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.

Edward and Mike. Making it Legal.

Edward and Mike had their Commitment Ceremony 22 years ago, but yesterday they really got married in the legal sense of the word. 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 have always felt that Edward and his partner, Mike, are just as married as Fred and I are, and should have just as many legal rights as we have. And now, thanks to SCOTUS, they do. Yesterday they made it legal in a simple ceremony with a few friends and family members. Most of us were teary-eyed and all of us were so happy for them. Afterwards we all came over to the porch at Casa Ellis and had cupcakes and champagne.
Mike summed up the whole thing beautifully, and this is exactly how I feel. The Supreme Court ruling not only made their marriage legal, it validated their humanity and identity. All those times when they were growing up and society subtly made them feel “less than” are now done with once and for all. Equal means equal. As good as. A huge battle in the movement for Equality has been won. While there is still a long way to go, I believe that the day is coming when a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will not be a big deal. So, while there is still much to fight for, I am personally feeling great joy right now. I know that there are many, many couples like Mike and Edward who are “making it legal.” And I also know that there are many LGBT people who may not have partners, and some who perhaps are in no rush to get married, who are feeling validated, accepted, and equal. This ruling was about a lot more than marriage. It was a milestone. It is truly celebration time! And it’s about time, too.

Connections…a great part of life

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My husband, Fred, with our “son”, Andrew Pentecost, and our “son-in-law,” Kyle Brougham, after a lovely brunch at Balthazar.

When I think of the word “connect”, I think of connections with other people. One of life’s greatest treasures is the people we connect with. Fred and I have become deeply connected to Andrew Pentecost and his fiancé, Kyle Brougham. I met Andrew a few years ago when he did makeup for my dear friend Arnold  Myint/Suzy Wong. (I could also write a book about my connection with Arnold.) Somehow, in some organic way, Andrew and I became very close friends. At some point we realized that our relationship had evolved into something closely resembling Mother/Son. Fred and I have no children, but if we did, I think Andrew could easily be that child. We are so happy that Andrew has also made a connection with Kyle, a wonderful guy that we enjoy spending time with. So, the four of us have become a little family unit. Andrew and I remain very close, and we frequently take some time for just the two of us. He is like my therapist, and I think I play that role for him as well.

This photo was taken by me last Spring when the four of us met in New York. I am hoping that in the future we will have many adventures together in lots of places. Of course, we are also hoping that Marriage Equality will become universal, as these two guys were definitely made for each other. And, like any “Mom,” I want my son to be happy.

Taking It to the Streets

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Taking It to the Streets

In any civil rights movement that is successful there is a need for radical leaders and foot soldiers. The two people in this photograph are two radical leaders that I respect and admire so much, Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project and Marisa Richmond of Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. These two people truly walk what they talk, and are always on the front lines. They are not radical in the sense of being pushy and obnoxious. They simply stand their ground, move courteously and effectively, and never give up. They are present and accounted for.
There have been no civil rights in this country that have been won without people who were willing to take it to the streets, the foot soldiers. For some people this is somehow distasteful. For me, it has always been energizing, I have marched for the original Civil Rights (racial equality), for women’s rights, and against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. I am now involved in what has been called the “last great civil rights struggle of our lifetime,” the movement for equal rights for LGBT citizens.
It is urgently important that those of us who believe that no one is free unless everyone is free take part in this movement. The time has come for us to let our voices be heard. The time is ripe for change.
While it is quite true that organizations like the HRC ( just to name one–there are many) work to fight for rights through legal venues, there is always a need to show up and be counted when the street is where the action is. It is the energy that is generated in the street that sparks the consciousness of those who make decisions in the courts, and in the legislatures. We are fortunate to live in a country where we can do this without fear for our lives. The time is now, and we are the called.
It is time to speak up loud, proud, and clear for what we believe in.
For this reason I urge you, if you believe as I do, that the time is ripe for equality, to show up on August 31 at 4 PM at the Metro Public Square and rally for Marriage Equality. The Tennessee Equality Project is partnering with the Human Rights Campaign on this one and it needs to be a great big show. Make signs and bring them. The Neanderthal Tennessee legislature has declared August 31 to be “traditional marriage day” (oh, please) and we need to step it up for diversity and inclusion. See you there.

Rainbow Weddings

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Rainbow Weddings

This picture is my dear friend, Keith Merrill, right after he presented the HRC Equality Award to me in March.

