The Human Rights Campaign sure knows how to pick a month to throw a party, it was generally agreed by everyone attending the org’s annual L.A. dinner Saturday night, where the evening’s most invoked topics were veritably ripped out of the most topical mainstream media headlines. Honoree Brandi Carlile, featured speaker Brian Michael Smith and nearly everyone who came to the dais spoke to the current rush of individual states to beat each other to the gate in enacting legislation that would roll back LGBTQ+ rights.
Celebration and solemnity were the twin moods of the night — and not for the first time in gay rights history, pointed out Carlile.
“I do believe that queer people come from a long line of celebration,” the singer-songwriter said on the red carpet at the JW Marriott Hotel at LA Live. “We have to find ways to celebrate during turmoil, because we’ve had a lot of it. Otherwise we’d never celebrate. We would never be prideful or find joy. And that’s what I love about everybody just being here and being all dressed up. And we’re going to talk about Texas and Florida and all of the subsequent states that are now rolling out these similar bills and oppressive pieces of legislation. It helps to get dressed up and it helps to see my friends. But it’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?”
The Disney corporation’s actions, or at times lack of them, in Florida was a frequent topic of discussion at the dinner, with the company’s absence on the on-screen roll of corporate sponsors reflecting the fact that the company gave Disney its donation back in response to it declining to take a stand on the so-called “don’t say gay” legislation about to hit the governor’s desk.
But HRC interim president Joni Madison indicated that the philanthropic org has not disengaged from Disney, and that discussions are ongoing.
“You may have seen earlier this week that HRC is not going to take any funding from Disney until they take real action about this hateful legislation in Florida,” Madison told the ballroom. “You may have also seen that, 36 hours later, Disney’s CEO, Bob Chapek, apologized to his employees and committed to suspending all political giving in Florida. I was glad to speak to Bob yesterday afternoon, and we had a very productive conversation about the need for Disney to put real muscle into stopping what’s happening to their employees and to their fans. We need Disney’s partnership in getting the bills heading to (governor Ron) DeSantis’ desk vetoed, and if that doesn’t happen, to get those bills repealed.
“But this is not just about Bob Chapek and Disney,” Madison added. “This is about every CEO and company in America, because it’s time to do a gut check. And especially here in California: The tech companies and entertainment companies here who have an influential presence across the country and around the world have an important role to play in fighting state-sanctioned discrimination, wherever it exists. We need more inclusive employment policies. And a clever Pride campaign? I don’t think so. We need CEOs to be taking actions that meet the moment we’re in right now.”
Carlile addressed the Disney issue before the night started, telling Variety on the carpet, “I did see that Disney came to the table, I think yesterday, and did some disavowing. But it was a little bit on the late side of things. I’m watching all that unfold. Corporate accountability makes me feel unsettled. You know, I’m not the biggest capitalist in the world, and I’ve had quite a problem with the rainbow-washing in corporate America every June, where everybody puts a rainbow billboard up around the straight couple in their underwear, and it always makes me feel a little monetized as a queer person. You really see who is willing to celebrate pride. You really see who’s willing to step up to the plate when things happen like the ones that we’re seeing happen right now. And so it’s very interesting to see how the same power conglomerates that rainbow-wash their businesses in June are gonna step up on our behalf right now.”
One surprise was an appearance by an actual Disney family member, Charlee Corra Disney, who put some of the family’s money where the namesake corporation’s mouth is.
“I grew up with HRC, attending events like this one, and I’m so proud to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Disney said. “It’s very important to me and my brother, Aidan, and my parents, Sheri and Roy P. Disney. As members of the Disney family, standing up for equality has always been what we do. Tonight, our family is issuing a fundraising challenge. We really believe in the work you all are doing. And we will give $250,000 if we can match that amount in the room tonight. I hope you will help us fight for equality everywhere.”
Although Carlile delivered the climactic address, actor Brian Michael Smith was the evening’s featured speaker, relating his groundbreaking role as a trans firefighter on Fox’s “9-1-1: Lonestar” to the battles his community is undertaking.
