HRC’s ENDA dilemma: Dine, party or boycott?

by Cyd Zeigler Jr.

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 22, 2008

The Human Rights Campaign's fundraiser this weekend will probably be the most talked-about supper it has ever held in San Francisco. But with much of that talk focusing on boycotts and protests, HRC would rather the dinner conversation transition on to something else.

When the gay rights advocacy group holds its dinner Saturday at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, hosted by the HRC's San Francisco Bay Area Steering Committee, across the street in Union Square will be a separate event aimed at showcasing a united GLBT community critical of HRC's acceptance of a Federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act bill that did not include protection for transgender people.

Organizers call it the "Left Out Party" to reflect the festive atmosphere organizers are hoping to create to celebrate solidarity with members of the transgender community and anyone who identifies as gender-variant.

"This is not a riotous demonstration by any means," Left Out Party spokesman Hunter Hargraves, 25, of San Francisco, said. "It's a party. We want the event to be festive and we're asking everyone to bring that festive attitude to the outside of the Westin."

"We're not there to trash HRC's fundraiser," Hale Thompson, 39, a gay transgender man who represents the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club's organizing efforts with the event, told EDGE. "We're there to show them what an inclusive LGBT function looks like. We just don't think what HRC represents is a very inclusive organization."

Hargraves said organizers are asking everyone to be respectful of all the people who are choosing to go to the HRC $225-a-plate dinner. Thompson hopes that people headed to the HRC event will stop at Union Square along the way and enjoy the party before heading in for dinner. He also expressed hope that the dinner's organizers and others from HRC would also attend.

"That's the whole point," Thompson said.

HRC gala dinner co-chair Tom Floyd said he welcomed that sentiment and that HRC was looking into the logistics of having a booth at the Left Out Party. He added that, if the party's goal is in fact unity and if he's invited, he'd happily attend.

"If they want me as a co-chair of the event to come speak or stop by, I'm happy to do that," Floyd says. "The worst thing anyone could do is act as though nothing is going on."

Tension between HRC and the trans community has been building since HRC supported the non-inclusive version of ENDA when it became apparent that a bill including protection for transgender people would not pass the House. Many have felt that broke a promise HRC President Joe Solmonese made at the trans-oriented Southern Comfort Conference last fall when he said HRC would "oppose any legislation that is not absolutely inclusive." Solmonese said his use of the word "oppose" was a mistake, but that's the word many are clinging to.

We're not there to trash HRC's fundraiser. We just don't think what HRC represents is a very inclusive organization.

"It was a strategic decision [to support the final ENDA bill], but I also understand the pain and the uncertainty and the fear that members of the community feel," Solmonese said. "What I think has been important is that members of the [trans] community have used these dinners as an opportunity to put forth their point of view, and that's what's great about our community and our country."

The tone that many Left Out Party organizers are exuding is incredibly positive and inclusive, but Solmonese said he has felt only negative energy coming from the local dissenters up to this point. He said San Francisco Supervisors Bevan Dufty and Tom Ammiano have been leaning on people to "derail" the dinner, leaving him skeptical about the tenor of the Left Out Party.

Although prominent politicians from southern and northern California are scheduled to speak at the dinner, various local government officials have said they will "boycott" the event. San Francisco City Attorney David Herrera, credited by many as one of the main forces behind the state Supreme Court's decision opening marriage to same-sex couples, has said he will boycott the dinner in a show of support for transgender rights. Other government officials supporting the boycott include State Sen. Carole Migden, Assembly Member Mark Leno, local school board members and even Harvey Milk's gay nephew Stuart Milk.
Solmonese says HRC has and will continue to put trans issues at the forefront. They recently pushed House leadership into the first-ever Congressional hearings on trans issues. Solmonese says the organization remains committed to including trans protection in ENDA. And they recently named trans activist and ordained Baptist minister Allyson Robinson their new associate director of diversity.

"We are thrilled that Allyson's joined us," Solmonese says. She's someone who's worked with the organization in our religion and faith project. She brings a lot of ideas and inspiration, and she will help us reach out to trans community in a bolder way."

"I applaud their efforts," Thompson says, "but we need to see a lot more."

Although the main focus at the HRC dinner will be marriage equality in California, trans issues will be a major theme. Transgender member of HRC's business council, Diego Sanchez, will be a featured speaker and will offer his thoughts on ENDA and making trans issues a focus of HRC's efforts.

Other speakers at the dinner will include Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who plays a gay deaf sculptor on The L Word, progressive Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Viaragosa, and Marin County Congressional Representative Lynn Woolsey.

Floyd said ticket sales to the event have been "very good." HRC intended to put every penny of ticket sales toward their PAC fighting the anti-same-sex-marriage Question 8 in November, but California law would not allow them to do so. Instead, every attendee has the ability to instruct HRC to put a percentage of the ticket price, up to 100 percent, toward the PAC; instruction they said they can and will legally follow.

Popular queer performer Annie Danger will emcee the Left Out Party, which will feature speakers, performers and bands from the local LGBT community. Theresa Sparks, president of the San Francisco Police Commission and a transgender woman who earlier this year returned to HRC an award they had given her in 2004, is also expected to attend. Although the party is free, organizers will be asking attendees to contribute directly to Equality California, the Transgender Law Center and other groups.

"We're all part of the same family, and we support their right to express how they feel," Floyd said. "We all have to be willing to talk and keep a dialogue open. It's about unity. We can't have a divided a community. Nobody wants to help people when they're screaming at each other."

The Left Out Party is Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Union Square. There is no charge for admission. The Human Rights Campaign Gala Dinner will be held at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, 335 Powell St. Saturday evening. VIP reception and silent auction begin at 5 p.m., followed by the main program at 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $225; VIP tickets are $350. An after party from 10 p.m. to midnight is hosted by Energy 92.7 FM.