As president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, Joe Solmonese is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community's top liaison to the Obama White House. The job comes with huge power—and pressure. By putting off campaign promises to reverse the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act, President Obama has let some gay rights advocates down. Some of those same activists accuse Solmonese of going easy on Obama to maintain his access. In a conversation with U.S. News, Solmonese explains why he still trusts Obama, why he believes "don't ask, don't tell" will be reversed next year, and why he doesn't buy the president's stated opposition to gay marriage.
This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, which launched the gay rights movement. How successful has the movement been?
Enormously, most notably when we've confronted issues that have impacted all LGBT people, whether it was the violence and harassment that we were reacting to at Stonewall or the AIDS epidemic or the fight for marriage equality. Those are the moments when we have drawn on our collective power and made the most significant advances.
But dozens of states have constitutionally banned gay marriage since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first one to legalize it. Was the Massachusetts court decision legalizing gay marriage counterproductive?
No, because I don't think there ever would have been the sense that we were, quote unquote, ready. The spark of social change on any issue comes well before the country is ready for it. We are six years from that decision in Massachusetts, and we've got six states that support full marriage equality. In 2013, a decade after Massachusetts, I'd venture to guess it would be as many as 10, including New York, New Jersey, and California. That's a pretty successful decade.
President Obama hasn't moved on promises to overturn "don't ask, don't tell" or the Defense of Marriage Act. Has he fulfilled his pledge to be a "fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans"?
There have certainly been some glaring moments of insensitivity. The choice of Rick Warren, the language in the administration's court briefing defending DOMA—that has been incredibly disappointing. Having said that, this administration has worked side by side with us to get the hate crimes bill on his desk. They are laying groundwork on everything from expanding the federal government's nondiscrimination policy to cover transgender employees to ending the ban on HIV-positive people coming into the country.
How confident are you that Obama will overturn don't ask, don't tell?
I'm certain. The president has made the commitment, and people working for the president that we work with have made the commitment. I have no doubt it will be overturned.
So what's the holdup?
The administration views this in the context of the broader issues agenda they are working with Congress on, everything from the economy and healthcare to hate crimes. They see the overturning of don't ask, don't tell along that spectrum as something that will likely happen next spring. I see a road map of six-month windows: the hate crimes bill, then the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, then don't ask, don't tell. And the administration is building a case in the military leadership and Congress and the rank-and-file members of the military.
So you think LGBT complaints of White House foot-dragging are unfair?
I don't see them dragging their feet. But where the LGBT community is feeling frustration is that the road map and timetable have not been made as clear to them. Sometimes there is simply the need for reassurance from the president. I've seen a great deal less frustration since the president spoke on June 29 [the Stonewall anniversary] and recommitted to [our] issues. And the president signed the memo expanding the nondiscrimination policy for federal employees and calling on Congress to give him a bill extending healthcare benefits to domestic partners. It's probably as frustrating to him and his administration that things are not moving as quickly as we would like.
How do you respond to gay activists who say you're carrying the president's water?
With a community as diverse as the LGBT community, there is little one can do that isn't going to be met with criticism from somebody. A lot of that has to do with frustration of being woefully behind in securing a fundamental set of benefits and a fundamental sense of equality. But I also have a very clear road map and a plan of how this is going to get done.