitude, I decided that out of respect to Michael's and Fred's hospitality and to the way I had been treated at this event until I'd encountered The Jerk, that discretion was the better part of valor in this situation, and it was time to pack up and head home.

As I headed toward the stairs, The Jerk immediately rematerialized once again, followed me down the stairs and toward the exits. The Jerk asked me why I was leaving early. I told him that since the speech I'd most wanted to get had been ruined for no good reason, I really didn't see see any point in staying. The truth, which I'll admit took an enormous level of self-control not to hit him with, was that his behavior had made me feel no longer welcome and singled out for a level of (yes, I'll say it) discrimination that was not directed toward anyone else at the event.

Had I not had to deal with The Jerk and his elitist, condescending attitude, I most likely would have stayed longer, gotten more of the speeches, and perhaps gone down to the dinner area later when we would be allowed there. As it was, while I was not there as a guest but as press, I no longer felt I was being treated fairly and respectfully as a person, much less as a member of the credentialed media or as a transperson, and I determined that it was time for me to leave for that reason and that reason only.

I must admit I find it difficult to understand why HRC would have someone so ill-mannered and with such horrendously poor social skills as The Jerk serving as a volunteer at one of their events. It forces me to wonder exactly what the qualifications to serve in such a capacity in HRC's name might be, because it certainly doesn't seem that treating people politely and respectfully were on the list, or if they were, there hadn't been much effort made to see that those values were adhered to while actually on the job.

For myself, sitting here now at my keyboard in a much calmer frame of mind, despite The Jerk's behavior, as an LGBT community journalist and commentator I'm glad I was there. In just a couple of hours, I got to see both the best and the worst of the Human Rights Campaign, the reason why so many support them and their work, and the reason why so many despise them and consider them to be part of the problem and not the solution.

Lessons Learned

I learned a lot about the Human Rights Campaign by attending this event, and I believe I now understand this organization, how it operates, and why they do what they do the way they do it a little better than I did before.

Throughout the evening I felt like a visitor to a foreign country, a land I could visit and explore only as an outsider, not as someone who truly belonged there. I was welcomed by most of the natives, but I also learned that there would always be some who just didn't want someone like me in their space.

So what does this mean for my own perception of the Human Rights Campaign and the people who work for and with this organization? I think they're trying. They're making an effort to reach out to the rest of us, but they still haven't quite worked out just how to best go about doing that.

Inviting a transgender blogger and commentator to one of their events as press is a good beginning, and one I was happy and grateful to be the beneficiary of. At the same time, I hope that they'll come to the understanding that in order to represent those not in the same social, cultural, and income strata as themselves, it can only be done by engagement and understanding, that they can't expect to be taken seriously as the voice of those in lower classes than their own unless they talk with us, not at us, and they're willing to prioritize in deed, as well as in word, the issues which are most important to us in their advocacy.

I learned a lot at this event about the Human Rights Campaign, and I honestly do hope that what I saw at their New York City Gala indicates that they're learning more about us too. Love 'em, hate 'em, or just don't care, understanding each other better and learning how to work together for the betterment of every LGBT American can only be a very good thing.


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I'll start by saying that I am impressed that you went and that you were invited. I am not shocked that there was a jerk, though I would have expected there to have been more. Thank you for the report.
I can't agree with your close, however. I think that the betterment of a community which is realistically inclusive means that we have to work around organizations like HRC. Our community would be far better off if the HRC offices were suddenly picked up and tossed into the sea taking their records and organizatinal info with it so that they had no infrastructure. Our community would be better served IMO if HRC collapsed and went away. It would leave the field open for something constructive to replace it.

Kathy Padilla | February 9, 2011 10:06 AM

Did you take the jerks picture?

Appletini!

Actually no I didn't get his picture, but I did get the audio of the exchange between us when he called me a liar. I'll hopefully have that and the rest of the video up soon (this was my first time doing video and I need help with getting it online and editing so it's taking a bit longer than I'd hoped).

Angela Brightfeather | February 9, 2011 10:58 AM

Becky,

As you know, I and others have been picketing HRC dinners for some years and I have been a guest, a bother, a paid attendent, but always someone who tried to be curteous, yet firm in my beleif that I was there to learn about them, and as it turned out that was true. Although they had little interest in learning about me or my issues.

