Columnist Brandon Baker shares his experience at the Human Rights Campaign gala.
When I caught word that Carson Kressley from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” would be hosting this year’s Philadelphia Human Rights Campaign Annual Dinner Gala, the gayest of my instincts told me that I absolutely must attend. So, I did.
The gala, which serves as a source of fundraising for the HRC through private donations and a silent auction (which was rather unimpressive, I might add), is held every year to congregate some of the area’s and nation’s leading members in the fight for equal rights.
But that wasn’t quite what my mind was focused on as I entered the ballroom. I was more taken back by the fact that I had never before seen so many well-dressed, sophisticated gay men (and women) gathered in one room – a gathering that probably couldn’t even be topped by the most upscale University of Pennsylvania parties.
There were few stereotypes to be found in this liquor-happy crowd, yet most still seemed to be more initially absorbed in the social spectacle of the event than anything fundraising-related. But let’s not kid ourselves – who wasn’t there to see Kressley joke about Benjamin Franklin’s homoeroticism or how Philadelphia’s notorious title of “City of Brotherly Love” is “creepy?”
Even the event’s prestigious keynote speaker, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), found himself tickled by Kressley’s presence during his speech.
“I am, frankly, deeply fashion-challenged,” Coons said. “I was just saying to [Kressley] backstage if there should be, perhaps, a ‘Queer Eye for the Senate Guy.’”
But as the night moved forward, I found myself enthralled less by the celebrity appeal, and more by the motivational and, in places, heartwarming speeches by the dinner’s audacious orators.
After continuing to crack a few jokes about Coons’ “magical” electoral opponent last November, the senator remarked on the significance of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that his administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the court system, as well as the recent congressional call for repeal through the proposed Respect for Marriage Act.
“What people don’t know, is that if [Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.)] had not proposed the [Respect for Marriage Act,] I was planning on announcing my sponsorship of that bill at this dinner tonight,” Coons said. “But here’s the good news: Having too many senators who are too eager to repeal DOMA is a great problem to have.”
I’m not one to be easily impressed by politicians. In fact, enduring all-too-well-crafted political speeches often sounds cringe-worthy to me. In the case of Coons, however, I found myself impressed by his sincerity and surprisingly uplifting sense of character.
“If those of us who are elected aren’t willing to stand up and speak on principle, then what are we doing in office in the first place?” Coons said. “There is in this world ‘right and wrong,’ and Washington, [D.C.,] is a place that rarely speaks in those terms. Discriminating against people because of who they love is, simply, wrong.”
As the proceedings moved along, I found personal interest in HRC Associate Director of Diversity Allyson Robinson’s touching story of how she moved on in life despite “seemingly insurmountable challenges.” These included being a transgender woman in a military family, and she related the struggles of the GLBT community to being at the military academy.
“For the [GLBT] community and our allies across America, this last year has felt just a little like these barracks, hasn’t it?” Robinson said.
Following a successful year of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and other legislative successes, Robinson encouraged activists to remain strong following the upsetting results of last November’s election.
“What does this new political environment mean for us?” she said. “It means that we don’t quit … we dig deeper and work harder.”
When the evening concluded with a performance by Madonna backup singer Niki Harris, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. I don’t entirely know why I found myself so surprised by this sudden re-invigoration of political energy, but something about the dynamics of the audience and the conviction of the organization’s leaders was moving beyond words.
I found HRC to be a politically savvy, action-based organization that clearly knows what it wants and charges right after it, allowing for no pit stops along the way. It’s what a political/civil rights movement should look like.
Behind the gay flair and flamboyance of the night was an underlying theme and message that could certainly use a “refresh button” as of late: hope. “No gay left behind,” you could say.
Beyond the surface, HRC thrives by not just being politically savvy, but by being able to put forth a relatable image to the problem – a smart tactic to employ in Washington, D.C., politics in an age where tugging at the heartstrings, or the wallet, is the only way to get something accomplished.
What did I take away from the event? GLBT community members should feel privileged to have an organization like HRC on their side.
Brandon Baker can be reached at email@example.com.