METRO WEEKLY: From your — or your organization’s — perspective, what is the most immediate effect of the presidential election on the LGBT community?
JOE SOLMONESE: We have just witnessed an historic presidential election – for many of us its been life-changing, inspiring, and groundbreaking. The Human Rights Campaign was proud to throw its full support behind Sen. Barack Obama, who has consistently shown that he understands, as we do, that LGBT rights are civil rights, and human rights. The most immediate impact is already apparent: inclusion. For the first time, sexual orientation and gender identity have been listed in the employment opportunity and hiring clause on the incoming administrations website. While it may appear relatively simple, it strengthens a path that is inclusive of our community.
MW: Since the 1990s, a small number of LGBT issues have consistently emerged at federal legislative level: gays in the military, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, partner immigration, hate crimes and marriage equality. With a Democratic congress and president, which of those issues do you believe should be prioritized?
SOLMONESE: As we anticipate this historic administration and increased numbers of fair-minded lawmakers in Congress, we are mindful of the serious crises that immediately face our nation and our new president. We look forward to working with the Obama administration to help roll back eight-years of the wrong-headed Bush policies and put our country back on track. The new Congress and administration represent the best opportunity we’ve ever had to finally protect all Americans from hate crimes and to ensure workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We strongly believe that it is important to have a plan in place for each piece of legislation we are working to pass. In the months ahead, we’ll work to keep transparency with the community and to set appropriate expectations.
MW: Will Congress be able to pass a trans-inclusive ENDA?
SOLMONESE: It has been our goal and will remain our goal to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We will continue to do the hard work of educating Members of Congress on the need for crucial workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This work will continue until all members of our community no longer fear being fired for who they are. As we’ve witnessed many times before, conservative groups and the religious right will be mobilizing against us. But with a stronger Congress and a voice in the White House, we’ll fight back to ensure protections for the entire LGBT community.
MW: Protections for and recognition of LGBT federal employees have often been attacked under the Bush administration. How do you believe the landscape will change for LGBT federal workers under the new administration? Will Obama’s pledge to extend domestic partner benefits come through?
SOLMONESE: This election represents a paradigm shift. For the past eight years, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a dead end for our community. Now the LGBT community will have a voice at the highest level of government. We’re already witnessing inclusion and protections in the Obama transition team. This past September, we witnessed the first-ever hearing on the need for federal employee partner benefits in the U.S. Senate. HRC will work with our Congressional allies to get this legislation reintroduced in the 111th Congress, which would bring the federal government up to the standards of America’s leading employers, who provide these benefits in order to recruit and retain the most talented workforce possible. President-elect Obama believes equal pay for equal work is a value fundamental to American opportunity.
MW: The Bush administration has been lauded for its work in Africa on HIV/AIDS. How do you think an Obama administration will influence HIV/AIDS policy in the U.S.?
SOLMONESE: HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis, particularly among gay and bisexual men and communities of color. President-elect Obama has pledged that, in the first year of his presidency, he will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV related health disparities. It is also important that prevention includes comprehensive sex education in our schools, rather than the discredited, often scientifically inaccurate abstinence-only programs, which ignore LGBT youth and deny all students the tools they need to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases.
MW: What does the loss on same-sex marriage in California — as well as Arizona and Florida — plus the barring of adoption rights in Arkansas say about the state of GLBT issues in America?
On election night, our community felt the emotions of electing a pro-equality President and expanding our numbers in Congress and state houses across the country, but the next morning our hearts were broken as the dust settled and it was clear we lost the marriage ballot measures in California, Florida and Arizona as well as adoption in Arkansas. We all know that our marriages and families did not begin with a court decision and they will not end with a vote on a discriminatory amendment. Although we lost our battles in these states, we will not allow the lies and hate-the foundation on which our opponents built their campaign-to break our spirits. We are on the right side of history and the continuing movement in public opinion underscores that it is only a matter of time before we undo this loss and add more states to the march for equality.
MW: A number of rationales have emerged for the California loss — minority voters supporting both Obama and Prop. 8, low turnout in some areas such as San Francisco, ”No on 8” messages that avoided being too ”gay,” etc. — what do you think needs to be addressed among those in order to move forward in that state?
Anger directed at any group of people is completely misdirected. Have we directed our anger at white men, who voted for Prop. 8 51 percent to 41 percent? At rural people? At voters over age 49? Should we spray paint an assisted living facility? No. We must reject our instinct to lay blame at the feet of any group. There is no denying, as we pick ourselves up after losing this most recent, hard-fought battle, that we’ve been injured, many of us by neighbors who claim to respect us. But we are moving in the right direction. In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 22 by a margin of 61.4 percent to 38.6 percent. On Election Day, fully 48 percent of Californians rejected Proposition 8. Everything we’ve learned points to one simple fact: people who know us are more likely to support our equality.