Metro Weekly

Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris urge HRC dinner attendees to continue the fight for equality

HRC uses dinner to cement itself as the LGBTQ leader of the resistance to Trump administration policies

Hillary Clinton at the 2017 HRC National Dinner – Photo: Ward Morrison 

Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged an audience of more than 3,600 at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner to speak out against the Trump administration’s major policy priorities, in particular attempts to erode progress on LGBTQ equality.

After being introduced by tennis legend and LGBTQ activist Billie Jean King at the annual black-tie affair, held on Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C., Clinton took to the stage amid a thunderous, minute-long standing ovation. The former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State equated her feelings of disappointment at her own loss to Donald Trump in last year’s election to the frustration and sadness felt by many LGBTQ people who have been disillusioned by the administration’s actions since Trump took office in January.

“Everybody gets knocked down,” she said. “We need to share our best experiences, and how we get back up.”

Clinton took direct aim at the Trump administration’s major domestic policy priorities, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the so-called “tax reform” bill being pushed through Congress — which, she noted, makes drastic cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in the name of giving well-to-do Americans tax relief — and the administration’s push for a ban on transgender service members. 

She also highlighted the U.S. government’s relative silence when it comes to denouncing the criminalization, abuse, and even execution of LGBTQ individuals in other nations, saying Americans should not be “shirking our responsibility in defending the human rights of LGBT people around the world.” In particular, she criticized the Trump administration’s refusal to vote for a resolution condemning the use of the death penalty to punish consensual same-sex relations. (The State Department later clarified that it voted against the resolution because of the administration’s support for the death penalty, and concerns that the resolution would be interpreted as a condemnation of capital punishment.)

Clinton said it was apparent that LGBTQ Americans cannot trust the Trump administration, or even the Supreme Court, to protect their rights, calling for passage of federal nondiscrimination protections. She attacked the Department of Justice’s support for laws that give people license to discriminate, condemned conversion therapy, and called out anti-LGBTQ statements made by Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore that indicate a willingness to entertain ideas that homosexuality should be criminalized or that LGBTQ people should be executed if they engage in same-sex activity.

“We have to stay engaged at every level,” said Clinton. “It is just wrong that in 2017 you can lose your job, or lose your home, or, if this administration gets its way, be denied a wedding cake simply because of who or who you love. And the laws that we’re seeing in places like North Carolina and Mississippi that give states and businesses a license to discriminate underscore how urgent this is.”

HRC’s choice of Clinton as a speaker, as well as of Gold Star father and frequent Trump critic Khizr Khan and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a rising star in the Democratic Party famous for her grilling of Attorney General Jeff Sessions at his confirmation hearing, tied into the evening’s overall theme of resisting the Trump administration’s actions at every turn. These efforts signaled a willingness by the Human Rights Campaign to establish itself as one of the leaders of the resistance to the White House, stepping into a role that, in prior years, would have been filled by the national Democratic Party.

HRC President Chad Griffin left no doubt where the organization’s priorities lie in the near future, raising the specter of flipping the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections and defeating Trump when he runs for re-election in 2020.

He pointed to the defeat of attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the decision of Trump Army Secretary nominee Mark Green to withdraw his nomination following outcry over past anti-LGBTQ statement, and the defeat of Gov. Pat McCrory (R-N.C.), best known for signing North Carolina’s controversial HB 2 measure into law, in last year’s election as evidence that the resistance is working.

“Living through this moment [in history] can be truly exhausting,” Griffin said. “Every time we think this president can’t get any more erratic, that his words can’t get any more repugnant, like clockwork, a news alert lights up on our phones to prove us all wrong again.

“It’s tempting to want to simply give up, tune out, and turn it all off. But you know what? That’s exactly what Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and the entire cabinet of deplorables are hoping we’ll do. They want us to stop paying attention long enough to implement their bigoted blueprint for America. But we can’t give in. We can’t grow complacent, we can’t back down, and together we’ve got to hold Donald Trump’s tiny little hands to the fire every single day!”

