Recently I had the honor of being asked to give the keynote address at the Gainesville Spirit of Pride Community Awards Dinner. The Pride Community Center of North Central Florida is a marvelous organization doing amazing and important work.
A friend asked that I post the speech online, and the Everblog seemed like a perfect venue.
2014 Gainesville Spirit of Pride Community Awards Dinner Keynote Address
Thank you Pegeen. Terry, thank you for inviting me. I’m honored to be a part of this gathering. When Terry called to ask me to do this I turned to my wife Gillian and said, “Terry Fleming needs me to give a speech. Do you think I can talk for ten or fifteen minutes?” She rolled her eyes and said, “The question is, can you ONLY talk for ten or fifteen minutes?” She did later assure me that it was entirely possible I could be moderately entertaining and engaging for a solid ten minutes.
The Gainesville community offers almost as many award dinners and events as there are weekends to host them, but the Pride Awards Dinner is easily and consistently among the most positive, welcoming and fun events on the calendar. I was here last year as a candidate for county commission. Running for office is a remarkable experience. It teaches you things about yourself and the people close to you. It brings you closer to the community.
I would recommend running for office to anyone.
I would not recommend LOSING, but running? Yeah, that’s something you should all experience.
When you run for office people say all sorts of odd things to you. People who are otherwise calm and well-mannered will say the strangest things just to see how you react. A person cornered me one night after I gave a talk about the virtues of progressive politics and said to me, “You people – and you always know it’s going to be fun when the sentence begins with “YOU PEOPLE” – You people talk a lot about being “progressive.” What progress have y’all actually made?”
I mumbled through some unsatisfying response about how being progressive is better than being regressive or something like that.
I WISH my response had been, “Yeah, we DO talk about progress a lot. Let me tell you about the progress we’ve made.”
Since I didn’t think quickly enough that night, let me share my idea of progress with you all here tonight. When you’re standing in the middle of progress it’s hard to see it sometimes. So let’s take a bird’s eye view of what progress looks like right here in Alachua County. Before we start, I want to be clear that in each of the areas I’m going to talk about we have a loooong way to go, but people just like us have made a lot of progress already. It’s important that we celebrate just how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.
First let’s talk about women’s rights. Last year I did some research and read a few old family tax records. A hundred years ago my great grandmother was raising six children as a widowed single mom. For more than a decade she ran a farm out near Orange Heights, brought produce to market here in Gainesville, paid her taxes – she was a classic “job creator.” But you know what she couldn’t do for most of that time? Vote.
The official government signature on all the tax forms and other documents she kept – and she kept a lot of them – was always a man’s signature.
If you’ve heard me speak before, you know I can’t go more than a few minutes without talking about my three sprightly daughters. They’re growing up in an entirely different world than my great grandmother lived in. Not only will they be able to vote in a few years, but the Supervisor of Elections who will register them to vote is a woman. In their short lives they’ve known a woman Mayor. Women on the county commission, women in the legislature, the congress. Their mother chairs a department at UF. Their priest, their doctor, the principal at their school, all women. Almost all their authority figures are women. I’m not entirely sure they see me as an authority figure.
That’s what progress looks like.
But let me tell you another way my daughters are not like my great grandmother: If any of my daughters has six children, it will be because she CHOOSES to have six children. Their lives belong to them. THAT is what progress looks like.
Let’s talk about the rights of African Americans. My generation is the first in Alachua County that did not experience segregation. The first. Ever. In history. We gloss over that too easily and too often.
Have you ever tried to explain segregation? I’ve had those conversations with my kids, and it’s nothing less than surreal. Segregation doesn’t just mean you go to a different school on different bus than the kid who lives on the other side of Waldo Road. It means the law says he can’t sit down at a table with you in a restaurant. It means you get to use the good restroom – the one inside the gas station – and he has to use the outhouse. It means your family gets to stop at a motel – any motel – on your vacation – but his family had better plan to drive all night, straight through.
It’s nearly impossible to explain that or to wrap your head around it today, but it wasn’t that long ago. How did we – AMERICANS – ever think this was “normal” or any sort of “OK?”
But you know what? In the Gainesville Sun this morning I saw a picture of the president of the United States. Turns out, he’s black. The congressional representative and the state representative for the districts where we had dinner tonight? they’re black.
Again, we’re just a few years removed from a time when black children and white children had to attend different schools … but the guy in the big office across the street, the new superintendent of Alachua County schools? He’s black.
That, my friends, is what progress looks like.
Now let’s talk about the kind of progress that brings us together tonight. Stop for a moment and try to imagine an event like this one tonight happening in the 1970’s.
Good luck with that.
There’s no one in this room tonight who doesn’t understand that progress for LGBT rights is just getting started. The painful thing about the struggle faced by this community is that it is at once the least obvious and the most basic of all human rights struggles. The idea that anyone could be penalized for being themselves and for finding someone to love seems like the most un-American thing I can imagine. After all, our founding document talks about “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
How was it possible that the American people and our government could turn a blind eye to a modern plague for so long only because it was a “gay disease?” How is it possible that it was alright for police in so many cities to regularly beat and abuse men and women for having the audacity to be themselves?
The history of abuse of the LGBT community is only now becoming a part of our national dialogue. Most of America has no idea of this history at all.
But that’s changing.
Forty-five years ago if you said “Stonewall” in Gainesville people would assume you were talking about the Civil War. Twenty years ago if you used the phrase “LGBT” in regular conversation someone might have assumed you had some sort of speech impediment.
But here we are together this evening, gay and straight, enjoying dinner and conversation. Publicly. Proudly. That’s what progress looks like.
You know, I love weddings. I almost always tear up a little. I really like being married and I heartily endorse the institution. And I can’t WAIT to start getting wedding invitations from a whole lot of people in this room. THAT is what I mean when I talk about “progress.”
Now. As I said earlier, I fully realize that while we have all made progress, we are a long way from any mountaintop:
Women still only earn about three-quarters as much as men who do the same work;
Young black men are targeted and threatened more often than they are protected and served;
My LGBT sisters and brothers can still be fired and denied housing in many places just for being themselves.
Here’s the thing about progress: Frederick Douglass said more than a century and a half ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Power. Concedes. Nothing.
And that’s what progress is. It is the methodical removal of power, inch by bloody inch, from a small old guard and the redistribution of that power to We The People.
All the progress I’ve talked about happened because people who came before us – and some of us – demanded concessions. Any progress we will make together in the future will only happen as we DEMAND concessions.
And make no mistake, that “old guard” is working hard to take its power back. Most of the progress we take for granted can disappear in only a few election cycles. There are people right now fighting – and in many cases succeeding – to drastically reduce access to abortion and contraception. There are people making it harder for African Americans to vote. We have an attorney general in this state who loves the sanctity of marriage so much that she’s tried it three times, and she’s doing everything she can to keep people in this room from trying it once.
I know this is not a political event. I’m not going to make anyone uncomfortable by suggesting who you should or should not vote for.
I want to remind you that progress depends on YOU taking great care with YOUR ballot. I want to remind you that you have options, from the governor’s mansion to the county commission chambers. You can choose progress or you can choose to empower the old guard to take back everything progressives have been sweating and bleeding for your whole life.
I trust the people in this room to make good choices.
It’s always a pleasure to be with you all, and it’s been my honor to speak to you this evening.
The prepared comments above are pretty close to what actually happened. Here’s an iPhone record of the events as they transpired. It’s not a professional recording, so don’t expect it to be 🙂
Thanks for reading, as always!