March 23, 2010
Equality by way of 'elegant activism'?
Posted by: Chris
Joe Solmonese favors Dolce & Gabbana. Dan Choi favors your equality. The two images could not contrast more completely:
On the one hand, there's West Point graduate Dan Choi in uniform, handcuffed to the White House fence in the form of Jesus on the cross, sacrificing his career for the fight against Don't Ask Don't Tell. On the other, there's Joe Solmonese, paid a cool million every couple of years to run the Human Rights Campaign, named "The Elegant Activist" in the 2010 Fashion Awards in the new issue of Washington Life magazine.
Solmonese, perched next to Count Renault de Viel Castel, tells Washington Life that he favors designers Ann Demeulemeester, Billy Reid, and Dolce and Gabbana.
Tellingly, Choi had asked Solmonese and comedienne Kathy Griffin to walk with him from a Don't Ask Don't Tell rally in Freedom Plaza, actually a filming of Griffin's reality show, for the two-block walk to the White House. They declined.
Choi hit the nail on the head in an interview with Newsweek:
Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society. I think there's been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable. The movement seems to be centered around how to become an elite.
There is a deep schism [in the gay-rights movement], everyone knows this. But this shouldn't be about which group has better branding. There is a tremor right now in every gay and transgender youth that these groups are not grasping. I would say to them—you do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder in to elite society.
I would take that a step further. It's not just about becoming an elite for Solmonese and his fellow travelers at HRC; it's about access.
Access is power in a town that truly deserves its nickname as "Hollywood for ugly people," and for Solmonese and David Smith and many of those at the top of the staff and board level for HRC, the access they have with the Democrats who run Washington right now is worth too much than risking it on the actual mission of the organization they are entrusted with gazillions from our community to run.
In years past, the void created by HRC's cloying corporatism was filled by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, or even Queer Nation and ACT UP. These days, those organizations are either gone or have so marginalized themselves by focusing on the fringe of the fringe of our community that they are no longer players.
The grassroots group Join the Impact, which organized those nationwide protests in response to Prop 8's passage, reenergized the movement, even if HRC and the existing architecture of Gay, Inc., was too calcified to notice. Last fall's march on Washington has since given birth to GetEQUAL, which was behind the sit-ins at Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office over her failure to give the Employment Non-Discrimination Act a vote in the House.
There's no reason why the two forms of activism could not co-exist, of course, forming the sort of good cop/bad cop combination that worked so effectively in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when those with access used the ACT UP street theater as leverage with the CDC and Big Pharma to push through earlier availability of HIV medications and greater commitment to research for treatments.
But good cop/bad cop requires an effective activist on the inside, able to move the ball forward with politicians who naturally look for cover, not for opportunities to stick their own necks out. Unfortunately, there's no indication that Solmonese's elegant activism approaches that level of effectiveness, unless progress is measured by the number of invitations he gets to White House cocktail events, or by the number of D-List celebrities turn up at black-tie fundraisers.
As Choi put it:
We all know the political reality now. The only way for the repeal to go through is for the president to take leadership and put it in the Defense Authorization Bill. There's a sunset on this, and it's happening quickly. Obama told us at the HRC dinner last year, you need to put pressure on me. I was there at that dinner, in uniform. So this is my mission; the president said to pressure him and I heard that as a warning order.
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