Speaking Out for Human Rights

Some of my FaceBook friends have asked to see my acceptance speech for the Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, which I received in 2013. Some of my predictions have come true, but there is still work to be done to insure that every person, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, has the same chance for happiness and fulfillment . This is what I said that night, and this is what I will always believe. Thanks to my friend, Keith Merrill for presenting this award, and to every member of HRC who made me feel very, very loved. And, thanks for the teleprompter.

Thank you so much. Having co-chaired this event twice I know what a great honor this award is, and I sincerely appreciate it. I was racking my brain to figure out what I had done to deserve it. All I can think of is that I love you, and you know it.
As a young girl, I never felt I fit in anywhere. I was born in 1943 so I experienced the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s as a teenager. And now I am a part of what may be the last great civil rights issue of our time. I have always had radically liberal views, and I don’t know where they came from, as I had absolutely no support or role models in my early youth in the small town South. Guess I was just born this way.
When I was 29 I went to my first gay bar, and realized that not only had I found a world where I finally fit in, but also I had found my lost tribe. It was 1972, and the occasion was the very first Miss Gay America Pageant at the old Watch Your Hat and Coat Saloon. That night I met and became fast friends with one of the contestants who welcomed me into a world I really didn’t know existed. The people I met changed my life and loved and supported me through a very difficult time.

Those who know me know that I have a very soft spot in my heart reserved for drag. To me they are beautiful creatures that go beyond the boundaries of gender; laugh at, and break all the rules. This world needs more of that. I am especially thankful to Arnold Myint and Andrew Pentecost for helping me find a way into a second generation of this crazy joy. I have loved being a part of the world of Miss Suzy Wong.

I was involved in the Women’s Movement in the 1970’s, and during that time I made a lot of close friends in the Lesbian community. Because of the Women’s Movement (and therapy) I started to experience a freedom from some of the expectations about being a female that I could never live up to. Being a teenaged girl who just didn’t fit the mold in the South during the 1950’s was a rough gig.

So, since the early ’70’s, most of my friends have been from the LGBT community. When I was 35, I was wondering if I would ever find a guy I could have a serious love relationship with, because frankly, most ” straight guys” just didn’t get me, and I definitely didn’t get them. I loved and enjoyed all my gay friends, but there’s that pesky part about sleeping with someone. There’s a joke about five things a woman needs from a man, and 4 of them she can do with her gay boyfriends. I was so happy when I met Fred and he was cool with my friends-all my friends-and cool with me. Not only was that magic 5th thing working; he also liked going to restaurants, going to movies, going shopping, and we’ve worked on the one about dancing. He still likes all my friends, and they are his friends, too. He has always encouraged me to just be who I am, and that’s a beautiful thing.

And, to me, that’s what the Equality Movement is all about…people just being who they are, loving who they love, and expressing themselves without the restrictions of gender-defined expectations. I care very deeply about equal marriage rights, and about equality in all other areas. Civil Rights are not something that people should be able to vote on, they are something that should belong to everyone, without question.

On the subject of Marriage Equality, I could name so many couples–right here in this room–who have proven by their commitments to each other that love is love regardless of gender–but I don’t have enough time to run down the list. So, I’m only going to mention the couple I know best, Edward Tomlin and his partner, Mike Lundholm. I have known Edward since we started working together in 1983, and have watched him go from the hot, hunky number who came to work in leather shorts and nipple rings to being a loving husband in a beautiful relationship that I have watched deepen over the decades. I believe that Edward and Mike are just as married as Fred and I are and should have just as many legal rights as we have. But, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being a hunky number in hot pants.
I use Mike and Edward as an my “poster children.” However, as I said, there are many more couples in this room who prove that Marriage Equality is a valid need. I would like for all the couples in the room who have been together for more then 5 years to stand up and let’s celebrate you. (Audience applause)
Marriage Equality is so important right now because it is a huge turning point in the movement towards all other rights. Once this part of the battle is won, and I believe that it will be, the biggest domino will have fallen. I see a day coming when a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will not be a big deal.
Personally, I believe that if we didn’t live in a world so anxious about defining people by gender, about what has been decided is appropriate gender behavior, and about putting everyone in a tight sexual orientation box, we’d live in a much better, less troubled, place. I’m tired of that conversation about, “Are they born that way or is it a choice?” That is irrelevant, and really, nobody’s business.

I am encouraged by how much progress has been made since that brave drag queen at Stonewall just said No. I am especially glad for President Obama. But, we have a long way to go. I hope that during my lifetime I will see much more progress, much faster. But we can’t ignore the fact that we live in a state where an elected official is seriously trying to pass something as stupid and scary as a “Don’t Say Gay” bill. We can’t forget that we live in a country that has people who will fight Marriage Equality as hard as they can. And we can’t forget for a minute that even after rights have been won, there will be those who would plot to take them away.

That’s why I believe so strongly in the work of the HRC. As individuals, we can feel powerless. But, united, we are vey strong. HRC is NOT just for LGBT people. It is also for anyone who wants to join in the fight for equality. I am vey grateful that several years ago my dear friend, Keith Merrill, introduced me to HRC. The friendships I have made here have been priceless, and feeling that I am a part of something that makes a difference on a large scale means a lot to me.
Since I have traveled in these circles since the early ’70’s, I have lost many friends to HIV/AIDS. I feel their spirits still with me, and I share this award with them. I thank you for this award and I accept it as an show of your love for a woman who has received far more than I have given. And I promise I will always be there for you.

3 thoughts on “Speaking Out for Human Rights

  1. > Civil Rights are not something that people should be able to vote on, they are something that should belong to everyone, without question.

    Very much so. I’m so sad for my original country (Slovenia) where a referendum on a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was held last year. The bill was rejected, as a majority of voters voted against and the votes against were more than 20% of registered voters.

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