But first, the gala....
The event was well produced so the four-hours ran smoothly, punctuated by appearances by T.R. Knight, Jane Lynch, Peter Paige, Candis Cayne, and Michelle Clune introducing videos up for HRC's new E-Hero Award. "Milk" producer Bruce Cohen announced the winner - "And She's The California Constitution"
Wanda Sykes opened the show and she killed. She popped the glass studs off the stuffed shirts who usually only deign to endure a comedienne for the appearance of public propriety. Through her whole performance, I kept thinking - OMG - and she's hosting the White House Correspondent's Dinner? Let me put it this way: I watched Dianne Feinstein come pretty close to slapping the table and guffawing over some of the jokes.
For instance, Sykes jokingly complained that Barack Obama "set the bar too high....You can't blame the man when you are the man!" She also encouraged him to forsake basketball and take up golf or tennis with the Williams sisters.
The house roared when she talked about the Republicans, especially radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
"Talk about evil people, they're just nasty! Rush saying, 'I want the president to fail!' What kind of bullshit is that? He thinks, 'screw everybody else. Screw everybody, I just want to win!' That's treason, right? I'm like, 'Let's not close Guantanamo [Bay]. No - let's send Rush Limbaugh's big ass over there! He's a terrorist!'"
(Blogger Greg Hernandez has more.)
Just re-elected LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talked about presiding over same sex weddings - including that of Bruce Cohen and Gabriel Catone - and of never giving in "to an unjust status quo." Speaking of the Prop 8 challenge before the California Supreme Court, Villaraigosa noted that when it takes a two-thirds vote to pass the state budget, but only a simple majority to revoke fundamental rights of a minority, "we know our system remains fundamentally broken." He also said a favorable court ruling is "a long shot."
Villaraigosa is often mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2010. But it is also widely assumed that he - as well as expectant gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco - would be immediately out of contention should Dianne Feinstein decide to run.
As Feinstein swept into the lobby to pose for pictures, accompanied by her husband, Richard Blum and her stalwart LA-based openly gay aide, Trevor Daley, politicos speculated whether she wanted to come home to California to be with her family and run for governor, or if it would be too hard to leave the U.S. Senate, where she is the powerful Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as a member of the Judiciary and Appropriations committees.
Though Feinstein has surely experienced the attention afforded a Washington powerbroker, she seemed genuinely taken aback by the gushing admiration and gratitude heaped on her as she took the stage at the HRC gala. Even old timers who remembered a more conservative senator with whom they disagreed, jumped to their feet in recognition of Feinstein's strong public pronouncements in favor of marriage equality and against Prop 8.
Feinstein underscored the long road to equality in American history.
"Fifty years ago, it was still against the law for African Americans to eat at the same lunch counter as whites. Yet two weeks ago, I attended a White House dinner at the invitation of a President who is the product of a marriage that was still illegal in over a dozen states when he was born. And let me tell you - the President and First Lady are marvelous hosts. The ease and grace with which they moved about the room made it hard to believe that racial discrimination was once the law of this land."
And then Feinstein turned to Prop 8:
"My heart sank when I learned that Proposition 8 had carried a majority of voters in California last November. This, despite the fact that our state had simultaneously and overwhelmingly voted for change, and recent polls had indicated that a majority of Californians supported equal marriage rights, was very surprising.
But a great deal of money had been spent to distort marriage equality and cast these equal rights as something dangerous to children and to all marriages.
Without a doubt, this is a setback. But the final verdict has not been rendered. The struggle will go on. And I believe it will be victorious.
I can't tell you when or how. It may take another year, or five. It may take another ballot initiative. But I firmly believe that equal marriage rights will one day be the law in the State of California. I hope that day comes soon, and I believe it will."
Feinstein said her optimism over marriage equality was rooted in her own personal evolution.
"Over the course of 40 years I have seen this community grow and come into its own. I have seen, with my own eyes, the happiness, the joy and the stability that marriage has brought....
As Californians come to know the 18,000 couples married since June of last year, more will see these as loving, stable marriages between two people, willing to make a lifelong commitment to share the good, and the bad, in life."
