Donna Rose on Why She Resigned as the Only Transgender Member of HRC's Board  | News | Advocate.com

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October 04, 2007
Donna Rose on Why She Resigned as the Only Transgender Member of HRC's Board

Though Donna Rose resigned as the first and only transgender member of the Human Rights Campaign’s board of directors on Wednesday, she has no hard feelings toward the organization.

“I really believe that the board feels as though they have the best interest of the LGBT community in mind even though the end result doesn’t appear that way,” she told The Advocate, adding that work she has done with HRC has provided some of her “proudest” moments.

But on Monday, HRC’s board met for four “very emotional” hours, according to Rose, and issued a statement saying it would not advocate for passage of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that did not include protections against discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. The original, trans-inclusive ENDA was split into two separate bills last week by Rep. Barney Frank, an out member of the House of Representatives, because he feared the inclusive bill lacked the votes for passage.

The HRC board’s statement posted Monday read, “HRC will not support the newly introduced sexual orientation only bill.” But the real controversy erupted around what wasn’t said -- HRC’s statement never indicated that it would oppose passing the “sexual orientation” only bill.

“I could not fulfill my obligations as a board member to support that tepid stance,” said Rose.

Most insiders believe the creation of two bills will lead to passing the non-inclusive ENDA through both chambers of Congress perhaps this year (though President Bush may very well veto it), while leaving the “gender identity” bill to languish for an untold number of years. A noninclusive ENDA was passed in New York, for instance, in 2002, while five years later, its gender counterpart (GENDA) still has an uncertain future.

Ever since Frank split the bill last Thursday, LGBT activists have been moving at warp speed to reverse the course of Congress, which was scheduled to markup the substitute ENDA in committee this week on Tuesday. By Monday about 90 organizations had signed on to a letter urging House leadership to delay action on the substitute bill.

Meanwhile communication from HRC had fallen into somewhat of a time warp relative to other LGBT organizations. The community’s most influential lobbying group remained conspicuously absent from the aforementioned list as it was originally posted on The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Web site Monday morning.

And Rose said she felt “stranded” last week by the non-communication even as others in the trans community looked to her for answers.

Rose first became aware that the original bill was in jeopardy last Wednesday upon receiving a phone call from a trusted beltway insider. Later that evening, she spoke to HRC president Joe Solmonese.

“My question was, ‘What were we going to do about this?’ Because I understand that we can’t tell Barney Frank or anybody else what to do,” Rose said of her phone conversation with Solmonese. “He really didn’t have a clear strategy at that point,” she added.

Rose said she didn’t hear anything more from Solmonese, HRC board members, or staff until she decided to walk over to HRC’s headquarters late Thursday afternoon. On the way, she learned the board meeting, originally scheduled for 6 p.m. last Thursday, had been canceled and was rescheduled for Monday evening. “It gave me the feeling that they were trying to put me on the sideline while all this was going down,” Rose said.

At HRC, Rose got an update from the vice president of programs, David Smith, in person. “At some point he asked me what I felt was the right thing to do.  I told him we needed to support the fully inclusive version and to oppose anything less,” said Rose, adding that Smith indicated HRC was not likely to oppose a bill that was gay-friendly. 

Following that discussion, Rose said she called a board cochair to express disappointment that the board meeting had been canceled.

“I felt like this was an emergency and we at least needed to have a discussion about what was going on, even if we weren’t being asked to make a decision. I didn’t feel that the board leadership felt the same sense of urgency and, in fact, that they felt it was important to wait for things to play out before we had a board meeting to discuss them.”

Rose made a follow-up phone call on Friday but said she was told they were going to let the staff work things out before any action was taken.

When the meeting did take place on Monday, Rose was given the opportunity to speak first.

“My point of contention was and is that this entire experience isn’t simply about the political discussion or the pragmatism of passing a piece of legislation, it’s about the way this has galvanized and united the community in ways we’ve never seen before,” said Rose. “And if we perceived ourselves as leaders in that community, it was our responsibility to align ourselves as a united community rather than to be the only organization to choose a position of neutrality on something so important.”

Rose fully believes that HRC and the board think the best strategy is to take a neutral stance in order to leave the door open for discussion with House leadership.

“That by taking an aggressive stance in opposition, that would then close opportunities for further discussion in terms of getting a fully inclusive ENDA on the table and through Congress,” she said.

She also said she thinks Rep. Barney Frank pulled the original bill less because of the iffy vote count than “the fear about having a bruising discussion on the floor -- what about transgender people in workplace, in schools, what about this, what about that?”

But Rose would rather risk having that discussion or not passing a bill at all than to advance noninclusive legislation that she feels is totally inadequate.

In the resignation letter she posted Wednesday, she wrote, “Transgender is not simply the ‘T’ in GLBT.  It is people who, for one reason or another, may not express their gender in ways that conform to traditional gender norms or expectations. That covers everyone from transsexuals, to queer youth, to feminine acting men, to masculine appearing women. It is a broad label that cannot be confined to a specific silo of people. It is anyone who chooses to live authentically. To think that the work that we are doing on behalf of the entire GLBT community simply benefits or protects part of us is to choose a simplistic view of a complex community. In a very real way, the T is anyone who expresses themselves differently. To some it is about gender. To me, it is about freedom.”

After making her resignation public around noon Eastern time Wednesday, she had not yet spoken to Solmonese or HRC staff members as of Wednesday evening. But one board member had sent an e-mail asking her to reconsider her resignation. She said she had also received “hundreds” of e-mails from people across the country grateful for her representation of them, leadership, and taking what they considered a principled stand.

“My resignation isn’t so much out of anger toward anyone or anything -- I truly care about the organization; I have put myself on the line on for it more times than I care to remember,” she said. Rose has been an HRC board member for two years and has spent much of her time building bridges between HRC and the trans community.

She said some her doubting friends started to come around last month after Solmonese traveled to the trans-centric Southern Comfort conference in Atlanta to address the transgender community.

“In front of 900 transgender people, he had made a pledge that HRC would not only support only inclusive legislation, it would actually oppose anything less,” said Rose. “I had people coming up and telling me that they finally believed. So When Joe spoke and made that commitment, it was loud, clear and unmistakable.”

Of course, that same community now has not a single voice on the board of one of the most prominent LGBT rights organizations in the nation.

“Logic would tell me that I still have work to do there, that my voice on that board is far more effective than on the outside looking in,” said Rose. “But in the same sense that I expected the organization to take a principled stand on a very important issue, I couldn’t hold myself to a lesser standard.” (Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate)

Update: HRC board of directors cochairs Lawrie Demorest, and Henry Robin, issued the following statement about Rose's resignation.

"The entire HRC family is deeply saddened by Donna's decision to leave the board of directors. Donna has given a tremendous amount of time, energy and passion to this organization, and we are forever in her debt.

On Monday, the HRC Board of Directors voted to affirm its 2004 decision not to support a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that does not explicitly include protections based on gender identity. We do not support the current version of ENDA that is being considered by the House, and are not advocating for it on the Hill.

Donna maintains that HRC should have gone further in its opposition to the legislation and the strategy put forth by Speaker Pelosi and Rep. Frank.

We respect Donna's decision, and wish her only the very best. We hope to find a way to work together in the future, to pass a complete ENDA that provides employment protections to all members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

HRC is heartened that Donna will continue her work as a member of HRC's Business Council, and we look forward to working together to pass a complete ENDA and continue to make corporate America more fair and equal for GLBT employees."

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