“I play a character named Paul Strickland who is a firefighter who navigates his own vulnerability while saving lives,” said Smith. “Now, while we film a lot of the show here in L.A. — most of it — the show is based in Austin, Texas, arguably one of the safest places in Texas for a trans person to live. But the reality is, Texas has no safe places for transgender people.”
Continued Smith, “In case you missed the news, Governor Greg Abbott recently directed his social services agency to investigate the families that give medically necessary, age-appropriate, gender-affirming care for their kids — and call it child abuse. The governor’s directive also calls on teachers and medical professionals to report the family to the state, and threatens the removal of their professional licenses if they fail to do so. … Ot breaks my heart, for the children and for the people that love them, that this is what they’re up against.
“Now, my character Paul runs into burning buildings. He put himself into harm’s way and fights to save lives. Those of you who know a thing or two about firefighting know you don’t run into a dangerous situation without making sure that your colleagues on your force have your back. So it’s an apt metaphor for the position that we’re in right now, because right now in Texas and Florida and Alabama and North Dakota, and unfortunately many other places, the house is on fire for our community. … There are close to 300 bills just like this right now under consideration in statehouses, all across the country — 300 bills, at least. Now HRC and other amazing organizations, including state and LGBT groups, are like the firefighters. They are rushing into battle to fight this. It’s exhausting, but it’s vital. And the tyranny of this is that people like me and the trans kids around the nation be to know the same allies who had our backs when it came to marriage equality are stepping in to have our backs right now.”
Comedian Dana Goldberg put a lighter spin on things, riffing — like many on stage and on the carpet did — to riff on the “don’t say gay” legislation and the verboten power Florida has ironically put in the very invocation of terms for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Across this nation, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen an assault like this before,” Goldberg said. “And you know what, no one’s gonna stop us in Florida or any other state in this country from saying gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer… Say it. Say it loud. I’m gonna say it all the time. ‘Ma’am, would you like avocado for $2?’ ‘Yes, because I’m a lesbian.’ ‘Ma’am, would you like paper or plastic?’ ‘I brought my own, because I’m GAY!'”
On the more serious side, interim president Madison addressed the sheer volume of legislation rolling out across the country, not just in flagship states Florida and Texas.
“Yesterday morning, over 60 major businesses joined us in an open letter condemning Governor Abbott’s attacks in Texas,” she said. “Now this is a crucial step by the business community, but we need this to be the start of their advocacy, not the end.
“They’re coming for our bodies and they’re coming for our lives from coast to coast. Republicans have been basically copying and pasting their way through (other states). Anti-trans sports bans started in Mississippi. They passed in Utah and Indiana. Now they’re being considered in South Carolina and Kentucky. Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’/ trans bill is heading to Governor DeSantis’ desk, but similar bills are being considered in Tennessee, Kansas, Indiana, and Oklahoma. They’re not going to stop in Tennessee. They’re not going to stop in Texas. They’re not going to stop in Oklahoma. They’re not going to stop in Indiana. They’re not going to stop unless we stop them.”
Carlile was introduced by her married-couple friends Abby Wambach, the celebrated soccer player, and Glennon Doyle, the author. “Brandi is kind, she’s thoughtful and she’s open and she’s brave,” said Doyle. “She’s led completely by her faith. And because of that, her art has always been an invitation to those who don’t often receive invitations. Her art has always been a party for misfits.” Speaking to Carlile’s home life, Doyle spoke of “her Seattle commune where she lives with her sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews and exes, and where she takes off her fancy suits and sneakers and wears flannels and beanies and carabiners and rides tractors and chops wood for warmth.”
“Brandi is so gay, y’all,” intrerrupted Wambach, with a punchline.
“She’s just the gayest gay that ever gayed,” added Doyle.
