BY CHRIS JOHNSON, WASHINGTON BLADE
It wasn’t the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner that attendees anticipated a year ago.
Hopes were high that Hillary Clinton would be elected president and lead the way on advancing LGBT rights in the United States and around the world. Instead, Donald Trump is president and LGBT rights supporters are seeking to oppose his administration’s efforts to compromise rights for the LGBT community.
But the atmosphere Saturday night at the 21st annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner was far from depressed. In fact, the dinner’s theme of “rise,” projected on screen during the dinner and blasted in neon colors in the lobby, captured a sense of purpose and urgency given the new challenges facing LGBT people.
Fiery in her remarks before the estimated 3,600 people at the Washington Convention Center in attendance was Clinton, who lambasted Trump for his anti-LGBT policies and urged push back.
“Whether or not we are willing to accept this bigotry and hatred speaks volume about who we are as a country,” Clinton said.
Expressing concern that LGBT rights are “nowhere near as secure as we hoped,” Clinton ran through a litany of Trump administration actions harming LGBT people, including Trump’s announcement via Twitter that transgender people would no longer be able to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
“I was outraged when I read on Twitter of all places that the president wanted to ban transgender people serving in the the military,” Clinton said. “You know and he knows transgender people have fought and died for this country. They are serving in uniform with distinction right now. The suggestion that transgender Americans are unfit to serve is insulting and wrong.”
Making a reference to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Clinton said “it’s just wrong” in 2017 LGBT people can lose their homes, be evicted from their homes or “if this administration get its way, be denied a wedding cake simply because of who you are or who you love.”
Clinton also decried a U.S. delegation vote at the United Nations against a resolution condemning the death penalty, which included a provision against its use as a punishment for homosexual acts.
“When I saw that, I thought maybe I had read it wrong, that maybe I’d somehow got a double-negative mixed up, but, no, that’s exactly what our country voted against: A resolution to condemn the use of the death penalty for consensual same-sex relationships,” Clinton said.
The Trump administration insisted the vote was about the U.S. position on the death penalty in general, not its application to same-sex relations. Clinton said the State Department was “forced to clarify” that vote “after outcry from the Human Rights Campaign and many others.”
“But the fact remains the United States should not be shirking our responsibility to defend the human rights of LGBT people around the globe,” Clinton said.
Clinton also lodged complaints with the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress for non-LGBT issues, criticizing their tax reform package for seeking to finance tax cuts with cuts to entitlement programs.
“Embedded in this horrible, irresponsible, cruel and mean-spirited giveaway to the richest of Americans called tax reform is a $500 billion cut in Medicare and a $1 trillion cut in Medicaid,” Clinton said.
When the audience booed in response, Clinton replied, “That is exactly the appropriate response. And don’t boo, tell the Congress and tell them you will not stand for that.”
Introduced at the dinner as a “she-ro” by lesbian tennis legend Billie Jean King, Clinton was well-received by audience members, who stood for a standing ovation as she took the stage. At one point someone at the rear of the room shouted, “We love you!” prompting Clinton to respond, “It’s mutual.”
Arriving on stage, Clinton said the dinner “feels a bit like a family reunion,” telling attendees at the Human Rights Campaign event, “There is no one I’d rather share my initials with than you.”
Clinton said she’d “have much preferred to come to the dinner tonight from a slightly closer residence.”
Joking about the continued fixation on her in conservative media, Clinton said, “It does strike me that in the last few days at least Fox News seems to think that’s where I live in the White House because they spend a disproportionate amount of their time impeaching me.”
“If they’d be willing to make a trade, I’d be willing,” Clinton concluded.
If Clinton represented a look to the past at the dinner and what could have been, another speaker, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), represented what could be the future.
Introducing her was Proposition 8 plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, whom Harris married in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court restored marriage equality to California.
Harris said the Trump administration marks “an inflection point in the history of our country.”
“I believe this is a moment when our country is witnessing an assault on our deepest values and ideals, where people don’t trust over government, its institutions or leaders,” Harris said.
Harris decried social injustices throughout the country, including people of color being denied the right to vote and undocumented immigrants fearing a knock at the door taking them away, citing examples of anti-LGBT discrimination.
“From the United States Congress to the United States Census, LGBT rights are under attack,” Harris said. “Under attack by a Justice Department that now stands on the side of discrimination instead of equality, under attack by a Senate nominee who thinks homosexuality should be illegal and a judicial nominee who says transgender children are proof of Satan’s plan and under attack by a commander-in-chief who wants to ban transgender troops who are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend our country.”
Harris, who’s become an LGBT favorite among potential 2020 presidential candidates, touted a long history of support for LGBT people, recalling a time in the 1990s working as a district attorney with transgender people of color, whom said she were “ostracized, self-medicating and even some self-mutilating.”
The main theme of Harris’ speech was solidarity. At one point, she said, “Fighting for everyone’s civil rights is in our common interest and is in our self-interest.”
“Despite the forces of hate and division that are trying to tear us apart, Americans have so much more in common than what separates us,” Harris said.
Also speaking at the dinner was Gold Star father Khazir Khan, who rose to prominence last year after his speech at the Democratic National Convention and he became the target of criticism from Trump.
Expressing a sense of solidarity between the Muslim and LGBT communities, Khan told the audience his “LGBTQ family has given us courage to continue the fight.”
Khan also paid tribute to transgender service members and veterans as Trump seeks to keep them out of the U.S. armed forces.
“A majority of America stands with you, supports you and is grateful for your service,” Khan said.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, urged attendees to continue the fight.
“They want us to stop paying attention…long enough to implement their bigoted blueprint, but we can’t give in,” he said. “We can’t grow complacent. We can’t back down, and together, we got to hold Donald Trump’s tiny little hands to the fire every single day.”
Outside the convention center, around 100 demonstrators affiliated with No Justice No Pride circled the convention center in protest over the Human Rights Campaign taking contributions from Wells Fargo bank, which the protesters criticized for helping finance private prisons.
Shortly before the dinner began, the protesters blocked the doors of the convention center, forcing attendees to enter at a side entrance. Many of the protesters were wearing makeup making them resemble zombies, which the organization says was intended to represent the horrors of the Wells Fargo contributions.
“Under a blatant white-supremacist administration, those of us who claim to want justice for the LGBT community at large have to be as clear as those who oppose us,” Aaryn Lang, movement building & campaign manager of GetEqual, said in a statement. “HRC choosing to celebrate Wells Fargo, who finances private prisons and immigration detention centers alike, sends a scary message: that the struggles of immigrants, people of color and low-income communities are not the struggles of LGBT people.”
Protesters shouted as they marched around the convention center, “You can’t corporatize our Pride!” Another chant consisted of “Transphobia! Shut it down! Corporate greed! Shut it down!”
At one point, the protester leading the chant asked, “Who thinks we’re having more fun than the suited-up cis gay men attending this gala?” His fellows protesters cheered in response.
High-profile LGBT people present at the dinner included former Army Secretary Eric Fanning, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Rich Madeleno, Virginia State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), former Democratic National Committee CEO Jess O’Connell, former U.S. Export-Import CEO Fred Hochberg, D.C. transgender advocate Ruby Corado and Jim Obergefell.
Awarded the Human Rights Campaign National Equality Award was Jeff Bezos. Awarded the Ally for Equality award was Uzo Aduba, famed for her role as “Crazy Eyes” on the Netflix hit “Orange Is the New Black.”
Also present was CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta, former second lady Tipper Gore, Center for American Progress CEO Neera Tanden and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Voto Latino President Maria Teresa Kuma.