Early on (11 years ago), I found out that one thing about HRC members that is very true is, they really aren't told anything about us in their HRC packets, their often-sent emails to members, or the annoying people calling for donations or dues. I am often called to join or to contribute and I listen to the caller tell me about all the issues they are involved with and working so hard on. I well remember HRC calling me just after they dumped us on ENDA and the caller telling me that they were working for an inclusive bill. After throwing up slightly in my mouth, I recovered enough to tell him that he didn't know what he was talking about.

After reading your report, you could go back and read my report of the Raleigh, NC dinner some 11 years ago that we picketed, and you could lay your findings over mine and see that they still line up perefectly. Little has changed, even though they have hired people like Allyson Robinson to change things, she isn't involved in dinners or funding. But you might expect that she could throw that HRC dinner group a few thoughts that might help by now.

There was a point where HRC was doing whatever they could to get Trans involvement in their dinners, but after ENDA was sent back to the closet, that has tailed of into the area of old news, and don't bother me with that Trans stuff any more.

Your learning about HRC from attending their dinners and now you know why I led the charge to picket their dinners back when ENDA was the big issue and before SSM and DADT were major issues. Hitting them in the pocketbook is the only way to get their attention.

One big thing I remember learning at those dinners was when we were picketing the DC dinner some years ago, and I was asked to attend as a guest by an HRC member. I was handing out our flyers at the escalator after the dinner, and some young man threw it back at me and laughed, saying "honey, you got to wait your turn." That about sums it all up for many HRC people and it hasn't really changed that much.

Before the Jerk materialized, maybe you think you weren't treated with transphobia, but the mere lack of a trans presence at an event like that was complete transphobia. Honestly, I don't care how they treated you, I care that trans people were invisible and missing.

And personally, I think Allyson Robinson is very mistaken if she thinks she's doing any good. She's there for PR and someone to point to when they're accused of being the non-allies they are... which is helping them mask the exclusionary reality of their organization. So... actually, worse than nothing.

Rebecca, I am curious, why did you not go to whoever this jerk reported to for help? I understand you were treated badly, but personally I would have called him on it, and stayed for the rest of the event.

Although I have no love for HRC, and feel they are basically all about rich, urban gay men, you are kind of judging an entire evening and organization on one person, Like you say, you had been treated euqally up to then.

Like Gina, I do feel that the more telling thing was the total lack of trans inclusion, and how clueless they were about that. To me, it shows that they really have no interest in trans ppl, and make little token gestures towards them when it suits their purpose. Very much a 'Why don't they eat cake?' kind of situation.

... unlike the National Prayer Breakfast (and Rick Warren, see Kat below), which is very much a "Why do they eat cock?" kind of situation.

Actually, I tried very hard to clearly separate how I was treated in the downstairs area and how it was in the balcony. It was literally night and day, and all of the negative experience was entirely about this one volunteer.

I did consider making it an issue, but decided against it. At that point the dinner program was in full swing and I'm not sure I could have found one of the higher-ups even if I'd decided to look for one. To be honest, by that point I'd just had enough of The Jerk's crap and felt it was easier to just go home.

Rebecca,

I'm pretty much where Gina and Carol are--one obnoxious underling is thoroughly unpleasant, yes, but the non-presence of trans folk at the event far more deeply reflects the nature of the problem. That said, it's also a case of reaping what they've sown--most trans people have long since opted out of doing anything that supports HRC. HRC's near-total failure to actively engage the trans community in a meaningful way since 2007 very much reflects who and what they are, as well as their incapacity to speak for us, having already betrayed us. Not even a nice volunteer would change that sad fact.

Funny, the same thing occurred to me as I drove to work this AM. It could be that HRC actually invited some trans ppl, and they declined to go. Personally, I wouldn't go even if they paid all my expenses, not totally b/c it's HRC, mostly b/c I am pretty turned off by such pretentious and preeening events, no matter the group hosting it.

