The sold-out audience came to celebrate marriage equality and to honor its heroes - San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
But it was also an evening full of reverence, remembering those who died before savoring the victory of equality. Given special mention was Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco Supervisor who was assassinated 30 years ago on November 27, 1978, just weeks after he helped defeat Prop. 6, the antigay Briggs Initiative spearheaded by Christian Florida Orange Juice shill Anita Bryant and the religious fundamentalist Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority.
The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles opened the show, followed by comedienne Margaret Cho, who has a new TV show called "The Cho Show" coming soon to a VH1 channel near you. Dressed in a demure Japanese kimono, the ribald Cho emceed the evening, making angry and funny political pronouncements laced with vulgarities that made many older gays laugh and wince at the same time.
Having the right to marry is "so amazing," she said. "I want you to have that, girl. If you don't have a boyfriend, marry some trick...with a big dick....Let's make tonight our victory party. We are changing the world."
Cho also swooned over Gavin Newsom. "He's so shockingly hot - and he's straight. Oh, my God. He's like a unicorn," Cho said.
The real stars of the night, however, were the hundreds of lesbian and gay couples who are either already married, engaged, or thinking about it. Chills, tears, laughter and joyful applause waved through the room when event chair Alan Uphold asked them to stand.
But the biggest ovation of the night was for NCLR's Legal Director Shannon Minter, who argued the successful marriage case before the California Supreme Court. The ballroom erupted into thunderous applause, whoops and cheers as the theme from "Rocky" played in the background. The brilliant, married transgender attorney soaked it all in with elegant humility before introducing Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors.
In a brief interview before the event, I asked Minter what the ruling - and now the battle over Prop. 8 - mean to him.
It is just the most extraordinary moment that I personally ever lived through. And certainly [Prop 8 is] the most extraordinary and important moment politically for the LGBT community - not just in California but in the country right now. It's probably - if not the most important political battle we've ever faced as a movement, it's certainly close to it.
I asked if he thinks the California Supreme Court's ruling that sexual orientation is a "suspect class" - meaning LGBT people are now considered an official protected minority in the state - is one of the most important aspects of the ruling.
Yes. Of course the fundamental right to marry part of the holding was extremely significant, but the court's holding that sexual orientation is a suspect classification was stunning. Completely unprecedented. I think it will forever change the legal landscape for LGBT people in the country; it's going to have a huge impact on courts in other states and ultimately, on the federal courts. We are now living in a different legal world because of what the court did.
Minter also said that the "suspect class" part of the ruling would remain intact even if Prop. 8 was passed. Needless to say, that only underscores how the ballot initiative would take away a fundamental right conferred on a minority.
Attorney General Jerry Brown made that clear recently by changing the title of Prop. 8 to now read: ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME-SEX COUPLES TO MARRY and the new summary says the initiative would CHANGE the California constitution - something a recent Field Poll indicated that a slim majority of California voters are not willing to do... Prop 8 backers are now suing to restore the old title "Limit on Marriage."
In an interview before the event, Newsom talked about how his own recent marriage to actress Jennifer Seibel deepened his appreciation for the struggle of lesbian and gay couples to have the same right - and he slammed the Democratic Party for turning its back on what he called a "core value."
It was quite an extraordinary thing when Alan [Uphold] asked everyone who'd been married to stand up. I was stunned. It literally puts it all in perspective. I don't know how many people have come up to me and said, 'we've been together 30 years, 35 years, 20 years' - it's just extraordinary.
I just got married last week - and I felt we were together a long time and it's a year and a half. I couldn't wait to get married. I could only imagine couples that have been together for decades and the struggle and the despair. And the resignation, almost - that you just never imagine it would happen in your life - so there's not even the expectation that it could. And now all that's changed and that's what's so important about November. What's at stake is so much more palpable than we could have ever intellectualized it six months ago or even three months ago.
I asked him what it was like to
marry LGBT pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon", who were first married by Newsom in 2004, and then became one of three couples married on June 16.
Ah, come on. That was as good as it gets. The whole thing started with them. In 2004 it was all about putting a human face on discrimination and no greater narrative, no greater love story than theirs and to be able to do it then, to go through the travail of the nullification, and then to come back four years later, I got to tell you candidly - never thought I would have that opportunity in my life, certainly not as mayor still and it was liberating, it was glorious, it was extraordinary.
And it wasn't just Phil and Del - it was their family, it was their friends and I understand this now better than ever because our wedding was about our families - it wasn't just about Jen and I.
