In his address to the 3,000 black-tie adorned attendees (and the millions who viewed it worldwide), the President made strongly worded assurances on three main points the gay community and HRC – a group that lobbies for equality for lesbian, gay, transgender, and bi-sexual rights – are most ardently pursuing: hate crime legislation, the repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and the repeal of the defense of marriage act.
After joking that he was honored to open for Lady Gaga – who performed a masterful rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” later in the evening (see the video below) – the President got to the point, saying, “I’m here with a simple message: I’m here with you in that fight,” He followed that up with strong assurances: “I will repeal defense of marriage act” and “I will end ‘Don’t ask don’t tell.’” Guests listened intently and cheered often. A casual look around showed expressions of amazement that a sitting President was speaking directly to them and the nation extolling the virtues of equality for all Americans regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation, and promising to take the legislative steps necessary to achieve that. Many in the audience, however, felt that progress has not come fast enough. The President acknowledged this, stating, “I appreciate that many of you don’t believe progress has come fast enough. Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach.”
One of those promises that the President made, was saying that he will sign The Matthew Shepard Act (officially the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act) which recently passed in the House along party lines. The bill, named after Matthew Shepard – the Wyoming teen that was brutally murdered nearly 11 years ago – expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Shepard’s parents Dennis and Judy have been championing the legislation – which has been mired in partisan politics – for over a decade. They were in attendance this evening to receive the 1st Edward M. Kennedy National Leadership Award for their devotion to the passage of this legislation. Mrs. Sheppard was in tears when she accepted the award from Rep. Patrick Kennedy. HRC honored the late Ted Kennedy this year, acknowledging his steadfast support for the LGBT community throughout his 46-47-year tenure in the Senate.
The guest list included a powerful mix of politicos, champions of businesses, and gay rights advocates and allies, including HRC president Joe Solmonese, HRC co-founder Terry Bean, Representative Patrick Kennedy; Ambassador-designee to New Zealand and Samoa David Huebner, Director of OPM John Berry, Chairman of Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley, Chairman of Export-Import Bank Fred Hochberg, and Tipper Gore, among many, many others.
Not as momentous as the President’s promises, but momentous none-the-less, was the fact that Lady Gaga performed at the gala. I expected her to inject the night with her high-energy chart topping music. Instead, she was in a reflective mood, given the historical significance of the evening, and played her version of John Lennon’s classic “Imagine.” If having the president and Lady Gaga wasn’t enough star-power, the entire cast of hit Fox show “Glee” attended.
It was a huge night for HRC and Solomese, who, smartly, took a few minutes extra before the president spoke to parlay CNN’s decision to broadcast the President’s speech live, into some airtime to advocate for HRC and its mission. It’s a fair bet that the organization will have now reached far beyond the LGBT community and its straight allies into Middle America.
You can always count of the annual HRC gala for a great turn out, top quality event staging, set-up and entertainment as well as it’s corporate backing. The sponsor board, listing both national and dinner sponsors (including Washington Life magazine) had more logos than a NASCAR Ford (I would have said Lexus since they sponsored, but I don’t believe they make NASCARs). Paul Hastings was the presenting sponsor for the gala for the fourth consecutive year, and he agreed to sign on for a fifth year. The gala co-chairs were Anna Prow and Tucker Gallager. Diamond sponsors included Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, UPS, Wachovia, Accenture and E*Trade. PriceWaterHouse Coopers hosted the Donor reception and after party on the first floor of the convention center.
Judging from the protestors outside and the heated debate the President’s HRC remarks have ignited, the night could best be summed up with a quote from the President himself: “For nearly 30 years, you’ve advocated for those without a voice,” Obama said. “Despite the progress we’ve made, there are still laws to change and hearts to open.”