The party atmosphere at the Riviera Palm Springs for the Equality Awards on Oct 7 shifted subtly into more of a political rally as the almost sold-out crowd bubbled with enthusiasm waiting for kick-ass Democratic Congress member Maxine Waters to rile the crowd into action.
Palm Springs City Council member Ginny Foat was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, which her longtime friend Waters emphasized Foat deserved. The two knew each other from back in the day, working with Bayard Rustin on the iconic March on Washington and pushing Bella Abzug to the fore when they were marching for women’s rights. Foat, Waters said, “has given her life to service.”
Greeted by shouts of “we love you!,” Foat talked about working on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the summer of 1963. “How could I have known at the time that working along side Bayard Rustin in the New York organizing committee would make an impression that lasted throughout my lifetime and impacted the lives of so many others,” she said. “I’ve been so fortunate to stand at times in our history that have made a difference in all of our lives.”
She worked on a number of marches, including the Oct. 11, 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (see video excerpt here) and subsequently, with “our dearly departed icon Jean O’Leary and Rob Eichberg to help plan the first National Coming Out Day,” Foat said. “Something I inherently always understood was that one has only as much freedom as has been given to everyone else.”
Foat, who has announced she is not seeking re-election, urged the crowd to get politically involved, especially now with “this violent pretender in the White House.”
“No matter how small or insignificant you think a decision is that you make, you take a stand and fight for what you think is right, do it because only you can change the world,” Foat said. “I will not stand by as my transgender brothers and sisters are discriminated against” or as Trump takes away a woman’s right to make reproductive choices.
“So when you get that call from Equality California – answer it. Or picket or march or phone bank. Do it,” she said. “Know that now, more than ever, we cannot allow these right wing bigots running our country to take away the freedoms that we have worked so hard to achieve.”
Palm Springs City Councilmember Geoff Kors, former executive director of Equality California, and current executive director Rick Zbur, and Kors’ husband James Williamson, member of the Palm Springs School Board hosted the evening, along with event co-chairs Jacqueline Lopez, District Director for State Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and Elizabeth F. Romero. Member of the Riverside County Board of Education.
Among the elected officials at the event were Rep. Mark Takano and several members of the LGBT Legislative Caucus, including Caucus chair Assemblymember Evan Low, State Sen. Scott Wiener and Cathleen Galgiani.
Raymond Cree Middle School was also honored with the Equality For All Award for its anti-bullying programs. Principal Bernie Marez accepted and some of the students joined several members of the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus for a song.
Both Kors and Zbur announced the good news that, thanks to a progressive Democratic-controlled State Legislature, and the stunning work of State Sen. Scott Wiener, in particular, Gov. Jerry Brown has signed 15 EQCA-sponsored bills, including controversial bills decriminalizing HIV, and reforming the sex offender registry to take off gays arrested years ago for simply holding hands in the park. Brown also signed SB 219, a “Bill of Rights” for LGBT seniors who now no longer have to worry about being placed by a long term care facility in a room with a homophobe or transphobe.
Trump’s election, Zbur said, underscores the old adage that “elections matter,” as evidenced by the fact that LGBTs are “now in the fight of our lives.”
Indeed, the national Democratic Party is looking to unseat at least seven Republican incumbents to take back the House while Republicans are trying to unset Democrats they believe are vulnerable, including Rep. Raul Ruiz. Kors described Ruiz as “a champion for our causes.” On Thursday, Trump supporter and soap opera actress Kimberlin Brown announced she is challenging Ruiz.
Also on hand was Katie Porter who is challenging the vulnerable GOP Rep. Mimi Walters. “She is a supporter of Trump’s hateful agenda. She is anti-woman, anti-family and anti-environment,” Porter tells the LA Blade about Walters. “I have spent my whole career fighting for families. I’m a single working mom myself. I understand how hard it is for families to make ends meet and to get along and to take care of each other.”