And that's also something that's so important to communicate in the next few months - that it's not just about the LGBTQ community. This is about all of us. This is about our families and friends. This is about people coming together across their differences. And that's something that I think is very unifying and so fundamental. And I think that's a message we need to share so that we can get through November 4 successfully.
I asked Newsom if he thought marriage rights would be an issue in the Democratic primary for governor - considering that his prospective challengers, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi both support marriage equality. I noted that no one is quite sure where Attorney General Jerry Brown stands.
No. I don't so - and if it is, it is. Let's talk about healthcare, education, the environment. Let's talk about poverty. And let's dispense with the idea that separate is somehow now equal. I mean this with sincerity. I've gotten more hardened on this. I don't have much patience - particularly for people in my Party, the Democratic Party - that are arguing for separate institutions as somehow equal. That's not audacity. That's not authenticity. That's not about conviction. That's about accommodation and political posturing. And I'm done with that.
And that may not be a political strategy that's a prudent one, but I think it's a little more principled. And now more than ever we need a different direction. And so I'm really proud of those Democrats you've mentioned for standing on principle. Good for them - and they did it early on. And they're successful candidates. And isn't that the message? Every Democrat in the Legislature that not only once, but twice voted for marriage equality - they all got re-elected. And they're doing fine. And now I believe them a little bit more when they tell me what they think on other issues because they had the courage on this very difficult issue to stand on principle. So it tells me something about them that allows me to be more open minded about them on other things.
Geoff Kors was beaming when he took the stage.
There are no words to describe how it feels to be standing before you tonight as a truly and fully equal Californian. It's just so amazing...To think that each and everyone of us in this room has lived to see the day when we are truly equal is overwhelming.
But, Kors said in remarks often interrupted by sustained applause, let's not forget how far the LGBT community has come since Equality California was organized in 1998.
It's so easy to forget how different things were just 10 years ago. In 1998, you could be fired from your job, denied your apartment, and you had no recourse under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. You could be denied the most basic and routine healthcare by your insurance company if you were transgender. And if you had partners that year, you were legal strangers. After an entire lifetime together, your deceased partner's estranged family could take your inheritance, your home and try and take your kids. And real importantly for us today, polls showed we were back 25 points in the polls on the issue of marriage equality.
It was for these reasons that Equality California was born in December of 1998. And over the past 10 years, Equality California has passed an unprecedented 45 pieces of legislation on behalf of our community and is poised to pass our 50th bill this year - including legislation to protect LGBT seniors who are so often isolated in nursing homes and in what is such an exciting bill, the Harvey Milk Day bill to create the first state holiday in this country ever to honor an openly LGBT person. Can you imagine growing up in school and learning about an openly LGBT politician - the difference that will make in kids' lives! It is so exciting to see that bill on the floor of the Assembly.
During that same 10 years, we've defeated over 30 anti-LGBT bills, built a list of over one million pro-equality voters in this state, helped elect hundreds of legislators and statewide officers who support full equality and moved public opinion on the issue of the freedom to marry to the dead heat in the polls, where it stands today.
And finally, we have built a coalition, of LGBT and allied organizations that will lead us to victory in the most important electoral challenge our community has ever faced when on Nov. 4, we're going to defeat Prop. 8.
You know the road to equality wasn't easy. We've had fierce opposition every step of the way by the radical right. We've had to convince legislators from the Inland Empire, Orange County, and the Central Valley, to vote for pro-equality bills, including the marriage bill. And then we had to get governors, both Democratic and Republican, to sign them. Our amazing legal partners had to win landmark victories from a Supreme Court made up of six of the seven judges appointed by Republican governors. And we needed to build public support in the largest and most diverse state in this nation. And how cool is it that we did it in the state that launched and is home to Rev. Lou Sheldon and his Traditional Values Coalition?
And the way we got here - we set the bar where we wanted to go.... That's why Equality California set the bar here and demands nothing less than full equality. It is why Equality California only endorses candidates for office who are 100% on our issues. Anything less than full equality for every member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender is not equality at all.
The most important thing we have done to get here is to build coalitions because we have stood for more than just LGBT rights and we continue to do so. Understanding that we are just one small part of a broader social justice movement is a core value of this organization. And none of us ever, ever can forget that these victories would never have happened if people outside the LGBT community didn't stand with us, and often at peril to their own self-interest.
