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Joe Solmonese Wears Prada

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With its critical contribution to the successful fight for marriage equality in New York last summer –– and its efforts in Washington State headed for imminent payoff, as well –– the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had plenty to celebrate at its annual New York gala at the Waldorf Astoria this past weekend.

A crowd the group pegged at 1,000 ponied up $450-plus each for an evening highlighted by fashion icon Anna Wintour, the longtime editor of Vogue, receiving HRC’s Ally of Equality Award from “Glee” co-creator Ryan Murphy.

Still, despite the red-hot state of the simultaneous fight for marriage rights and against some reversals –– not only in New York and Washington, but also in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina –– and the fast-approaching presidential election, politics played curiously flat during the February 4 event.

That was due not only to the surprising absence of a key player in the New York fight –– Governor Andrew Cuomo –– but also to HRC’s decision to honor Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs with its Corporate Equality Award.

Most advocates credit New York’s Democratic governor with providing unprecedented leadership in turning a 38-24 State Senate deficit on marriage equality 13 months before he took office into a 33-29 victory in his first legislative session. In turn, Cuomo, in an interview with Gay City News just days after the vote, singled out HRC’s Brian Ellner by name for his contribution to the June 24 victory. In the months after the enactment of gay marriage, Cuomo made something of a victory lap and was fêted by the Empire State Pride Agenda at its October dinner in Manhattan, where he gave the keynote address.

HRC, meanwhile, honored New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at its October dinner in Washington. According to an HRC spokesman, the group hoped to have Cuomo appear at the Waldorf event, but he was “unavailable.”

HRC’s recognition of Goldman was squarely in the LGBT lobbying group’s tradition –– and that of most other large non-profit advocacy organizations –– of honoring major corporate players who sign on to their agenda and, crucially, help sell tickets to their fundraisers. As the evening’s corporate sponsors were announced early in the dinner, the spirited applause coming from specific tables at the mention of Goldman, Morgan Stanley, American Express, Mastercard, KPMG, and Proctor & Gamble, among others, suggests just how many tickets were sold via outreach to the business community.

Goldman was one of 190 major corporations –– out of 636 officially rated –– that scored a perfect 100 percent on the group’s most recent Corporate Equality Index, a measure of workplace fairness policies that has been toughened in recent years to include full employee benefits parity, medically necessary transgender health coverage, philanthropic and political support for LGBT equality and social services, and supplier diversity practices that include queer-owned enterprises.

As the New York Times noted on February 5, the company is one of a handful that grosses up the pay of gay and lesbian employees whose domestic partnership or spousal benefits receive disparate state and federal tax treatment due to either the lack of marriage rights or the Defense of Marriage Act.

In the wake of the dinner, HRC announced that Goldman’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, has agreed to become what the Times described as the group’s “first national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage.” During the fight for gay marriage in New York and elsewhere, HRC has identified a host of well-known supporters in fields ranging from business to sports, and entertainment to religion and elective office, with many of them, such as Barbara Bush, one of the former president’s twin daughters, and Sean Avery, who plays left wing for the New York Rangers, recording brief video endorsements.

You don’t need to be a reflexive critic of Wall Street, however, to conclude that HRC’s choice of Goldman Sachs at this particular moment reflected quite the tin ear. The only political story out of New York that garnered more attention last year than marriage equality was the Occupy Wall Street movement –– and, for many of its adherents and much of the media, Goldman Sachs has been an easy shorthand for the industry and its abuses.

The decision to honor the firm drew heated criticism in the gay blogosphere.

Posting on bilerico.com on February 2, Bil Browning wrote, “There are plenty of other ways to raise needed cash without honoring a company that has increased queer unemployment, housing loss, and played an overwhelming role in the political climate that oppresses us as politicians clamor for the big bucks the Wall Street giant donates to their pets.”

