Sometimes a turning point must be forced, a crowbar jammed into the stuck gears of history to get progress going again. At other times, a change may be underway with no discernible clues to pinpoint the transformation, except perhaps a subtle shared feeling. That was the sensation during the Human Rights Campaign’s March 18 gala in Los Angeles, at which singer/activist Katy Perry and actress/activist America Ferrera were honored as LGBT allies.
The main ballroom at JW Marriott L.A. Live was filled to capacity. But the setting was decidedly no-frills and instead of the usual A-Gay air kisses and preening competition, the atmosphere was warm with appreciative camaraderie and a kind of pervasive humility, a knowing community gathering before an ugly storm. The still shell-shocked LGBT checkbook activists and allies are terrified that Donald J. Trump will strip away hard-won rights in the blink of a right-winger’s eye. It’s happened before, when Prop 8 repealed the constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples in 2008. Everyone wanted to “do something” to stop the madness.
Former vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine roused the crowd, as did HRC President Chad Griffin, former L.A. Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. The transgender community was visible, starting with HRC LA Dinner Co-chair Jessica Bair, born in Utah to a Mormon family, who now holds a senior management position in cybersecurity at Cisco. HRC Board member Ashley Thomas, who’d flown in from Austin, Texas, said she felt “physically sick with fear” after the election. “Everything we’ve achieved—everything is in jeopardy,” she said. “Their hate is historic and very real. To be honest, this is bullshit.”
The audience felt that, too, flexing their checkbook activist muscle for the HRC Super Pac, which is targeting six Republicans who had been reelected by slim margins in districts won by Hillary Clinton, including anti-LGBT Rep. Darrell Issa. $102,477 was raised in under five minutes.
Then came another almost imperceptible moment: gay men fully embraced the power of women, something HRC has quietly done for ages, says longtime HRC board member Gwen Baba.
“We’re a little bit of everybody. We reflect the LGBT community,” says Baba. “But Chad is surrounded by strong women at HRC.”
Lena Dunham, actor, writer, director, creator and star of HBO’s groundbreaking feminist series “Girls,” was heartily cheered when she came onstage to introduce her best friend, “Ugly Betty” and “Superstore” star America Ferrera. “It feels nice to hear the initials HRC,” Dunham joked, referencing Hillary Rodham Clinton. HRC had been a big and early backer of HRC.
Dunham shared how the two spent election night together until Dunham went home. “America stayed. She was determined to be a part of history.” The next morning, “through tears, she told me and she told our friends that we could not stop fighting. And America’s friends would do anything for her and so we won’t.”
It felt as if Dunham was talking about America her friend and America her country.
Ferrera didn’t bounce out like a cheerleader. She seemed vulnerable as she accepted HRC’s Ally for Equality Award. She noted how “Superstore” “celebrates and values humor in the lives of black, brown, Asian and white people, undocumented, gay, disabled, born-again Christian and struggling teen mothers” and that such representation matters.
“I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of examples of short, brown, chubby, poor daughters of immigrant parents [who] grow up to be successful actresses and loud activists,” said Ferrera. But, “unlearning what culture has taught us about who we are or ought to be” can be changed “by claiming and living in our own power.”
Ferrera revealed she had been a lonely outsider, saved by her lesbian high school drama teacher, Sue Freitag, who was in the audience.
“In my senior year of high school, when I struggled with feelings of depression and isolation, she created a safe space for me,” the 32-year-old said. “I will never forget the first time she invited me to eat my cold pad Thai with her in the drama theater room. It was the first time that entire year I felt like I was gonna make it through high school. “
She still gets depressed. “Some days I feel tired and inadequate, incapable of making a dent,” Ferrera said. “There are days I would rather crawl under my bed with a box of Captain Crunch and all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek.”
But she reaches out. “It’s difficult to persist in light of attacks on our rights, in light of attacks on our communities’ physical safety, and in light of attacks on our spiritual well being,” Ferrera said, embracing the historic moment. “We are all being called to rise up to a level of consciousness and a level of action that we never imagined we would be called to. We are being called to stand together, to fight together, breathe together, rejuvenate together.”
Ferrera beamed. “Anything I’ve ever done on behalf of the LGBTQ community, I did in service to myself,” she said. “Anything I ever did for the rights of this community I did because I believe—with every fiber of my being—that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and in the liberation of my black brothers and sisters, and in the liberation of immigrants, and refugees, and Muslims, and sikhs, and women all over the world, and the incarcerated, and the criminalized, and the uneducated, and the poor, and the hungry, and, and, and, and, and.”
The room erupted in cheers. But the night was not done. Singer/activist Katy Perry was also revealing, suggesting she had been bi-curious growing up.
“I’m just a singer-songwriter, honestly. I speak my truths and I paint my fantasies into these little bite-size pop songs. For instance, ‘I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It.’ Truth be told, I did more than that,” she said. “But how was I going to reconcile that with the gospel singing girl raised in youth groups that were pro-conversion camps? What I did know is that I was curious, and even then, I knew that sexuality wasn’t as black and white as this dress.”
Perry acknowledged that she hasn’t “always gotten it right,” but she also knew that her 2008 hit “started a conversation and a lot of the world seemed curious enough to sing along to.”
Perry grew up on anti-gay Orange County-based televangelists. “My first words were ‘mama’ and ‘dada,’ ‘God’ and ‘Satan,'” Perry said. “Right and wrong were taught to me on felt boards and, of course, through the glamorous Jan Crouch crying diamond teardrops every night on that Vaseline-TBN television screen. When I was growing up, homosexuality was synonymous with the word ‘abomination’ and hell—a place of gnashing of teeth, continual burning of skin and probably Mike Pence’s ultimate guest list for a barbecue. No way! No way! I wanted the pearly gates and unlimited fro-yo toppings.”
The Crouches preached prayer. “Most of my unconscious adolescence, I prayed the gay away at my Jesus camps,” Perry revealed. “But then in the middle of it all, in a twist of events, I found my gift, and my gift introduced me to people outside of my bubble. My bubble started to burst.”
Perry befriended LGBT people, including her manager, Bradford Cobb, to whom she dedicated her award. “These people were nothing like I had been taught to fear,” Perry said. “They were the most free, strong, kind and inclusive people I have ever met. They stimulated my mind and they filled my heart with joy, and they freaking danced all the while doing it. These people are actually magic, and they are magic because they are living their truth. Oh, my goodness, what a revelation! And not the last chapter of the Bible!”
Perry choked up talking about Cobb, “one of the greatest champions of my life” for almost 15 years. “My life is rich in every capacity because of [LGBT people]. They are trusted allies that provide a safe space to fall, to not know it all and to make mistakes,” she said. “I hope I stand here as evidence for all that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it is about where you are going. Real change, real evolution and real perception shift can happen if we open our minds and soften our hearts. People can change — believe me.”
The LGBT community may need to believe and work on that to win over Trump voters before the 2018 elections.