Whether it be last year's honoree, the Untied Farm Workers or the NAACP, who lost members when they endorsed and fought with Equality California to pass our marriage bill - or the incredible Gavin Newsom, who was ostracized by his own political party - how shocking that he was ostracized by the Democratic Party for understanding and acting on what St. Augustine said: 'An unjust law is no law at all.' So thank you Gavin....
Now we all know that obtaining legal equality does get us all that far - it gets us legal equality. But just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't end racism or sexism in our society, passing laws and winning court victories isn't going to end homophobia and it isn't going to end trans-phobia. The truly hard work of changing hearts and minds of Californians to ensure that the next generation grows up without questioning their self-worth, without contemplating suicide, and without being scared to go to school for fear of being beaten up and teased, well, that lies ahead.
But this November, when we win - and we will win - young people around the country will be comforted and will read in the newspapers that people in the largest state in the country voted for their equality and when that happens, we will turn a critical corner to end struggle and prejudice from which we will never, ever go back.
In an interview before her remarks, NCLR's Kate Kendell humbly reflected on the progress the LGBT community has made. On July 9, Kendell married Sandy Holmes, her partner of 15 years with whom she has two children.
I am very privileged to be alive, doing this work in this moment. People live their whole lives hoping to be in a time where they are a part of history being made - and we are. What a privilege to be able to have it be around issues of love, and commitment and our relationships - it doesn't get any better than this.
Kendell also talked about the importance of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
Del and Phyllis made it possible for us to be here. They did this work at a time when you lost everything being openly queer. You lost jobs, you lost children, you lost your life. Certainly you lost the safety and security of society. You lost your family. And we really stand on their shoulders and I know they felt like they would never live to see a moment where they could actually legally marry. So to be a part of bringing that moment to fruition - and to be a part of their actually legal wedding - was truly one of the highlights of my life - other than perhaps my own wedding and when my children were born.
And it really did remind me of what it means to be in this movement. This movement is not an end unto itself. It really is about the place of LGBT people in this culture. And we have taken a giant step forward and no the task is to maintain it and to never go back.
I asked her what she thought were the chances of defeating Prop. 8.
I think we will defeat Prop 8 - I think there is every reason why we should defeat it. But no one can be cavalier. No one can be complacent. No one can be sanguine about it. It will take everything we have. People will have to write the biggest checks they've ever written, devote more volunteer hours than they ever have, have more difficult conversations than they've ever had for 90 days. For 90 days we have to give it everything. And if we do, we will beat this thing.
During her remarks, Kendell reiterated the point.
We understand that what's at stake on November 4 and what we won on May 15th of this year so transcends the ability to marry. It really is about common dignity and humanity and yes, young people waking up feeling like they see themselves reflected in this culture, instead of the toxic atmosphere so many of us were subjected to as we grew up. For me to be able to marry the person most precious to me in the world - Sandy Holmes - is what this is all about.
Kendell also invoked Harvey Milk, noting that Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen (just back from his honeymoon with his happy husband Gabriel Catone) is brining out a new film on Milk this fall. Milk's nephew told Kendell that the famous shot of Milk riding in the Gay Pride Parade was his only such appearance - because he was assassinated.
Harvey Milk stands in for every lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender person who sacrificed everything - they lost kids, they lost jobs, lost their family, they lost their religions, they lost their neighborhood, they lost their community they lost their dignity they lost their lives.
They did not make it to this moment. What we owe them - because we did - is that we will not waste it. We know this is the moment. We know how we got here. And a big part of how we got here is on their backs. And we are going to make damn sure - we're not going back.
She exhorted the audience to do everything possible to help defeat Prop. 8 - and then she introduced EQCA Board president and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran, who was a former Board Co-Chair of EQCA's predecessor, LIFE AIDS Lobby.
Duran recalled how in 2002 EQCA's Board of Directors tried to figure out how to reverse the terrible loss after the antigay marriage Knight Initiative (Prop. 22) was passed in 2000. They finally reached a consensus that they wanted to have marriage in place by 2010.
And then we had a debate about that word - marriage. What's in a word? If we just do domestic partners, it not the same. We'll make it the same. We'll give all the rights and responsibilities of marriage - but we'll call it something else. We just won't call it marriage. We actually had that very spirited debate. And we decided introduce, not only the bill on domestic partnerships but a pilot bill, a spot bill, about marriage to get the discussion going.
