Two Key Staffers Leave HRC
Two communications staffers have left the nation’s largest GLBT lobbying organization; speculation regarding one of the departures centers around a recent act of civil disobedience by an openly gay soldier protesting the military’s ban on openly GLBT troops.
Trevor Thomas, the longtime Deputy Communications Director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), sent an email out to inform recipients of his decision to leave the HRC and take on a position consulting with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization that advocates for, and offers support to, gays and lesbians in the military that Thomas described as "a non-partisan, non-profit, legal services and policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against military personnel affected by ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT).
"I will now have the opportunity to focus full-time on repealing DADT and helping those discharged under the law," wrote Thomas, going on to note that, "More than 13,500 Americans have been denied the ability to serve--hurting our military readiness and national security."
President Obama has said that he favors an end to the current policy--Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), a policy under which gays and lesbians are allowed to serve as long as they do not speak up about their true sexuality. The anti-gay ban has been in place for 17 years, and critics have noted that the ban is subject to abuses, with heterosexual women in the armed forces being falsely reported as lesbians for rebuffing the sexual advances of male colleagues. In addition, gay servicemembers who have not spoken up about themselves have still been discharged when third parties have reported them.
A review of the ban in currently underway, and the criteria for discharging gay and lesbian soldiers are now being reformulated to help protect servicemembers.
Noted Thomas, "We are at a critical time to repeal the law this year as Congress begins to take action on the Defense Department budget next month."
One high-profile gay servicemember facing discharge is Lt. Dan Choi, who argues that adherence to the anti-gay policy stands in contradiction to the training America’s servicemembers are given--and constitutes a violation of their integrity, as well. Choi’s act of civil disobedience on March 18--and the apparent refusal of the HRC’s president, Joe Solmonese, to accompany Choi to the White House from a rally in Freedom Park--left some in the GLBT community wondering about the HRC’s priorities, while others questioned Choi’s decision to get himself arrested.
Advocate.com reported on March 18 that Choi handcuffed himself to the White House fence. Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, who had already been discharged under the anti-gay ban, joined him. Both men wore uniforms.
Choi had not been scheduled as a speaker at the Human Rights Campaign’s March 18 rally against the ban, which took place at Freedom Plaza and featured comedian Kathy Griffin; even so, he requested, and was granted, a spot to address the crowd. When he took the mike, Griffin asked Choi what his response might be to those who oppose the ban and say that gays wanting to serve openly have "an ulterior motive."
Responded Choi, "You’re great at telling joke, but let me make one thing very clear: this is not a joke. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is not a joking matter. It is the only law that enforces shame." Choi went on to say that the law constitutes "a dereliction of duty, and it is a dereliction of my moral code and my moral fiber" to keep quiet and serve as a closeted gay man. "Our fight actually isn’t just here at Freedom Plaza," Choi told the crowd. "Our fight is at the White House. And I am asking you to send a message to the president with me, to my Commander in Chief: repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Not next year, not tomorrow, but now." Choi went on to announce, "Following this rally, I will be leading to the White House to say, ’enough talk.’ "
Next Stop, the White House--and Controversy
Choi extended an invitation to accompany him to the president of the HRC, Joe Solmonese, to openly gay war hero Eric Alva, also a leading proponent of rescinding the ban, and to Griffin, who shouted, "Of course!" But when Choi tried to get their attention later, neither Solmonese nor Griffin went with him. Choi and a crowd of about 100 people proceeded to the White House, where Choi and Pietrangelo were reportedly assisted in handcuffing themselves to the White House fence by Robin McGehee, who was also placed under arrest.
Some gay pundits reflected that Choi’s act of civil disobedience hearkened back to an earlier time when gays took to the streets and demanded that they be accorded the protections of the law, rather than persecuted under the rubric of law. By contrast, commentators noted the dinners, banquets, and celebrity speakers that the HRC relies on to being attention to GLBT issues. Right-wing pundits also weighed in, claiming that Choi’s act was an example of the kind of breakdown of "good moral order" that proponents of DADT say the ban is designed to uphold among the ranks of America’s men and women in uniform.
The HRC posted an online statement about the March 18 rally on the same day. "There’s been some confusion about Lt. Dan Choi’s role in the rally," text at the HRC’s website read. "As Joe Solmonese was walking to the stage, Lt. Choi asked Joe if he could have a speaking role. Joe explained that it wasn’t his sole decision to make on the spot given that there was already an established program that included Kathy Griffin, other organization and veterans. After Choi then spoke with Kathy Griffin, she agreed to bring him up on stage and speak to the crowd during her remarks.
"Lt. Choi in his speech called on the crowd to march on the White House. Joe Solmonese along with Eric Alva and others felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal. This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play."
"That is simply untrue," wrote John Aravosis at AmericaBlog in a posting that same day. "I was there, standing next to Dan, about 10 feet from Kathy Griffin and Solmonese. They were behind a rope line, to keep them from the rally attendees. They looked over at Dan when he asked them, for the second time, to come with him to the White House (mind you, they had no idea that he was planning to handcuff himself), and they just stared back at him. They were not helping engage the rally about how to build pressure--the rally was over, they were already off the stage, behind it actually, getting ready to leave behind a secure rope line to separate them from the crowd. I’m sorry, but this statement is flat out untrue. They were getting their photos taken."
Aravosis was also at the White House when Choi and Pietrangelo handcuffed themselves to the fence. Aravosis documented the event through photos.
A March 29 story at PCBliberal called the rally and Choi’s subsequent actions "a public relations debacle" for the HRC, noting that Solmonese having been named one of Washington, D.C.’s best dressed people by Washington Life Magazine didn’t help. The same story also reported that Brad Luna, the HRC’s director of communications, had also departed the organization. The article quoted the organization’s human resources director, John Green, as saying, "The position was eliminated."
"HRC simply will not answer questions about" events at the rally, the story said, "They will neither confirm nor deny that GetEqual’s Robin McGehee was told Choi couldn’t speak because he hadn’t signed a release that would give Griffin’s production company intellectual property rights to his speech. They’ll say nothing further about any support they’ll offer Choi," added the article.
Neither the HRC nor Luna made any statement about Luna’s departure, and the HRC has not said what the departures mean for the organization’s staffing other than Green, commenting on Luna’s departure, saying that, "We will determine what positions will come out of that."
Another, smaller, GLBT advocacy organization, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, lists four members on its communications staff. The HRC’s website currently lists only one communications staffer, Michael Cole.