After Carlile noted that Doyle and Wachman have their own foundation, Together Rising, that “has raised and distributed $250,000 throughout LGBTQ_-serving organizations in Florida and Texas over the course of the last several weeks,” Carlile accepted her HRC Visibility Award on behalf of her own Looking Out Foundation, which she founded in 2008 with the primary goal of assisting displaced peoples around the world. She also took in a toast that was offered to her with tables full of XOBC wine, a brand she started up that sends proceeds to LGBTQ+ orgs.
The singer-songwriter told the 500-strong black tie crowd that coincidence, or inevitability, seems to make very public gay rights crises coincide with the HRC events she attends, going back to the first one she went to in Seattle in the early 2000s.
“The events and evenings that I’ve been invited to participate in with the HRC … have also coincided with some of the most bummer regional and federal moments in LGBTQIA+ history — really hard times. It almost is never free from controversy, strife and attacks on our freedoms. …The first HRC event I ever attended as a nobody lesbian folk singer was in the early 2000s. As I remember it, the impeccably dressed — not unlike tonight — room at the downtown Seattle hotel we were in was sitting around waiting on an announcement to come through to say whether the most recent marriage equality initiative that we’d all been tirelessly working on had passed. As history would have it, and as I’m sure you all remember, it didn’t. The disappointment was palpable. I remember a collective exhale as a whole lot of hope left everybody in a very soulful room looking like the upset conservative white people watching the Super Bowl halftime show on TV this year,” she said to laughter.
“But we straightened our ties and we pulled it together. And they celebrated. Not me, though. I’m a sad gay. I literally sang (Leonard Cohen’s) ‘Hallelujah’ under a single spotlight with my eyes closed, dressed all in black – got the acoustic guitar out and brought everyone back down… But we did get marriage in the end, didn’t we. And we’re holding on to it… and fucking desperate, and it’s touch and go, but we have it right now.”
Carlile told a story about getting married to her wife, Catherine Carlile, and how the priest they’d hired phoned at the last minute, unable to show up. Making an analogy, she said, “This is our celebration. We’re here. And the priest ain’t coming — that legitimacy, the dignity, the pro-queer, pro-trans legislation. The validation that we all need, it’s not here today. It’s in this room, but it’s not in this country. And the reasons contradict each other, and they don’t make any sense, but people will suffer.
“And the worst part is that political predators addicted to power are carrying out their longstanding tradition of targeting children, especially trans kids, as they relate to the LGBTQIA+ narrative. This hurts all families — queer and CIS heteronormative families — because these misguided leaders chip away at our actually natural ability to understand one another. … They weaponize sexuality and they sequester us off into categories of deviance, making us inherently age-inappropriate, when many of us have children ourselves. This isn’t light reading. This isn’t fun stuff to talk about. … And yet, we celebrate. That’s what queers do. We honor one another in this way because we come from a long line of people who know how to find joy right smack in the middle of a fight, and that’s where we are.”
Carlile got laughs by again describing herself as “a sad lesbian who’s built for it. And not unlike my first HRC night in the early 2000s, this isn’t the most blissed-out moment in queer history. I know where it’s headed, though.” She broke into a moment of song, from her anthem “The Joke,” belting out the lines: “I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends.” And, referring back to the story of how her priest-less wedding turned out back in the day, she quipped, “It ends with Madonna-themed karaoke.”
Carlile did not perform at the dinner, a role that was filled with high-powered numbers by Shea Diamond and, later, VINCINT. When the latter performer emerged to end the show, someone accidentally cued up the track for Diamond’s song “I Am America,” leading VINCINT to quip, “I’m not America, but…”
A new video showed during the program, directed by “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway, depicting LGBTQ+ people rallying around a flag that is missing 29 stars, representing the number of states the Human Rights Campaign says do not offer full legal protection to gay, lesbian and trans people.
Other speakers included U.S. Congresswoman Sharice Davids, a Democrat who is both LGBTQ+ and Native American who represents Kansas. Guests included AJ Gibson, Emile Ennis Jr., Beverly Johnson, Emily Coutts, Leo Sheng, Lexy Altman and Jake Choi.