Words can be very powerful. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and woman are created equal.' Powerful, powerful words. And yet if you think about our history, there were times when people had a similar debate. There's a swimming pool for black people and swimming pool for white people and everybody gets to swim, one way or the other. So it's separate but it's equal. And there are drinking fountains and rest rooms over here for colored people and drinking fountains over there for white people and here in Los Angeles, there were drinking fountains for Mexicans and in San Francisco, there were drinking fountains for Chinese - but everybody got to drink water. And it was separate but equal.
But eventually that couldn't stand up against the words 'We hold these truths to be self-evident - that all men and women are created equal.' And they tumbled....
So as gay and lesbian people - could we really have sat with domestic partnership? Or would we have reached the same conclusion that that flew in the face of those words in the documents of our Founding Mothers and Fathers? Thomas Jefferson: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. You've got your freedom to marry. You've got your liberty. Eternal vigilance is what it's going to take to keep it.
And sometimes I wake up and think - after all we've been through - fighting the Briggs Initiative in '78 so gay teachers could stay in the classroom, three AIDS initiative in the 1980s that would have quarantined HIV-positive people, fighting the US military, fighting the White House, fighting the Congress, fighting in 49 capitols - do we really have to fight for this one word - marriage?
Haven't we suffered enough? That's a Catholic and Jewish thing. And there's another saying about suffering" 'in suffering you rejoice because suffering produces endurance for decades.' And endurance for decades produces character. And character produces hope. And hope never disappoints.
And that's where we now find ourselves. We have to rise up once again - and the question has risen: who is the patriot and who is the scoundrel in a debate over Prop 8? Who is on the side of 'These truths we hold to be self evident?'
We're not inspired by rabid fundamentalists, who've adopted mores and culture 2000 years ago on the other side of the planet. We're inspired by those words: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.' 'We hold these truths to be self-evident - that all men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator certain inalienable rights - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Got it. And now these words: 'That you love one another, to honor and to keep you in adversity and prosperity, in sickness and in health and love one another until death do you part - and under the authority of the laws of the great state of California, I now pronounce you legally married.'
Words do matter, after all.
And, having roused an already energized crowd, Duran declared that he wanted to raise one million dollars in ten minutes. There was a smattering of applause - but mostly dropped jaws.
And then Kors donated $500,000 - bringing EQCA's contribution to the No on 8 campaign (formerly known as Equality for All) to $2,250,000 so far.
And then Duran called on Sal Rosselli, President of SEIU - United Healthcare Workers/West - who also donated $500,000.
I spoke with Rosselli before the show.
UHW is absolutely involved in fighting Prop. 8. We have 22 offices around the state, 400 staff, 150,000 members and it's an absolute priority. It's a fundamental civil rights issue, from our point of view. But bigger than that, we're part of SEIU and ...we're challenging our national union in Washington DC to match [their] $500,000 [contribution]. And one step up from that - two weeks ago, the California Labor Federation Convention - and this is historic because it was without dissent - voted to join this campaign. So we're going to do an educational campaign with 2 million union members and their families throughout the state about this fundamental civil rights issue.
David Sanchez from the California Teachers Association donated $250,000 - and the contributions started pouring in. Duran cut off the fundraising drive after 15 minutes.
When he took the stage, Newsom said he was stunned at the way and ease with which the money was raised, joking that he would now have to re-think his fundraising operation.
Newsom spoke without prepared remarks, which created a very easy, casual atmosphere despite the cavernous venue. He thanked everyone "from the bottom of my heart," adding, "I got married 7 days ago - so this is very fresh in my mind what's at stake this November and what we've tried to do for decades, for a lifetime. It's an extraordinary gift to be a participant."
Newsom talked about all the couples he'd met - many in long relationships who never dreamt they would have the opportunity to legally marry. One couple moved him to tears.
They'd been together for 15 years and one of them literally has weeks to live. She was in a wheelchair and she had a breathing apparatus and she could barely speak. And she was on all kinds of medications - so much so she could barely put her ring on - they had to place it around her neck. And at the end of the ceremony - one I conducted - it took about 20 minutes because I had to stop so many times because I could barely get through it.
And at the end, her father comes up to me and he is of Japanese descent. And he said, 'I never thought that this would happen.' And I said, 'I appreciate that. Thank you for being here. This is an extraordinary gift to be able to share with your daughter this moment.' And he says, 'No no, for another reason.' And he started to tell me about his life story and his mother's journey from Japan and his father from South Dakota. And how they were denied the ability to get married. And here he was - having all his life never having had that capacity to celebrate something so many of us take for granted, and he thought he would lose that opportunity with his daughter.