Anticipating the court's ruling on Prop 8, Feinstein urged the community to keep fight:
"Until this question is settled, it's up to you to continue to press the case, united, as you march forward in dignity. We cannot simply put our faith in a positive outcome. We must hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
I know from experience that it is tough to lose. But time doesn't stop, and I believe it is on your side....
You have come a long way, but the journey is not finished. We must persevere until the day when acceptance triumphs over prejudice. I will support you in this quest. And it will happen."
The elegant longtime civil rights hero Julian Bond followed with a keynote that was inspirational, funny, and a sharp elbow to right wing Christians. (See Variety's Ted Johnson's take - here.)
While the national NAACP has not taken a stand on marriage equality, they did oppose Prop 8 because it singled out one group of people for "discrimination."
Bond repeated some of the remarks he delivered at the 2008 Creating Change Conference, including: "When I'm asked are gay rights civil rights, my answer is always - of course they are."
But before this audience in this city and state - after the upheaval over the Prop 8 vote in the African American community, the dastardly racist reaction by some protesters, and the loud complaints about the failure of the No on Prop 8 campaign to reach out to minority communities - Bond's speech was riveting.
He talked about his friend Coretta Scott King - the wife of legendary civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - before she died and how King said "homophobia seeks to dehumanize a group of people" and therefore she became an ardent advocate for LGBT rights.
"All forms of discrimination should be opposed by all people everywhere....Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality - and that's what gay marriage is...People of color ought to be flattered that our movement has provided" inspiration for others."
The audience of about 800 chuckled when Bond gave Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele faint praise after the new GOP leader played verbal dodge ball with the party's social conservatives by saying abortion was a choice, but sexuality was not.
But Bond evoked uproarious laughter when he cited chapter and verse of passages from the Bible and pointed out their absurdity. The he got serious: "The Black Church has much to answer for," said Bond, when it comes to espousing homophobia that causes the spread of HIV/AIDS and justifies opposition to the Matthew Shepard Act.
"Rampant homophobia is not just wrong. It's a danger to our national security...Good things can come to not just those who wait, but those who agitate."
Recently re-elected West Hollywood City Councilmember and former Equality California board president John Duran - HRC's Community Hero - was the final speaker. While Feinstein and Bond evoked gratitude and inspiration for their support as allies, Duran touched people's hearts with a reminder of what kind of people these trials of injustice have made of us.
An openly gay person living with HIV/AIDS, Duran put the struggle for equality into a larger historical perspective - from Harry Hay to Gay Liberation to MECLA to AIDS and ACT UP to the fight for marriage equality.
"It occurred to me - the issue is not any particular time span or era. The issue is injustice....
And upon the fields of multiple skirmishes - a revelation was declared - within the domain of religion itself - where the historical hatred and intolerance had been conceived - to defy the high priests of bias and bigotry with the same time-tested definition of the Almighty which knew no barrier or epoch - that God is and always has been Love. And as the sands of time slip past, and as we soldier on for love and life - from church and temple, to Governor's Mansion to Parliament, from battalion to city hall - as we strike at injustice wherever it arises...We draw together. For we have withstood the scrutiny of time and as a unified people we have seen the glory of the possible. We have touched the hem of equality. We have heard the clarion of dignity assembling us again. The battle is for justice. The price to pay is eternal vigilance. The profit is character and grace. And character. Character. Character."
(HRC is posting some video and transcripts at their blog.)
Though moving and inspirational, the evening provided no real blueprint for where we - especially those of us in California - should go next. So I asked Joe Solmonese what was next on the federal horizon.
We started off talking about the
New York Times story March 13 about two federal appeals court judges in California who said that employees of their court were entitled to health benefits for their same-sex partners as those received by heterosexual federal employees. However, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) cited the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in refusing to comply with the judges' orders. Meanwhile, Obama - who supports civil unions - recently appointed openly gay John Berry to head OPM.
"There's a little bit of a moment here because there is a case that has been brought and so do they defend the position of the federal government?
You've got a similar situation with DOMA. Obama is committed to overturning DOMA - certainly Article 3 of DOMA - and yet we've got a lawsuit so the official governmental position today is in support of DOMA.