In the Huffington Post, Andrew Beaver wrote, “Goldman advised the Greek government on how to cheat its way into the Eurozone, setting up a crisis that threatens to further depress the global economy. Goldman acted as a bookie for insurance giant AIG's mortgage-based gambling operation and then pocketed $13 billion of AIG's $182 billion government bailout.”

Browning and Beaver’s outrage came amidst calls from groups including the Queer OWS Caucus and Queer Rising and Queerocracy, two grassroots organizations, for a protest outside the Waldorf. The groups criticized the award for Goldman Sachs and called on HRC to press a broader civil rights agenda focused on “full equality by 2014” and to make its decision-making more “transparent.”

The announcement of a protest –– focused, in part, on economic justice issues that have dominated headlines for months since OWS first gathered in Zuccotti Park five months ago –– drew strangely churlish responses from HRC.

"We are fortunate to live in a democracy that encourages many diverse points of view," Fred Sainz, an HRC's spokesman, told the Advocate, in one of several similar comments to the media. "The irony is that our programs serve the 99 percent of the population this group says it represents."

Being a bit more magnanimous would likely not have cost HRC anything. In the end, the protest was relatively small ––numbering in the dozens of picketers outside the hotel’s entrances on Park Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets.

As protesters chanted, “Everyone paid their taxes; everyone but Goldman Sachs” and “LGBT, we demand equality,” Jenn M., a transgender woman affiliated with the Queer OWS Caucus, said, “We want HRC working for economic equality… We’d like to see HRC going more grassroots.” While acknowledging that the marriage win in New York was “amazing,” she charged the group has “given up on transgender rights for right now.”

Bill Livsey, also affiliated with OWS, said, “HRC gets in bed with Wall Street just like they desire to get in bed with the Democratic Party.” He added, “They’re just a money-making machine.”

The picket was too small to run afoul of the city’s requirement that gatherings of 50 or more obtain a permit and protesters kept moving as they marched back and forth from 49th to 50th Street, but that didn’t stop the NYPD from moving quickly to pen the protesters away from the hotel’s entrances. Once the picketers were boxed in, the cops next used the barricade to force them to the end of the block, at which point their visibility essentially evaporated. A woman who was live-streaming the protest by video was forced up against the hotel’s windows as the police dispersed the marchers.

Todd Fernandez, a spokesman for the picketers, complained that the police action stepped on the message they hoped to convey and pledged, "This is just the beginning of our engagement with HRC, a corporation that refuses to have an open community process.”

Inside, the most inspired political moment came when City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an out lesbian Chelsea Democrat expected to run for mayor in 2013, spoke briefly, praising HRC for “having our backs” in the push for equal marriage rights and other LGBT rights initiatives.

Vermont’s Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, was also on hand and could have offered the crowd a compelling narrative. As State Senate president in 2009, he led the successful override effort when Republican Governor Jim Douglas vetoed marriage equality legislation, a story with particular resonance now that New Jersey’s Chris Christie has reiterated his vow to veto gay marriage legislation headed for passage there. Oddly, Shumlin was not given a speaking spot during the dinner, but instead offered brief remarks during the cocktail hour as most of the attendees, gathered in a cavernous room, chatted amongst themselves.

HRC’s outgoing president, Joe Solmonese, opened his address by noting the evening was his last New York event as leader of the group, but might just as well have added that he gave his final speech last year. He offered a perfunctory laundry list of accomplishments –– enactment of federal hate crimes legislation, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and gay marriage’s victory in New York –– and reminded the audience that no state marriage victory was complete without federal recognition. Then, as if the final two-thirds of his speech had been swallowed up in the teleprompter, he abruptly introduced a married lesbian couple to make a pitch for greater giving to HRC.

Fortunately, the couple, Lea Matthews and Rachel Black, offered a moving personal story of their journey from their college days in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to San Francisco and now New York, where they are raising their young daughter and at least enjoy all the rights of marriage under state law. In an imperfect evening, they served as a reminder of what the fight is all about.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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