And here he was - a bookend of history. In 1967, 16 states denied interracial marriage. On the basis of someone's skin color, it was said you can't get married. And here was his daughter who was denied the same, except for that extraordinary moment - the time we're experiencing today.
And I was reflecting on that to Jen...the one thing I'm starting to understand now more than ever is you cannot force love upon someone else. And when you find it, it's something to celebrate. It's something to embrace, something to cherish. That's what it's all about. It's about love. It's about life. It's about all of us as human beings. It's about human dignity. It's about self-worth. It's about the capacity to see and receive things that for so many generations, folks have simply taken for granted....
When Kate comes out and says what an extraordinary thing we did in 2004 - and she said I did the right thing - what does that say? That in this day and age, it's an extraordinary thing for someone to do the right thing. When I listen to Geoff eloquently explain some of the history of those that believe it's too much too soon too fast - separate but not equal...that history - to be honest with you...I don't buy it anymore. It just doesn't work anymore....
But this is a moment in time...This is it. And I'm learning this - millions of people around the world are counting on you. This is a big deal. Not just for folks living out in California or for that matter, across this country - but around he world. I was stunned when someone told me the King of Cambodia was watching CNN and started seeing images of gay couples getting married and realized he could do something about it and did.
And then later to find out that one of the reasons beyond the images is that he now realized he could. Because someone else somewhere else is doing it. That's the quality of imagination. The expectation that we could be so much more and do so much more and that's what's at stake. It's the capacity for people to believe. It's so fundamental but it's so profoundly important because it transcends this issue. If we can do this - in our lifetimes - if we can succeed in this effort - imagine what else we're capable of doing?
But while the tempo was upbeat about the prospect of defeating Prop. 8, many were only cautiously optimistic. Craig Zadan, who along with his co-producer Neil Meron is up for an Emmy for their made-for-TV production of "A Raisin in the Sun," told me he is nervous about the American electorate.
I'm hopeful [about the defeat of Prop 8], but at the same time, I'm nervous. The same way I'm nervous about [Democratic presidential candidate Barack] Obama. I'm hopeful about Obama, but I'm nervous. I feel like the country is so strange right now and I feel that nothing is for certain. So you cannot stop fighting...we should continue the battle right till the very end with everything we possibly can.
[The slim difference between Obama and Republican rival John McCain in the polls] shows the racism in this country. There's no way - with what Obama has accomplished so far and how McCain has faltered and the Republicans don't even like him - the fact that it's so close. It has to be that a lot of white males will not vote for a black candidate. So I think it's about racism.
But it's terrifying. I've read so much that shows that this next four years is going to determine everything for the rest of our lives and if McCain gets elected, and it becomes four more years of George Bush - I just don't even know what to do. I feel like I want to move to Canada...Here's our chance to do something new and fresh and change the world - and if that doesn't happen, the ramifications of that are beyond belief.
But for the most part, the night belonged to love - especially to those just married, or just about to be married - such as Entertainment Tonight Co-Executive Producer Brad Bessey and his husband-to-be, Frank Sanchez, with whom he has a 7-½ month old son. Bessey told me:
Whoever thought we would ever have that opportunity....For us, family is everything. We've done a lot in our families - to come out with our families, to bringing our families together - they love us, they embrace us - so our wedding will be just with our immediate family and we'll have a very special day with our son.
Our on-going joke is that we're making honest men of our son's fathers. It means the world for us. To be able to have our civil rights with a spiritual connection, to be able to have our relationship honored in a way that we honor it. I don't need anyone to put a stamp of approval on it, but the fact that we can stand up and say, 'Hey we're here. We're Californians and we have the same rights as our heterosexual fellows - is something that I think is really, really important. So it means the world to us, actually.
Kors, who told me EQCA raised over $2 million that night, thought the evening symbolized the unity in the LGBT community.
I've never seen that kind of reaction in a room - I think we galvanized this community. This truly is our battle. This is truly our moment...We all go to these dinners - but I've not felt that kind of immediacy where we realized this is truly our battle. People are completely uplifted. We feel completely energized and unified as a community. This is one of the biggest battles we've ever had to fight. And if we win this - it's like watershed for the rest of the country. I'm just happy - this is a celebratory night.