Sunday, September 07, 2008

An Open Letter To Joe Solmonese

Dear Joe,

I've heard you're going to be posting on the Bilerico Project again, so I'm writing this in the hopes that you'll read it and respond.

First and foremost, before you read any further, let me say this: I'm not about to bash you again. I've done plenty of that, and while we can argue as to whether it's deserved or not, that's not the purpose of this letter. No, I'm putting all that aside for the moment because I want you to hear from me, one of your loudest and most vocal detractors, why I go after you and HRC as often and as enthusiastically as I do, why so many of us are furious with you and why we make that fury known on the blogs with such volume and venom.

I think it'll help to illustrate the point I want to make here if I tell you a little about myself that you probably don't know. In that vein, here's a tidbit you might find hard to believe but is nonetheless absolutely true. I first came out trans and began living as a woman in 1997, and a couple of years after that I attended my very first Pride event in Philadelphia. While at the street festival that day, I bought my very first LGBT-identifying thing to wear, an HRC t-shirt. I kid you not. This was a very huge deal for me, having hidden my true gender identity all of my life and by then was well into a six-year stretch of unemployment precipitated by my own stupid mistake of telling my last boss of my impending transition. I was well-liked and on a short list of candidates for promotion, but less than two weeks later I was out of a job, just like that. No reasons given, no disciplinary issues, just coming into work one day to hear "You're fired. Pick up your check Friday.".

I was terrified of public ridicule and exposure before I worked up the courage to go to Philly for Pride and present myself openly as an out Queer-identified transwoman for the very first time in my life. That HRC t-shirt I bought that day was a rite of passage for me, a public declaration of my identity and my pride in myself, and I wore it with pride...for a while.

After a while, though, it wasn't so easy to muster that pride anymore. Month after month and year after year went by with no job interview making it past the first five or ten minutes, and with some even asking me to leave immediately when I appeared for my interview. In every case, I was told, either by the demeanor of the person I interviewed with or directly, in so many words, "We don't hire people like YOU!".

I don't know if you know what it's like to be unemployed for six straight years, Joe, but I can tell you it's not fun, and on top of that it makes you angry and bitter as hell. I was lucky in that I have family that kept a roof over my head and food in my stomach but beyond those essentials and a computer with an Internet connection, I had nothing at all, and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. No entertainment aside from that which I could get on TV and online, no offline social life whatsoever, no car, no access to public transportation, no nothing other than the small amounts of pocket cash I acquired from friends and family at birthdays and holidays. That's it. That was my life for six long years.

I had to do something to keep myself from going insane with boredom so I started writing, which eventually evolved into political commentary as I became more educated about our community and what it really means to be a transperson socially and politically in this country. I developed community connections, first with fellow transpeople and later with gays and lesbians as well. I discovered and fell in love with LGBT-oriented radio, eventually teaming up with a fellow transwoman, Marti Abernathey, to create and host our own Internet radio show for transgender people.

Over this time, the more I learned about HRC and their positions on employment rights for transfolks and support for transpeople in general, the more disenchanted with the organization I became. Perhaps at the time I was a bit too naive to understand how an organization like HRC which says it supports the rights of transgender people could do so little to support us in reality. So I talked to people, a lot of people, those who'd been around a lot longer than I had, and the vast majority all told me essentially the same things: "Don't trust Congress, don't trust GenderPAC, and don't trust the Human Rights Campaign. They'll tell you they support us, but in reality they only care about themselves.".

It was easy to believe these things. After all, this advice was not only given to me often as a baby transactivist, but it was clearly backed up by what we saw going on in Washington. People made accusations against HRC and Congress and these accusations were almost always proven to be correct sooner or later. After a while, I always believed the worst of HRC when I heard it because it almost inevitably proved to be true.

So, enough about myself, it's time to get to the point here. My story is by no means unique. In fact, I'd venture to say that probably most transitioned transsexuals can tell a version of it from their own lives. Devastatingly long periods of unemployment, blatant bigotry and discrimination on and off the job, being treated like a mental defective or gutter trash when you show up for an interview, and on and on. I'd ask you to take a moment, Joe, and imagine, just for a moment, that you lived through something like this as an integral part of your coming out process. What do you think it would have done to you? How would you perceive an organization like HRC which supports and endorses enacting laws which protect others from discrimination but not yourself? How would you see your government when even those you'd expect to be among the first to support you and your equality are just as eager as the rest to enact anti-discrimination laws that leave you and those like you about unprotected while protecting everyone else?

Honestly, Joe, how would you feel if this had been your life? And if you can be honest in that assessment, then I suspect that you can also understand why so many transpeople and our allies feel the way we do, about you and about the organization you lead. I'm sure you've also noticed that while we call out the Democrats quite frequently for their failings, we seem to have a special level of antagonism and outright rage reserved for HRC that we don't display toward anyone else, not the Dems and not even the right-wing hatemongers. You might think that's unfair, but there's a very good reason for it, and it can be boiled down to a single sentence: We expect you to know better.

Anyone who follows politics knows that politicians, no matter who they are or what political party they hail from, cannot be trusted to reliably fulfill the promises they make. Sure, we get plenty angry at Barney Frank and the rest for treating us badly, but we expect to be sold out for political gain by politicians. We don't feel that same level of intense anger toward the politicians because we don't really expect them to keep their promises.

