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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: HRC President Joe Solmonese fires back
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: HRC President Joe Solmonese fires back

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

The battle to allow Gays and Lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces seemed to splinter over the past two weeks as Lt. Dan Choi publicly criticized the nation's leading Gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Choi accused the LGBT advocacy organization of being more concerned about social status than real social change. Many expected a war of words between Choi - a West Point grad and Arabic linguist whose military career came to a screeching halt after he came out as Gay on MSNBC's Rachael Maddow Show - and HRC President Joe Solmonese, whom Choi says turned his back when Choi asked him to accompany him on a march to the White House to protest "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). However, other than a brief statement following the accusation, Solmonese and the HRC have kept mum about the division - until now.

After publishing a number of articles about Choi's heroics, SGN contacted Solmonese to give him a chance to tell our readers his side of the story, and to talk about what the HRC has done (and continues to do) to repeal DADT.

HRC ON LOBBYING
"HRC and the entire LGBT community have worked hard over these past years to build support to repeal DADT. There has been understandable frustration in the community at the pace of progress at advancing some of the pieces of key legislation that are important to the LGBT community," Solmonese told SGN. "However, the biggest challenge facing pro-LGBT legislation in Congress is the lack of a solidly pro-LGBT majority in the House and Senate."

The 2006 and 2008 elections brought a change in leadership in the House, Senate, and White House that took anti-LGBT initiatives like the Federal Marriage Amendment off the table and made room for key pro-LGBT advances such as hate crime bills, he said.

"However, on any given issue, many of the votes needed to secure come from 'undecided' or 'swing' members of Congress, and we have to lobby those members and senators aggressively," Solmonese said. "After organizing the grassroots and lobbying lawmakers in their home districts and in Washington, on some key issues we are able to secure a majority of votes - 218 needed in the House and 60 needed in the Senate. But the hard work must be done."

"We continue to press the president and Congress to live up to the promises they made to advance real, substantive equality for LGBT Americans," Solmonese told SGN. "It is critical that everyone in the LGBT community and our allies engage in this effort."

HRC AND KATHY GRIFFIN
After images of Choi handcuffed to the White House fence swept over the web and the LGBT community heard why Choi was angry about comedian Kathy Griffin speaking on behalf of Gay veterans for a DADT repeal, the question that seemed to be on everyone's mind was, "Why was Kathy Griffin speaking about DADT?" In other words, what qualifies Griffin to step into such a role?

"HRC, along with veterans and entertainer Kathy Griffin, hosted a rally at Washington, D.C.'s Freedom Plaza between the White House and Capitol Hill, calling for the repeal of DADT," Solmonese explained to SGN. "DADT repeal requires pressure on many fronts and we're glad to work with Kathy Griffin, who is using her notoriety as a platform to raise awareness of the issue. Her reading heartbreaking e-mails from servicemembers to the crowd of over 1,000 at the rally - and, yes, to a television audience - helps move people to action in overturning this horrible law."

HRC AND DAN CHOI
According to Solmonese, HRC harbors no ill will towards Choi. In fact, Solmonese told SGN that within the complex movement towards equality, everyone has a role to play.

"The beauty of our movement is that we have a dedicated community that is constantly searching for new and innovative ways to effect change. Whether it be these recent actions [by Choi] or meeting with a key congressperson or senator in their district office, these are ways that our community continues to advocate for LGBT equality," he said.

"Activism by Dan Choi and others has one common intent that we share: to advance equality in the fastest way possible," Solmonese continued. "As we said last week, this is the nature of social change, and everyone has a role to play."

HRC AND U.S. ARMY VET JARROD CHLAPOWSKI
Although Solmonese and HRC may not be working close with Choi to repeal DADT, the organization has joined with former U.S. Army Specialist Jarrod Chlapowski. Similar to Choi, Chlapowski is an Iraq war vet and linguist and advocate for repealing the discriminatory policy. In 2005, he decided not to reenlist despite a pending promotion to sergeant and a promising military career and co-founded Servicemembers United, the largest organization of LGBT troops and veterans. Last year, Chlapowski went to work for HRC as their military consultant.

Chlapowski recently told Newsweek that he disagrees with Choi that larger national groups, like HRC, have become too insular and elitist, and no longer represent the Gay community. "These people are just as invested as he is in repealing the law," Chlapowski said.

Solmonese told SGN that despite not being in the limelight as much as Choi, Chlapowski has been instrumental in the organization's push to end the Gay military ban.

"Chlapowski was a key member of HRC's 2007 Legacy Service Tour, and was instrumental in planning the 12,000 flags on the National Mall event commemorating the 14th anniversary of the implementation of DADT," he said. "For us, it was a natural fit to bring Jarrod on board to help repeal this discriminatory law."

Solmonese says that, with Chlapowski's help, HRC started the hard behind-the-scenes work of designing and implementing the first Voices of Honor national tour in 2009, a 26-stop national tour designed to educate the public about the inequality of DADT.

"Going back to November 2005, Chlapowski teamed up with Alex Nicholson to develop the aggressive 18-city Call to Duty Tour, a seven-week public education initiative which put a human face on the DADT issues," said Solmonese. "Jarrod has spoken in Congress regarding the financial costs of DADT and has met with politicians and military leaders, contributing to the current momentum in the movement to repeal the law."

HRC AND DADT
According to Solmonese, HRC's "Voices of Honor: A Generation Under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" tour has been successful in that it highlights the discriminatory law that "hurts military readiness and national security while putting American servicemembers fighting overseas at risk."

"HRC is also recruiting servicemembers, their families and allies together in one of the largest showings of veteran support for the repeal of DADT on May 11, as Congress begins to take action on the Defense Department budget," Solmonese told SGN. "The 'Lobby Day' action, in partnership with Servicemembers United, will build a national network of Gay and straight veterans willing to give voice to repeal."

"Our recent efforts across the country, with particular emphasis on 103 priority congressional districts, have resulted in over 190,000 phone calls and e-mails to members of Congress," he said, adding that 2,500 veterans recently said in a survey they're willing to take action to repeal DADT.

"Our members submitted over 1,300 letters to editors in papers in priority to media markets," said Solmonese. "Earlier this month, nearly 300 HRC members lobbied the Hill in support of ENDA, DADT repeal, and other key legislation."

"Beyond the beltway, our members conducted over 250 in-district lobby visits," he told SGN. "In 41 cities, we held events that highlighted veterans who are opposed to DADT. Over the next several months, we look to have dozens more."

Solmonese says that in May, HRC plans to bring an "unprecedented number of veterans and their family members to directly lobby Congress for repeal."

To join the HRC effort to repeal DADT, or to contact your member of Congress, visit www.hrc.org/RepealDADT.

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