I’ve been to several Human Rights Campaign dinners, and they’re usually a mix of politics and pop — sometimes weighted heavily toward the latter. (There was the year that Charo sang … and sang … and sang.)
What was different about the Los Angeles event on Saturday was tone. Save for a rather hilarious monologue by Wanda Sykes, and the appearance of the L.A. Derby Dolls (which must be a generational thing), celebrity was kept to a minimum.
The evening was marked for its seriousness, perhaps because of the dire economy, but more likely because of the stinging defeat with the passage of Proposition 8, for which HRC bore a share of criticism, along with other groups involved in the campaign. For all of the hope that the state Supreme Court will overturn Proposition 8, the justices didn’t seem to be leaning that way in last week’s oral arguments, and there was little effort to try to sugar coat the reality. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), in her keynote, said, “We must hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
“Time doesn’t stop,” she reassured the crowd, “but it is on your side.”
In fact, the idea that the battle for same-sex marriage is long and hard-fought, fraught with victory and setbacks, was invoked among several of the speakers, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and honoree John Duran, a West Hollywood city councilman. Duran’s involvement stretches back to the early 1980s, when he helped fight numerous outrageous efforts including Lyndon LaRouche’s 1986 proposition on the California ballot that would have quarantined HIV and AIDS patients It was soundly defeated. “We have been tested by time,” Duran said.
The major highlight, though, was civil rights leader Julian Bond, whose appearance underscored the disproportionate vote of African Americans in favor of Proposition 8. Although exact numbers have been disputed, in the days after its passage, the mere fact that a majority of African Americans supported Prop 8 caused plenty of consternation in the gay community. There were some reports of racial epithets at the protest marches in the weeks that followed, and organizers of the No on 8 campaign endured complaints that they didn’t do enough to reach out to the black community and form alliances with African-American churches.
Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, said that his organization did not take a position on gay marriage but did oppose Proposition 8, because it singled out one group of people for “discrimination” in a constitution. But he himself supports same-sex marriage, and he wasted few words in condemning homophobia in the African-American community. With a stately announcer’s voice that rarely rises to the higher range of decibels, Bond challenged resentments of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, pointing out that even though there are differences, “people of color ought to be flattered” that another group draws inspiration from their struggle.
“Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality, and that is what gay marriage is,” Bond said.
He even offered some words of praise for Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who stirred religious wrath last week in part because he said that being gay is not a choice. (Bond also told Greg Hernandez, “I used to think he was not long for this job, now I’m sure.”)
But what was most powerful about his speech was his indictment of religion as a way to justify homophobia, and he cited the opposition not just of some African American religious leaders to same-sex marriage, but to the proposed Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act. He picked apart religious scripture condemning homosexuality, citing the absurdities of Leviticus, and went back in history to point out that religious arguments had been used against interracial marriage.
He drew some of the biggest cheers when he said, “God seems to have made room in his plan for interracial marriage, and he or she will no doubt do the same for same-sex marriage.”
To overuse an overused cliche, Bond was preaching to the choir. As the No on 8 campaign learned, the real hard work is shifting opinion well beyond the Wilshire corridor, away from the glitter and style of events like these. It’s the difference between a statewide TV campaign and a grassroots one. It’s also hard not to think whether things would have been different had he traveled up and down the state last year, but the period of picking apart the campaign seems to be giving way to a focus on what is ahead.
That’s not clear yet, but at the very least Bond offered encouragement that some of Prop 8’s most perplexing divisions would be addressed in a much greater way than they were during the campaign. With the (relative) lack of frivolity, that made for a fitting evening.