“I know the election hit a lot of us hard,” Hillary Rodham Clinton told the crowd at this week’s Center Dinner in a drolly delivered bit of understatement.
After the knowing laughter subsided, the former secretary of state, who won last year’s presidential popular vote by nearly three million votes yet is not sitting in the Oval Office, added, “Even when it feels tempting to pull the covers over your head, please keep going, please remember those who came before us.”
Speaking to more than 900 guests of the LGBT Community Center gathered on April 20 amidst Cipriani Wall Street’s gilded elegance, Clinton then recalled the role of Larry Kramer and Peter Staley in ACT UP, marriage equality pioneers Edie Windsor and Jim Obergefell, and the surviving family members of hate crimes victims, including Matthew Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, in honoring activists “who fought for their families [and] never lost faith that justice would prevail; all the people who risked their jobs, their homes, even their lives to fight for the fundamental rights and dignity of all people. Because you marched, you organized, you brought lawsuits, you ran for office, we made progress.”
The challenge facing those activists, the crowd at Cipriani, and LGBTQ Americans generally, the 2016 Democratic standard bearer said, is that “we have to face the fact that we may never be able to count on this administration to lead on LGBT issues.” Instead, Donald Trump, Clinton argued, is at the helm of a brutal backlash.
“The progress we fought for and that many of you were on the front lines for and that we’ve celebrated and maybe even taken for granted may not be as secure as we once suspected,” she said. “When this administration rescinded protections for transgender students, my heart broke for all the parents who are advocating so fiercely for their child’s rights to live, learn, and go to school just like anybody else.”
Cuts to HIV/ AIDS research, prevention, and treatment, Clinton warned, threaten “all of our efforts to achieve an AIDS-free generation – and we were on the way.”
And, she noted, at times the Trump regime’s hostility is gratuitous.
“Each time this administration elevates an outspoken opponent of LGBT equality, sometimes in particularly cruel ways – like replacing the first openly gay secretary of the Army with someone who called being transgender a disease,” Clinton said, “I picture all of the joyful, beaming couples that I’ve met, on rope lines, backstage at rallies, at the Center, who were excited to get married, start a family, and begin their lives together.”
The issues at stake, she said, range from the LGBTQ community being counted in the federal Census to the future of the Supreme Court – and beyond the nation’s borders, as well.
“In recent weeks, we’ve heard terrifying accounts from Chechnya of gay and bisexual men being taken from their homes and families, tortured, and even killed,” Clinton said. “And when government authorities were confronted with these reports, their response was chilling. They said you cannot arrest or repress people who do not exist. The United States government, yes this government, should demand an end to the persecution of innocent people across the world.”
The enormity of the threats posed by the Trump administration, Clinton seemed to acknowledge, can at times be overwhelming.
“When you feel a little down, when a good friend or loved one says, ‘Quit yelling at the television set,’ just remember, we need to resist, insist, persist, and enlist and make sure our voices are heard,” she said toward the close of her 15-minute remarks. “Keep fighting together side by side for equality, and we’re going to make sure that nobody turns the clock back on what we have achieved as Americans.”
First and foremost on the agenda, Clinton reminded the crowd, are the 2018 midterm elections.
“We can never stop fighting,” she said. “We need to dedicate these next years, the next two years, the next four years, and beyond to supporting people and organizations that are advocating for the best of American values around the world, here at home, and we also have to win elections to make it clear where our country stands.”
With her audience repeatedly cheering her insistence they stay engaged, Clinton said, “I know this is a little like preaching to the choir. But that’s okay, I love standing ovations.”
But if the Center crowd rained love on Clinton, she in turn took care to praise the Center, noting its role as birthplace of ACT UP and recalling a tour there last year where she discovered a “beautiful welcoming space… a hub for LGBT rights in New York City but more than that a beacon of hope, a refuge for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in every corner of our country.”
Clinton also praised Center executive director Glennda Testone’s announcement at the dinner that it is launching a new “advocacy and mobilization program” to allow it “at a moment’s notice to inform and mobilize” the community on critical issues, an effort currently in the planning stage and about which more details will be available by June.
“This is the right step,” Clinton said of the new initiative. “This is absolutely essential that you do this.”
When she announced the new program earlier in the dinner, Testone told the crowd that three donors had each issued $25,000 matching challenge grants. Four more donors in the crowd immediately pledged $25,000 each – more than enough to redeem the challenge grants. Testone also elicited donor commitments from the crowd on hand for more than $100,000 to support the Center’s internship program and $15,000 to fund its free legal clinic evenings.
In her remarks, Testone argued that while the gains the community has made may be “fragile” given the new political climate, LGBTQ people themselves are “not fragile,” but are instead ready to “resist.”
All told, the event raised at least $1.75 million.
Among the evening’s other honorees was designer Marc Jacobs, who was introduced by filmmaker Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix” series, among many credits). Wachowski, in very personal and extended remarks, linked her gender transition of a decade ago to the way in which fashion serves to allow people to define themselves and their relationship to others.
The Center also honored Carmelyn P. Malalis, the out lesbian chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and Jan Siegmund, the out gay chief financial officer at ADP, the payroll and human resources management company.
Clinton was introduced by Arianna Huffington, who thanked the evening’s caterers for serving a meringue cake of sorts for desert, rather than chocolate, noting that chocolate cake has now “joined the long list of things Donald Trump has ruined.”
As part of the evening’s fundraising, Paddle8, the online auction house, is managing a benefit art sale ongoing through Monday, April 24. For complete details, visit https://paddle8.com/auction/lgbt-center/.