It's different for HRC though, and it's different because HRC itself has been telling us it's different for years now. Until very recently the Democrats never claimed to support us, but your organization proactively took on the role of speaking for us in Washington. HRC told us they represent us and fight for us. They told us they were on our side, that HRC is our voice in Washington. They promised us that HRC would not support any legislation that didn't include all of us. But then, the very first time those commitments were tested, the very first time HRC was called upon to really stand up and act as our advocate, you guys folded like a house of cards. Again Joe, if you were one of us how would you feel about HRC and the promises the organization had made to represent your interests and support your rights?

I've heard that you've said you understand why we're angry, but I really don't think you do, because if you did, if you really, truly understood why we feel so betrayed by HRC and why your statement at Southern Comfort and what happened just days afterward so enraged transpeople as well as other fairminded LGBT's and progressives, you'd be doing things differently. Once again, it's all in those six little words: We expect you to know better.

The truth of it is, Joe, even all of that is only part of why we're so eager to publicly rip you and HRC to shreds. The other part is not about your actions as much as it is about your behavior. Instead of seeking to open a dialog and work toward a solution that would benefit all of us, HRC has chosen to circle the wagons, cut itself off from communication with the rest of the greater community, and continue to ignore the clear will of the majority and do whatever it feels like doing, apparently with little or no regard for how it affects the rest of us. It's not just that we don't like what you're doing, it's that the way you're doing it is arrogant as hell.

You don't work with the community, you don't talk to us, you offer carefully selected, ultra-clean business leaders like Diego Sanchez to Congress as representatives of who our community is, but you never really tell the rest of our story, do you? Diego is a wonderful person and an excellent example for anyone, trans or not, but does he really represent and reflect the real rank-and-file American transgender community? Given the statistics we all know so well, it's fair to say that it's highly likely that success stories like Diego's are the exception not the rule and they offer Congress a completely misleading picture of what's really going on out there. I'd bet that there are far more transpeople who go to work every day wearing a blue-collar uniform than a business suit (that is, those of us fortunate enough to have any employment at all).

It's important to present people like Diego as examples of our best, but when you fail to also present those who represent the everyday reality most of us actually live in as transpeople you not only do a disservice to our community by portraying us inaccurately but you also send a message that the vast majority of us aren't good enough to be recognized and heard. When you refuse to enter into a public dialog with us on these issues which are so critical to every aspect of our daily lives you send the message that HRC feels no responsibility to be accountable to the rest of the community for what it does on our behalf. Once again, it's hardly surprising that most of us see you as arrogant and interested only in self-promotion since that's exactly the message you're sending us by your actions, or perhaps more specifically, your lack of action. And yes, once again, we're as angry as we are and we see you as we do because we expect you to know better.

A few weeks ago, I wrote to Brad Luna to invite you on my radio show. I got back a polite but firm denial then, so I'm going to make you the same offer now, publicly, for all of our readers to see. Come on my show and let's get into the issues. Let's talk about why HRC has acted as it has, why you continue to actively support a non-inclusive ENDA in opposition to not only the will of most of the rest of the American LGBT community but also a significant number of members of Congress, including the man most likely to become our next President. When I had Hilary Rosen on my show, I asked her what she thought about your promise at Southern Comfort and she responded that you had no business making such a statement in the first place. I want to ask you about that too, and I also want to ask you about the future. What happens with ENDA next year and how will HRC fit in? What plans does HRC have to help ensure that the next ENDA to be voted on will be fully inclusive? How will things be different when Barack Obama is in the White House?

Yes, I'll ask you tough questions and expect answers, but I don't want you on my show to attack you, I want you on because I think we deserve some answers. If and when I really want to bash you and HRC publicly I certainly have no shortage of media venues in which to do so, but doing so on my show would serve no more useful purpose than doing so in this letter would, and as someone who has a radio show of your own I'm sure you understand my reasoning. I encourage you to follow the link above and listen to my interview with Hilary Rosen. As I would with you, I did not shy away from asking her tough questions, but always respectfully and cordially as you will hear. Furthermore, as I did with Hilary Rosen I make you the promise that my callers will not be permitted to bash you either. I have rules against that sort of thing on my show, and they will be just as strictly enforced for your appearance as they have been for any other guest I've ever had on my show.

So, there it is, Joe. I've laid it on the line. If you and HRC really want to work toward a resolution to this conflict and unite this community, the first thing that needs to happen is for us to start talking to each other, not just a few chosen people behind closed doors, but out in the open, in public, in a venue accessible to everyone. If you want to work with the community, you have to engage with the community. Closed-door meetings just aren't going to cut it. If you really want to change hearts and minds, you have to speak where you can and will be heard by those you seek to appeal to or it's all just shouting in the dark.

We expect you to know better, but nothing we've seen or heard from you as yet tells us that you do. If you want us to believe otherwise, you need to tell us why we should. I'm offering my show as a public venue to begin that process and I hope you'll accept. As it has been for some time now, the next move is yours, and I hope you'll take advantage of this offer.

If you want to speak for us, you also have to speak with us. It's my hope that now, after all that's gone on, that you finally will.

I look forward to your response and to speaking with you.


Rebecca Juro


jolynn said...

i would be very much interested in hearing any response from joe in regard to this. being unable to spend the time i really should in matters such as this, i am so glad we have people such as yourself that can be the voice of the general public. i do get to follow some of the major issues but not in the depth that i should. please help keep us informed. and remember that its not bad sometimes to be called a pit bull. lifes short BITE HARD.

Rebecca Juro said...

No response as yet, Jolynn, nor, to be honest, do I really expect one. HRC has been consistent in refusing to engage with the community in honest and public dialog since they backed the non-inclusive ENDA so this is really no surprise.