Om Kalthoum | February 9, 2011 1:57 PM

Do you intend to report on any aspect of this HRC event which you attended on a press pass - perhaps the apparent demographics of the paying attendees, who the outside speakers were and what they said in their remarks, what the HRC speakers had to say? Any vibes in general about how others felt about the success or failure of the event? Did you interview anyone, speaker or attendee?

I am sorry that one lowly unpaid volunteer ruined your entire experience. Have you made HRC directly aware of your unhappiness, or is this the first they'll be hearing of it?

As I said in the piece, I would have stayed longer if not for The Jerk. As far interviews go, there wasn't really time for anything you'd call an actual interview. At best, I might have gotten to ask a question or two of each. There was just too much going on, and the honorees weren't staying long in the press area even when the did come over.

Rebecca, thank you for this report. I have attended a number of such piss-elegant affairs in my life, and I recognize the inescapable feeling that one is in a viper pit, although supposedly having dinner with fellow brothers and sisters. (Kinda like Christmas has gotten to be in my family.)

I would encourage you, once your recordings are online, to write letters to Michael Cole-Schwarz and Fred Sainz, thanking them each for their warm welcomes, but also telling them about The Jerk. Include a link to the audio you mention. If they are "trying" as you say, then they deserve kind and constructive feedback about where they are falling short. Volunteers such as The Jerk do not need to be tolerated.

And next time, I gently suggest that you bring along your latest Morgan-Stanley statement and proudly shove it in everybody's face -- even if the account balance is a humble one. (Although personally, I would recommend Templeton instead.)

Actually, I've already done that. I wrote to Michael yesterday and included a copy of the piece before it went public. I also included descriptive information about the Jerk which I chose not to include in the piece.

From what I saw, The Jerk was an exception not the rule. Everyone else was terrific. I do not blame HRC as a whole for the actions of one volunteer. That's just not fair and not in keeping with what I experienced there.

I'd resolved to keep an open mind when covering this event and not go into it with any preconceived notions based on the events of the past.

This, of course, is one of the oppressor class's scams: demanding that, no matter how much empirical evidence there is that they are what they are, you are always expected to take them at face value, lest they play the 'persecuted HRC-oid christian' card.

Rick Warren slithers into the public spotlight and demands that people believe that he's not anti-gay even though all empirical evidence regarding what he stands for - as well as all who have come before him who preach the same vomit - can lead a thinking person to only one logical conclusion about what he is and what he's up to.

The "notions" that you had going in to this circle jerk for the obscenely rich, out of touch gay oppressor class were not "preconceived." They were based on the experience of what they - and their predecessors-in-all-interest-that-matters - have done.

If you see a coral snake slithering on the ground, you're under no obligation to believe any PR that the Coral Snake Campaign has published in which it claims that coral snakes are no longer poisonous. Any experience you may have that tells you that coral snakes are one some the deadliest reptiles on the planet does not make you closed-minded or anti-reptile-ist when you refuse to pick it up and play with it; it simply means that you're an evolved being who can process information.

I didn't go to this thing to debate policy or the past, I was there to get shout-outs for Bilerico and ask some questions if I could. There's a time and a place for that kind of conversation...and it may be coming sooner than you might think. More on that as I have it.

Rebecca, It is great that you went to the HRC Dinner for Bilerico. Excellent! You just did not get to eat any of the food! Perfect for how the HRC Views T People! They keep saying that they represent T people but no substance! Just like the dinner! Gay Inc. (HRC style) Is afraid of us because they can not understand us! Thank you Bilerico for sending Rebecca Juro and for giving us a platform to expose LBG's to the T's. I Believe it is making a difference! Thank You Rebecca for going and am looking forward to more of your reports!

Thanks for the kind words hon! :)

Do you know that this worker was a volunteer? Did you try to get a few questions with him on tape?

I think that's part of the issue here - a corporation is having a large money-making event and they're using free labor, given to them under the auspices of good-doing, in order to squeeze a few dimes out of the rich people.

He had a tag that said "Volunteer" just like I had one that said "Press". I strongly suspect that this guy was a local supporter who just volunteered for the event, not an actual HRC employee (they had "Staff" tags), but I'm not certain of that.