Though the Palm Springs/Riverside County area has long been considered a conservative/moderate Republican stronghold, some districts are trending Democratic. The commonality of being constantly under threat of having civil rights ignored or taken away may be one reason the room felt almost intimate, as if folks were at a family gathering. It may also explain, along with Equality California’s strong commitment to interesectionality, why so many people of color were so welcomed by the predominately white crowd.
And then there was Maxine Waters. While enthusiastic or politely attentive for every comment and honoree, the underground pulse of the room was building up to the black-tie and gown rally awaiting “Auntie Maxine.” Besieged LGBT politicos needed a cheerleader and Waters stoked their burning embers.
Waters has been an LGBT ally for decades and her comfort with the crowd felt like a family reunion with long-lost kin. In remarks upon receiving the Geoff Kors Leadership Award, she joked and cajoled and inspired in a fashion also intended to be supportive of a minority community under siege by the Trump administration. “I reclaim my time” became an anthem, as she and the mostly older audience laughed at how Waters did not take any guff from former Hollywood producer Sec. Steve Mnuchin who tried to stall until her time ran out during a House Financial Services committee hearing in July. She was trying to find out why he hadn’t responded to a May letter asking him about financial connections to Russia by President Trump.
Waters mentioned the encounter, then said to uproarious applause: “You haven’t seen anything yet until I get Ben Carson before me. And Betsy DeVoss and Wilbur Ross. I have never seen so many incompetent folks in a cabinet of any president before in my entire life and career. And we’re about to get rid of all of them.”
Waters also noted how important the dramatic shift from an historically pro-LGBT administration to one that is trying to block “patriotic” transgender servicemembers from serving in the Armed Forces must be a shock.
“You have wonderful leaders. You should be extremely proud. You have fought a tremendous battle. You have changed America. Do you realize what you have done?,” she asked. “We know there is still work to be done. But you know, I’m convinced that we can win. There are evenings when I go to bed and I feel quite disgusted in Washington DC, faced with what we’re faced with now. But one good night’s sleep and I’m ready to go at it again.”
She reminded the crowd that early on “I called for impeachment of the President of the United States of America. Not only did I call for it, I’m going to work every day until it gets done,” Waters said. “Countries around the world are looking at us and saying what happened in America? How can it be that Donald Trump is President of the United States of America? And I think many of you wake up every morning saying the same thing. How could it be?”
Using a term that was applauded by Democrats but got Trump opponent Hillary Clinton in trouble, Waters said Trump is “the most deplorable, most despicable human being I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anything like it and I am determined to make sure that this Congress moves aggressively toward impeachment.”
She noted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is gathering more and more information each day “connecting the dots” and “tracking down more and more” about Trump’s connections to Russia, and what Waters believes is “collusion” between Trump and Russian officials to orchestrate the outcome of the 2016 election.
“I am so offended by this president,” Waters said, talking about his vile attitudes towards women during the campaign and how he tried to intimidate Clinton during the debate in St. Louis. She was so offended, “I was determined that I would have nothing to do with him—that I would not try and pretend that somehow he was going to become ‘presidential.’ That will never happen.”
But offense is now deep concern, watching how Trump is reacting to spats with anyone who disagrees with him. “We cannot help but be concerned about the danger that he is presenting to all of us and to this nation,” she said, referring to his threatening North Korea. “And that will only get us into confrontation and war. And I believe we all have to stand up and speak out, tweet, go on Facebook, do everything that you possibly can to discourage that kind of bluffing.”
Water also spoke directly to the LGBT struggle. “Many of you have paid a terrible price for freedom,” she said, “for being able to live a decent quality of life. Many of you have believed in this democracy, despite the fact that democracy didn’t treat you too well. Many of you woke up every morning not knowing what was going to happen to you in the workplace. And many of you have had to go to bed at night with tears in your eyes because of he lack of equality.”
Water’s message: don’t give up. “Some Democrats says it’s too soon (to talk impeachment). It’s never too soon for justice and equality,” she said. “I honor you and the work you’re doing. Let’s keep up the fight. Let’s stay in it. Let’s understand that we all owe it to ourselves to make sure that America lives up to its promises.”