DEARBORN – Howard Dean, former Vermont Governor and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for action, involvement and a rededication to traditional Democratic ideals of fairness, justice and equality at the American Civil Liberties Union’s annual dinner Nov. 20. His fiery speech got a standing ovation from the event’s 600 attendees. Attorney Deborah LaBelle was named Civil Libertarian of the Year.
According to Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, attendance was up about 50 percent over previous year’s dinner. “We think it’s certainly a reflection of the speaker we had, Howard Dean, and a response to this year’s election results. I think people see how important the ACLU is in protecting the rights of all citizens, especially in times like these.”
LGBT turnout was also up this year. “People are concerned about the passage of Proposal 2 and they recognize that the ACLU will play an important role,” Kaplan said. “It was very gratifying to have the support of our community and to see their presence there, too.”
Former Democratic state representative Lynn Jondahl acted as the evening’s emcee. “After recovering from the election we are looking to go to work and that’s what we’re celebrating tonight,” he said.
ACLU of Michigan’s Executive Director Kary Moss welcomed those in attendance. She said she was concerned about taking partisan advantage of gays and lesbians and using them as scapegoats in an election that was supposedly about morals and moral values, referring to the 11 anti-gay marriage amendments that passed across the country, including Michigan.
Joyce Dixson presented LaBelle’s award with an emotional and tearful introduction. “It’s no secret what Deb has done for women in prison,” said Dixson, who went on to recall her experience when she was put in prison in the late 70s for shooting her abusive partner. She credited LaBelle for helping her get her life back. Dixson, a former client of LaBelle, is now the director of Resiliency Without Compromise, a group for children of incarcerated parents.
LaBelle, a lesbian human rights attorney, has done extensive work in prison law and reform, including cases involving sexual abuse of women prisoners and discrimination against prisoners with HIV. LaBelle was also the lead cooperating attorney in a case filed by the Triangle Foundation against the city of Detroit challenging their “annoying persons” ordinance that was used to harass and arrest gay men. The case was settled this month. In addition, LaBelle is prepared to be part of any legal case involving the newly adopted amendment to Michigan’s constitution banning recognition of same-sex relationships.
Howard Dean opened his address with a quote from Chief Justice Earl Warren: “Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile, I caught hell for.” He then spoke of the hell he caught for signing the civil unions bill in Vermont.
Dean rejected the idea that he was a liberal, saying he was a moderate. He commented on Hillary Clinton’s past remarks that there is a “vast right wing conspiracy” saying he didn’t believe her at first but now realizes there was only one thing she was wrong about. “They’re very open about what they’re doing,” he said.
Emphasizing several times that 51 percent is not a mandate, Dean said we must continue to work to change the direction this country is going in.
Dean spoke extensively about the proposal to ban affirmative action in Michigan which will likely be on the ballot in 2006.
“The reason we need affirmative action is to preserve democracy in America,” said Dean, adding that he believes most white people aren’t racist, “we’re indifferent.” Dean said that institutionalized racism comes from the fact that all people are ethnocentric. “It is essential for white folks to talk to other white people about racism,” he said.
Dean said George W. Bush’s description of University of Michigan’s affirmative action program as a “quota” was “despicable.”
“I know George Bush,” Dean said, “He’s not a racist, he’s not a bigot, he’s not a homophobe – he’s worse because he knows better.” Dean then spoke about the anti-gay ballot initiatives across the country saying Bush won the election, “on the backs of what has been the most despised minority in the history of humankind.”
“I believe that moral values are the province of the Democratic Party and we ought not be ashamed to say so,” he said, naming values like equality, equal opportunity, and access to health care.
In response to a question from the audience, Dean said Bush won this election on fear. “He scared people into thinking their kids were going to die from terrorism,” he said. “He scared people into thinking their kids were going to grow up gay if gay people got any rights.”
Kaplan was pleased with Dean’s address. “People wanted to hear a rallying cry,” he said. “I think he’s a good spokesperson, a good messenger for what we need to do. We can’t be ashamed of who we are and what we value.”
Kaplan believes that the LGBT community must fight against the anti-affirmative action movement since it is based, as is the resistance to LGBT equality, on discrimination. “That value we espouse would ring hollow if we’re not there for our friends, too,” said Kaplan. “Why would we not stand up for our brothers and sisters who would benefit from affirmative action programs who’ve been penalized due to racism?”