March 17, 2007
The emperor wears thin skin
Posted by: Chris
The Boston gay paper Bay Windows published an excellent article by reporter Ethan Jacobs on Friday detailing recent criticism of the Human Rights Campaign from the gay blogosphere, your's truly included.
Of greatest interest to me was how Joe Solmonese, HRC's president, said he decides which critics are worth listening to and which are "bad for the movement." Just what makes an HRC critic "bad" according to this joey-come-lately to the struggle? Well, either they are too partisan (allegedly Andrew Sullivan) or too personal (allegedly me) in their critiques.
It's true, of course, that Andrew has been a vocal supporter at times of the Republican Party and George Bush. He has also been among their most strident critics. Can Solmonese or anyone else associated with HRC (or its supporters) demonstrate anything close to that level of partisan independence?
Solmonese told Bay Windows that he regularly reads the "thoughtful" criticism of HRC by Pam Spaulding over at Pam's House Blend and appreciates it. Well of course he does. She is a proud progressive Democrat. Is that the only direction Joe's head will turn?
It's unconscionable for Solmonese to dismiss criticism from someone like Sullivan, who has a far longer and more impressive record on gay rights than Solmonese himself, as (supposedly) "a conservative Republican." Agree or disagree with him on any given issue, Andrew Sullivan has already done more for the lives of gay people and those with HIV than Solmonese will if he stays on the job at HRC for another 10 years.
On the substance of the charge that HRC is partisn, Solmonese points out to Bay Windows that HRC backed a few Republicans in congressional races last fall. That's like saying a bill is "bipartisan" if it has 125 Democrats and one Republican as sponsors. In reality, HRC endorsed fewer Republican congressional candidates this cycle than ever before and even abandoned gay-friendly GOP incumbents in favor of Democratic challengers.
But my primary criticism of HRC under Solmonese has never been about not supporting Republicans enough. And neither Sullivan nor I has ever suggested that the two parties are equal on gay rights. Those are red herrings that HRC likes to use because so few gays are sympathetic to the GOP.
To the contrary, I have stated the obvious time and time again: Democrats are far better at every level of government than Republicans on gay rights, and that difference is magnified when their party leaders are compared. With the exception of a couple of gay and gay-friendly Republicans in local D.C. races, I haven't voted in the GOP column in recent memory.
But all that says far more about just how bad the Republicans have been than it does about how good the Democrats are. My criticism is from the left, not the right, and it is that HRC does not stand up to Democrats enough when they are too weak-kneed to spend political capital on our issues.
In the end, Solmonese's dismissal of me as having some sort of "personal fascination" with him is a bit ironic, since he admits (finally) to Bay Windows that he is the one who has taken things too personally:
HRC has made several attempts to respond to the current wave of criticism from bloggers, but more often than not those efforts have only further alienated bloggers and, in one case, the LGBT media more broadly. Last month Crain wrote a column for the San Francisco Bay Times critical of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) and HRC’s response to a Snickers ad aired during the Super Bowl that the two organizations argued was homophobic. In response Solmonese wrote a letter to the paper accusing Crain of having a “fascination” with him and arguing that “[g]iving Chris Crain a platform to spout his misguided rhetoric sets back the work of the entire movement.” His response was criticized not only by Crain himself on his blog but by [blogger Michael] Petrelis, who accused Solmonese of being “thin-skinned” and of declining to answer legitimate criticism, and by the Bay Area Reporter, which published an editorial accusing HRC of acting like “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” by attacking its critics.
Solmonese admitted that his letter to the Bay Times struck a sour note and said, “I think that that is a really good example of where it was the one and only time I let what I felt was a personal attack get under my skin.” He said he would never again “lose sight of who our real enemies are” in responding to criticism.
I'm a bit shocked to think that Solmonese needed reminding I'm not "the real enemy." I have been involved and committed to the gay rights movement for far longer than he has, and I have sacrificed much more. After a half-decade of working as a pro bono lawyer and activist within the movement, I left a lucrative law career in 1997 to go into the gay press — all because of my commitment to that struggle. I'm not asking for a medal or sympathy, but to have that commitment questioned by someone making almost a quarter-million dollars annually in the very first year of his very first ever gay rights job is just beyond silly.
What's most surprising is that Solmonese (and the communications department at HRC) still hasn't grasped the role the media (old and new) plays within any power structure, including non-profit political lobbies and civil rights movements. The Bay Windows story does an excellent job of highlighting how that tin ear has damaged HRC's image so much in recent weeks and months.
We in the media are here to ask the tough questions and demand accountability. When we see things going astray, it's our job to say so. It's not (at all) personal; it's professional. It's also the kind of thing it would be nice to see HRC do more of on all of our behalf.
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