Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Echelon Magazine: Transgender HRC Business Council Resignations Raise Questions About Future of Transgender Advocacy

I wrote this article for the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Echelon Magazine, the GLBT business magazine. In it, I discuss the resignations of Donna Rose and Jamison Green, two highly-regarded transgender advocates, from the Human Rights Campaign's Business Council, and what that portends for transgender advocacy.

Transgender HRC Business Council Resignations Raise Questions About Future of Transgender Advocacy

The transgender community has made large strides towards acceptance in the halls of business during the past several years, due in major part to the Human Rights Campaign, and particularly its active Business Council, which has, until recently, included two well-regarded transgender advocates, Jamison Green and Donna Rose. Calling their decision “an extremely difficult one,” they have resigned from the Council, an advisory body within HRC focusing on workplace issues. Rose, who had also been a member of HRC’s Board of Directors, resigned from that position earlier, immediately after HRC’s October decision not to join some 350 LGBT organizations of United ENDA in opposing HR 3685, a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that excluded gender identity protections. As Green and Rose noted in a public statement, "Recent HRC policy decisions - to actively support a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that excludes our transgender brothers and sisters as well as gender-variant lesbian, gay, and bisexual people - have placed us in an untenable position.” These resignations raise significant questions about the future of transgender advocacy in what seems to be a changed LGBT advocacy climate.

The recent resignations came after HRC’s president, Joe Solmonese, had refused for over three weeks to arrange a meeting to address their concerns. The concerns also included HRC’s controversial abrupt about-face regarding ENDA. Less than a month before, Solmonese stood in front of the annual Southern Comfort conference, a prominent transgender convention, and publicly reiterated promises to support only an inclusive ENDA. While many transgender leaders, such as Mara Kiesling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, took this in good faith, there were darker interpretations by long-time opponents of HRC, such as Ethan St. Pierre, Board Chair of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. Unfortunately, Kiesling’s trust turned out to be misplaced, fueling bitter rivalries within the transgender community. “It was, frankly, unethical,” Kiesling said.

Green and Rose were reluctant to resign because the Council had achieved much for transgender people in the area of workplace policies and protections, as evidenced by HRC’s 2007 State of the Workplace Report and 2008 Corporate Equality Index, as well as a number of important new initiatives detailed in Rose’s public statement. HRC’s operating budget is generally understood to be the largest, and it is considered the most politically influential of all LGBT advocacy organizations. Despite all this, Rose stated that she and Green could no longer in good conscience remain on the Council, noting that “principles are not for compromise.” This leaves only one transgender person officially working with HRC: Dana Beyer of Maryland, a retired physician who has had respectable showings in campaigns for state public office, on the HRC Board of Governors. Beyer said that it is in the best interests of the transgender community that someone have access to HRC and its resources, though she acknowledges that a large organization “can sometimes lose touch with the grassroots ethics it had as a smaller organization.”
In response to the resignations, Darryl Herrschaft of the HRC said, “We at HRC look forward to continuing our groundbreaking work to build support for policies that support transgender people. We wish Donna Rose and Jamison Green well in their future endeavors.”

These events suggest the ascendancy of a more conservative trend on transgender issues within the LGBT community. While HRC suggests that it simply acknowledged political reality, the organization’s actions imply that some of its leadership and constituency are moving to reduce the importance of trans issues. Although many organizations opposed a non-inclusive ENDA, none of these have the level of power and influence of HRC, as evidenced by its $35 million budget reported in 2006 by the Movement Advancement Project, the largest chunk of the $108 million GLBT advocacy dollars funds reported for that year. A number of influential gay-rights advocates, such as John Aravosis and Chris Crain, have supported HRC’s decisions. HRC also commissioned a poll prior to the vote purporting to show that 70% of gay men and lesbians in the United States endorsed the non-inclusive ENDA, though the research methodology has since been questioned. HRC lobbyists met with legislators and, using the poll, advocated for the non-inclusive bill. In addition, HRC has actively opposed the argument, made by organizations such as Lambda Legal, that the failure of the bill to include gender identity would hurt gender non-conforming gays and lesbians, as well as transgender people, in the courts. Tiffany Dean, the Board Relations Manager of HRC, recently issued “talking points” to the HRC Board of Governors, which cites the opinion of Dale Carpenter, a law professor who publicly identifies himself as a libertarian-leaning political conservative. “As the prominent professor Dale Carpenter has publicly explained, proponents of this view have been unable to produce a single case in support of it. Although reasonable minds can differ regarding the strategy surrounding our progress toward ENDA, it is clear that the legal argument is untenable.” Opponents of Carpenter’s legal views, including Lambda Legal, have cited examples of such court interpretations, along with detailed explanations that seem to bear out the legal concerns about a non-inclusive ENDA, but Carpenter views these as unpersuasive. HRC sides with Carpenter’s conservative viewpoint, and, although it protests vigorously that it will continue to support transgender rights, it appears that transgender advocates may have to adapt to a new reality.

While this new LGBT advocacy climate poses significant challenges to traditional models of transgender advocacy, there is hope of a bright future. St. Pierre, who has long publicly stated that HRC is not to be trusted, believes that the resignations are a blow to transgender advocacy, but thinks they might have some good effects because they will refocus advocacy on a less centralized model that will function more effectively in the new LGBT advocacy climate.“We’re pulling away and saying all the work we’ve done under the banner of HRC doesn’t have to remain there, because 350 plus organizations are standing alongside us, and HRC isn’t the groundbreaking organization for the transgender community. There are a lot of tables for us to sit at, and we don’t need HRC for that.” Kiesling, who has long collaborated with HRC, says she feels very differently about HRC now. She suggests that recent events, particularly the creation of United ENDA, “show that there is a strong activist core in the LGBT movement, and the decentralized nature of our community is a big plus.” In regard to public education on transgender issues, her organization plans to concentrate on creating materials supporting education efforts by individuals around the country.

In the midst of this new climate, Green and Rose have announced the launch of a new organization to promote transgender workplace education, the Transgender Education Partnership ( It is not based on the classic 501(c)(3) non-profit model, but on a business model that emphasizes the types of education that business organizations prize more highly. This partnership will look to provide education focused on business diversity issues regarding transgender employees in the workplace, targeted to executives, business owners, diversity and EEO managers, supervisors and workgroups who desire better working relationships with their transgender, transsexual, or gender variant co-workers, customers, and business partners. Their organization is an association of experienced and respected local and national transgender trainers and advocates working together to provide best-of-breed education, tools, and resources regarding gender variant, transgender, and transsexual people with respect to workplace issues, insurance and wellness benefits, EEO functions and diversity training, best practices for workplace transitions, and train-the-trainer solutions. Their education initiative appears poised to take advantage of a decentralized model that will function well in this new climate of post-ENDA transgender advocacy. In this way, it may well turn out that the resignations of Green and Rose herald the start of a new era of transgender advocacy.