It is an honor to be here to accept this award named for a true pioneer and leader in the gay and lesbian movement, Sheldon Andelson. I first met Sheldon in 1983; right about the same time that I met my former lover, the late Rand Schrader. Sheldon was Rand's friend and mentor, and it was Sheldon who was responsible for securing through Governor Jerry Brown the appointment of California's first two openly gay judges, Rand Schrader and Steve Lachs. Sheldon was a leader in so many ways – a prominent and successful lawyer, banker, entrepreneur, and community activist.
When Sheldon died of AIDS in January 1988, I was in the audience at Royce Hall at UCLA, listening to my beloved Randy deliver a moving and stirring eulogy. Randy spoke with conviction and power, quoting Sheldon exhorting our community to activism – “Aren't we good enough? Haven't we suffered, enough? Are gay people – men and women – not as worthy of self-respect and power, as others?”
Sheldon's words are as meaningful and important today as they were twelve and a half years ago. Our challenge as individuals, and our collective challenge as a community, is to see ourselves worthy of the same rights and privileges as others.
I was recently involved with the 'No on Knight' effort here in California, trying to beat back and defeat Proposition 22, the so-called 'Limitation on Marriage' initiative. The proposition was only fourteen words long, and it was deceptively simple, stating 'Only a marriage between a man and a woman shall be recognized in California'. Both sides, for and against Proposition 22, put up a good fight and raised lots of money, mounting expensive television advertising campaigns and securing endorsements in favor of their respective positions. And, in the end, when the votes were counted on March 7th, Prop 22 had passed by a margin of 60% in favor and 40% against, effectively banning same sex marriage in the State of California.
I've thought a lot about what happened with Proposition 22. I've wondered, “Where did we go wrong? Would more money have helped? Why weren't our endorsements more effective?” And, more than once, I've wondered, “What would Randy and Sheldon have done? How would they have handled this challenge?”. I'm not sure that I know the answer to that question, but I do know that we as a community, and as a lesbian and gay political movement, compromised ourselves in the fight against Proposition 22. We compromised ourselves by losing sight of Sheldon's message of self-esteem and self-respect. We failed to convince our political leaders that we needed their help to send a clear, unqualified and unambiguous message that said “this initiative is divisive and mean spirited, and we must secure equal rights for all our citizens, regardless of sexual orientation”
Instead, in our efforts to secure endorsements against Prop 22, we settled for too little, we compromised too much, and we, as a powerful political force in this state and this country, backed down. Here some examples of the compromised endorsements we accepted from the Democratic leadership in our state – “I have always opposed same sex marriage, and I also oppose wedge-issue politics like Prop 22 that have divided one Californian from another”, and “You don't need to support marriage for gay and lesbian couples to oppose Prop 22”, and also “Whether we think homosexuality is right or wrong, we should stay out of other people's private lives and let people make their own decisions about moral values and commitments”.
Now, I ask you, how clear and decisive are these positions? What kind of message do they send to our community, and to the electorate? I'll tell you. The qualification, compromise and ambiguity in these endorsements don't really help us at all, and in fact, in the end, they may have done more harm than good. I think what most citizens, including lesbian and gay citizens, heard in these words is that our political leaders don't believe that lesbians and gay men in a committed relationship deserve the same rights and privileges as others, that lesbians and gay men are not worthy of uncompromising, unequivocal, equal treatment.
If we are to achieve full equality as lesbians and gay men, we must not compromise our mission and our vision for the sake of political expediency or for the sake of the comfort of others. Yes, it is hard to take a courageous and definitive stand, and, yes, our own community is not always united on every issue. But when it comes to basic rights and freedoms, it is just as wrong to compromise who we are and what we believe in, as it is wrong for our adversaries to deny us equality.
Let us remember the words and the leadership of Sheldon and those that have come before us and continue our fight for our full and equal treatment. I am very grateful for this award, and pledge to you that I will fight with all my might and all my resources to secure a future of full and equal treatment for lesbians, gay men, and all oppressed minorities in our society.
Thank you very much.