Sen. Kamala Harris at the 2017 HRC National Dinner – Photo: Ward Morrison

Kamala Harris, whose name is often floated as a potential presidential contender for 2020, emphasized the importance of resisting what she called Trump’s “assault” on the founding principles of America. 

“We are at an inflection point in the history of our country,” she said. “I believe this is a moment where our country is witnessing an assault on our deepest values and ideals, where people don’t trust our government, its institutions, or leaders. So to restore that trust, we must speak truth, even when it makes people uncomfortable. Even when others are silent.

“Let’s tell the truth: from the United States Congress, to the United States Census, LGBT rights are under attack. Under attack by a Justice Department that now stands on the side of discrimination instead of equality. Under attack by a Senate nominee who thinks homosexuality should be illegal, and a judicial nominee who says transgender children are proof of Satan’s plan. Under attack by a commander-in-chief who wants to ban transgender troops who are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend our country.”

Harris pointed out that Americans have much more in common than what separates them and that those fighting for LGBTQ rights must also stand up for other communities under attack by fighting for issues such as racial justice, the protection of religious minorities, and women’s rights.

“Fighting for everyone’s civil rights is in our common interest, and in our self-interest,” she said. “No one should be left to fight alone. No one should have to hide — not in the closets, and not in the shadows.”

She characterized the fight for greater equality as not only worthwhile, but patriotic.

“This fight is about love of country. This fight is patriotic. I believe there are two definitions of what it means to be a patriot. One is those who condone the conduct of their country, whatever it does. The other is the kind I believe us all to be: the kind that fights each and every day for the ideals of our country, the ideals behind the Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights…. Let us rededicate ourselves to each other, and to our country, and let’s continue getting to work on fighting.”

Despite Harris’s call for working in coalition with other marginalized groups, HRC received criticism from a group of transgender and queer activists affiliated with No Justice No Pride, the Trans Woman of Color Collective, and GetEqual, who primarily objected to the organization’s partnership with Wells Fargo. The activist decried the bank’s investments in private prisons, its predatory lending practices, and its major financing of projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline, which desecrates Native American land.

A number of the activists, dressed as zombies to “reflect the horror done by HRC partnering with a monster like Wells Fargo,” used bike locks and PVC pipes to block the two main entrances to the convention center. They called on HRC to cut ties with Wells Fargo, until the banking giant stops funding pipelines and prisons.

“HRC’s blatant refusal to divest from Wells Fargo is evidence of what Black trans women like myself have known for years: HRC has never prioritized the experiences, voices, leadership or needs of those most disproportionately impacted by state-sanctioned violence and often pursues its capitalist goals at our expense,” Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the Trans Woman of Color Collective and one of the protesters, said in a statement.

A spokesman for HRC was not immediately available for comment. A spokesperson for No Justice No Pride did not return a request for comment by deadline.

Despite the protest,  speakers at the dinner chose to emphasize the positive progress that the LGBTQ community has enjoyed, even in spite of the current political landscape.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos at the 2017 HRC National Dinner – Photo: Ward Morrison

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, received HRC’s Equality Award for his advocacy of LGBTQ rights, and his $2.5 million donation to Washington State’s 2012 marriage equality referendum. In his acceptance speech, Bezos reiterated his company’s commitment to LGBTQ rights, something that has been questioned as Amazon seeks out a new city where it can set up its second headquarters. Some of those potential new homes for “Amazon HQ2” include cities in LGBTQ-hostile states like Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas, where legislators are threatening to force through an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in 2019.

“We want our employees, and the communities where we operate, that we’re all human, we’re all different, and we’re all equal,” Bezos said. “At Amazon, equality is a core value for us, and it’s simply right.”

HRC’s 21st Annual National Dinner — Photo: Ward Morrison

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com