One of the greatest honors I have ever received was the Equality Award presented to me by the Human Rights Campaign for my many years of being an outspoken ally in the fight for LGBT rights. One of the things that this award made me realize was that I am loved and appreciated by many people in the LGBT community. That feeling is certainly mutual. I sense that many people sort of look at me as a loving, open-minded mom figure, who is there to support and accept them. Since I have no children of my own I am not only happy to play this role, it significantly enriches my life. One of the things a loving, open-minded mom needs to do is counsel without judging.

I was incredibly thrilled recently when the Supreme Court acted on the right side regarding DOMA and Prop 8. I strongly believe in marriage equality, and equal rights in all other areas. I know so many strongly committed couples who have been together for years who can now legally marry if they choose to. I also know couples who are moving in that direction, and I am happy for the love you have found. As much as anything that has happened, the right to marry elevates LGBT love from a second class status, and brings it out of the closet.

However, and this is where “mom” starts talking, just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. If I did have a child, either gay or straight, I would have to tell them to take it slow. No rush. Marriage is a big deal, by far the most important deal you will ever enter into. You need to be sure you know each other well enough to know that you want to really share your lives, for the rest of your lives. If you have any hesitation about merging and sharing your life with this person–hesitate on the marriage. Do you feel confident that you can really trust this person with your heart? Have you been able to communicate well enough to know that you hopes, dreams, and definitions of what marriage should mean are similar. Do you know the areas where you might have to compromise, and are you willing to make those compromises? This list could go on and on. And while whether or not you have good sex is certainly important, a lot more than that is needed to make a marriage work over the years. But, don’t take this to imply that I don’t believe in true love at first sight. I do. I just think taking it slow is the best way to make sure you are really sure.

I suspect that now LGBT people will start to feel some of the same pressure to marry that straight people have felt. Marriage, while it should be available for everyone, might not be right for everyone. The same goes for having children. Contrary to what some people believe, marriage is about a lot more than procreation. Regardless of what your spiritual path is, it is very important to be spiritually compatible. You may not be “religious” at all, but you are spiritual. You may want to be married by a judge, or by a friend who has managed to get themselves ordained. You may want to be married in a church. Here’s some side advise; if you are going to a church that would refuse to marry you, I would urge you to find another church. That, of course, is a different conversation, and a complicated one as well.

It will follow that as soon as we see gay marriages we will see gay divorces. An unhappy marriage is a very bad place to find yourself, and divorce is painful. I would hope, if you were my child, that you would make a wise decision on marriage, and be able to skip the divorce part all together. And if you need a surrogate mom, I am more than happy to give the groom away.

Gettin’ Hitched

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Gettin’ Hitched.

I am always a little bit thrilled to walk into a wedding. To just randomly share one of life’s great moments with total strangers and have a chance to capture it with a photo is a real pleasure. This picture was taken the other day on the square in front of The Parroquia, the wedding-cake-like church in San Miguel. To first see this church is like the first time you see Notre Dame in Paris – breathtaking.

The large puppets lead the wedding procession (it’s a Mexican thing, I wouldn’t understand). All the young women exit the church dressed to the hilt, including the most inappropriate possible shoes for walking on the cobblestone streets. And then the bride and groom, with dozens of friends taking photos. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and snap a few myself.

There is something so hopeful about a wedding. I love the romance of it all. I usually cry at weddings. If Fred would do it (he says once is enough, thanks) I would renew our vows every year. This would be a great opportunity to throw a celebration and wear a fabulous dress. I have been quite happy to see the USA move into the direction of recognizing marriage regardless of gender. I have many gay and lesbian friends who have been couples for decades and I want them to have all the rights that Fred and I have.

While being married to Fred for the past 32 years has been wonderful for me, I also know that it may not be for everyone and can be hell on earth if it is with the wrong person. I know this because I was married once before. So, while I love weddings, sometimes a divorce makes sense, too. The whole point of it all is sharing one’s life, making life easier, and being happy.

Life isn’t always easy, and there are ups and downs, married or single. The most important thing to me about being married is having that one truest friend who is there to share the good times and help ease the pain of the bad times. Finding Fred was the best thing that ever happened to me. And what I would wish for the handsome couple in this picture, and for any couple, is that they, too, will feel that way about their spouse as the decades pass. Friends have sometimes asked me what I think is the secret to a happy marriage. After the important part about finding the right person there are three phrases that sum it up. Make these things easy to say and you will find most problems will solve themselves: “I love you.” “I’m sorry.” “I forgive you.” And let the last thing that happens every day be a good night kiss.