THE BLOG
06/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

LGBT Equality: Xavier vs. Magneto?

The Washington Post this week examined Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese's difficult position as head of the nation's largest LGBT civil rights organization during a period of serious unrest in the larger activist community.

It's a classic civil rights tension, and one that was metaphorically popularized as X-Men's Professor Xavier vs. Magneto.

While they may disagree about tactics and strategy, the LGBT Magnetos and Xaviers are united in their unrelenting push for President Obama and Congress to act now on pro-equality legislation.

But like many civil rights dynamics that preceded this one, strategic divisions have the potential to slip into a potentially self-destructive place.

(I should disclose that I served as HRC's VP for Communications and Marketing from 2004 to 2006 and worked for Solmonese, who I believe is one of the savviest political operatives in Washington.)

For more than a decade during the Gingrich, Hastert and Bush years, the LGBT Magnetos held HRC accountable for the lack of movement on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and other legislation in Congress.

It's as though they didn't understand that the chances of getting Republican leaders to put ENDA on the floors of either chamber was about as likely as legislation renaming the Pentagon for Jimmy Carter.

And they gave HRC no credit for stopping the Federal Marriage Amendment and other anti-gay measures, which were a very real threat.

Take the usually brilliant Andrew Sullivan -- who sounds like a cross between Stewie Griffin and the two old muppets in the balcony when he calls for Joe Solmonese to resign for not getting pro-equality legislation passed and for holding fundraisers. (Is there an advocacy group that doesn't?)

He and other Magnetos seem to think that HRC's lobbying team could maneuver ENDA the way K Street's best maneuver an earmark for a highway off-ramp.

Any gay person who watched as "death panels" almost torpedoed the century old fight for health care reform knows how the right wing will twist the truth and demonize LGBT Americans during a debate on employment discrimination. Just take a look at this ruthless (and schlocky) piece from the Family Research Council published in Roll Call in advance of a House hearing on ENDA.

Moving strategically and smartly is just as important as moving swiftly.

And in terms of moving the public, no other LGBT organization has been as strategic or smart as HRC.

While it's the largest LGBT lobbying operation in America, a lot of people don't know that HRC's education and communications efforts are even more extensive.

Their messaging in the media appeals to where the public will listen, not simply to what we think they should hear.

HRC also houses a workplace equality project that may be doing more for ENDA, marriage equality and freedom to serve than could all the lobbyists in DC.

The HRC Corporate Equality Index ranks corporations, including the Fortune 1000, on their policies toward LGBT employees, such as discrimination protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity and domestic partner benefits.

This is not a glamorous or cathartic effort, nor one that attracts CNN cameras. In fact, it is painfully mundane. HRC staffers pan across the country meeting with -- get this -- HR representatives.

They work methodically with LGBT employee groups and others to shift the thinking of corporate leadership, from executive suites to employee policy offices. HRC also publishes a buyers guide for LGBT consumers that pairs corporations with brand name products. It's a model for all-American capitalist grassroots activism.

The reason why this matters is because it gets results on equality for millions of LGBT Americans. In 2010, according to and because of HRC, more than 305 major American business provided full equality for their LGBT employees. In 2002, only 13 did. HRC's aggressive and steady advocacy was largely responsible for this shift.

The workplace may provide more equity for equality for a simple reason: it's the one place where diverse adult strangers are forced to get to know one another. When LGBT people stay in the closet, stereotypes are frozen in place. When laws and workplace policies make it safe for us to come out, we become that "gay friend" our straight co-workers will think about when they're in the voting booth.

It's cubicle advocacy that could swing many fights in Congress and in the states. On the fight for marriage equality, for example, the opposition is led by anti-gay exremists. Still, we're losing many battles because of voters who are otherwise on our side.

Polls now show wide support -- generally around 75% -- for employment non-discrimination, gays serving openly in the military and basic relationship rights. For marriage equality, that number dips to about 50% or less. That means, to win full equality, we have to convince the 25% that is otherwise with us that marriage equality is just as important to our lives and freedom as our rights in all other aspects of American life.

Indeed, if there's one thing we've learned over the years, the power of education and being out may be one of our most potent tools in defeating anti-gay forces. Joe and HRC get that. And just like ACT UP forced Reagan Administration officials to stop staring at their shoes and take action against AIDS, the role of Magneto activism has equal power to make change.

The LGBT Magnetos can battle it out with the Xaviers. We would do much better respecting and harnessing each others strengths to do one thing: win equality for every single LGBT American right now.

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