It's going to be a fair amount of time before we overturn DOMA - but I absolutely believe Obama is committed to extending domestic partnership benefits to federal employees....
It's a question of timing - what comes first. I think the case and the administration's need to react to it, quite frankly, makes me think they might move on trying to extend domestic partnership benefits to federal employees sooner rather than later.
DOMA is a different situation...because you have two different bills before Congress. There's a [Sen. Chuck] Schumer bill that says we ought to overturn Article 3 of DOMA and extend federal benefits to any state that recognizes any measure of same sex recognition.
Then there's a [Rep Gerry] Nadler bill - which says you can go to any state - Massachusetts or Connecticut - get married, go back to your state and then carry the federal benefits - [though perhaps not state benefits]. It's an interesting approach....
I think this Schumer bill is interesting. I think we need to think about this. The up side of this - look at California - you're right in the middle of it. The upside of the Schumer bill is ...either way - you would get federal benefits in California.
Now the thing you've got to consider is - if you're fighting for marriage in California - does the Schumer bill do anything to impact the fight for marriage in California? And I think it's a tough call. And I think you could walk out on the street here and ask 10 people and get 10 different answers.
If you win marriage - what's the next step for you here in California? It's to get federal benefits, probably. So the Schumer bill would be the natural extension of that. If you lose the court case - so now you have a long journey to marriage in California. The Schumer bill passes and it says, now you've got domestic partnership benefits in California, you get social security survivor benefits, you get all the federal benefits. What does it do to sort of the will of the marriage fight here?
And as the court said, a separate but equal institution is a bad thing. Now you've got to take the long view and ask yourself - does it take the wind out of the sails for the fight for full marriage equality? Or nationally - does it bring more states like a Georgia to pass a civil unions bill to get the federal benefits and then in the long view of marriage - does it bring down the resistance and does it - it's a question of semantics...
It's a tough call. You talk to an elderly lesbian couple out here at this party tonight and they say, 'I need social security survivor benefits tomorrow. So the Schumer bill does that. But you say - well in Alabama, they don't get them [because there are no state protections for same sex relationships]. Well, they don't get them anyways in Alabama."
I asked Solmonese if he had thought about asking Dianne Feinstein to be the senate sponsor of the bill to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell because LGBT people are allowed to be open in the California National Guard but have to go into the closet if they are called up and deployed. He said, "I think it's a very good idea and I think you bring up a good point and I think she would be an absolutely appropriate person to do it."
On the repeal of DADT, Solmonese said that he thinks Obama will deal with extraction from Iraq first - and then he can call for a bill to overturn DADT.
"I think we have to be prepared for a 16-18 month timeline because he is going to go through this period....[And then] Obama can simply say in 18 months - I want to see legislation on my desk that overturns the ban on gays in the military. It's a simple as that."
First, though, there will be a "plan" coming out of a Blue Ribbon Commission.
Solmonese's hoped-for timeline is a hate crimes bill by Memorial Day and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the Fall.
In the meantime, he says they are talking to the administration about closing "the economic disparity that exists in the absence of marriage. So can you issue an Executive Order to re-interpret Family and Medical Leave to cover same sex couples? In a state like Virginia where there is no second parent adoption - that really matters."
I asked why there wasn't more of a push to pass ENDA - especially consider the hard economic times.
"I think we've got a little bit more work to do on ENDA. As I have always said - taking the vote in the House when the vote moved out of committee to the floor - you know it was our view that we ought to take that vote - that would have been an instructive vote - it had no chance of passing into law when we took it - you always take the vote when there's no chance of passing it into law because it gives you the roadmap. It gave us the 48 seats we needed to target. Now in the interim when members said, 'Go be active in the elections. You could really help here.' So you elect 20 something pro- LGBT people - that closes that gap pretty significantly. But we've got a little bit of work to do.
You've got 26 new members - how the Hate Crime vote goes - is it a clean vote? We do what we need to do. The last time around when those members from the Southern District, like Georgia and south Carolina [talk about] these ministers - are we there with the dollars and the people and the campaign to tamp it down? Yes, we will be. That, I think, is what is really going to matter when we go back to them in the Fall and say, 'So about ENDA....'"