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.
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.
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.
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.