From enthusiastic political polemics to impassioned calls for GLBT activism to make its home both in the city and on the range, the stage at last weekend's National Gay an Lesbian Task Force awards dinner buzzed with energy as the group raised a couple hundred thousand dollars, just in time for this year's mid-term elections.
The Task Force played host to more than 450 people Saturday night, May 6, at the district's Omni Shoreham Hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park. The event, a dinner marking the Task Force's 17th Annual Leadership Awards, paid tribute to three people and an institution: Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a longtime ally of the gay community; Annie Proulx, author of the gay-themed short story Brokeback Mountain, which garnered much attention as a film a few months ago; Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), a possible contender in the 2008 presidential race, and a supporter of same-sex marriage; and Food & Friends, the metro area's non-profit provider of groceries and prepared meals to thousands of ill clients and their families.
As one of four such Task Force award events around the country, Saturday's was notable as the format has moved to a dinner, rather than a reception. Presumably, introducing armies of ''table captains'' -- and their requisite talent for drafting attendees willing to pony up the $250 admission -- will measurably aid the Task Force's bottom line as it prepares for a slew of upcoming elections. Claire Lucas, a D.C. board member of the National Stonewall Democrats and bronze-lever sponsor of the Task Force event, set a stellar fund-raising example Saturday night, offering a check for $5,000 to ensure the D.C. bash was more fiscally successful than April's award dinner in New York. Organizers said the D.C. event raised about $200,000 for the Task Force.
While the dollars will fuel the Task Force's work in coming months, leadership plays its invaluable part in the political fight for GLBT equality. The evening's honorees offered their contributions in rhetoric, both fiery and subdued. Emcee Karen Allen, a lesbian comic, offered humor: ''I don't want special rights. But I would like discounts.''
Conyers, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has long been associated with social justice issues. In keeping with that reputation, his remarks tended toward the big picture, rather than the gay civil-rights struggle in particular.
''There ought to be some way we can have an excess-profit tax, [and] transparency to see where all of these millions and millions in bonuses are going to these executives,'' he said, pointing to the recent spike in gay prices. He also touched upon slavery reparations, universal health care, the war in Iraq, and impeaching President Bush.
He concluded by turning back to the Task Force. ''I'm with you,'' he said, Leadership Award in hand. ''I'm with Sen. Feingold. I'm with [past Task Force honorees, the openly gay Democratic congressional representatives] Tammy Baldwin and Barney Frank. All these great Americans make me proud to be here tonight to accept this award.''
Feingold, who delivered the evening's keynote address, took a more focused approach, relating how gay civil-rights issues have been a fixture of his career since he was first elected to office as a state senator when he was 29. At the time, 1983, he voted with the legislative majority in repealing Wisconsin's law against sodomy. ''I felt like history was moving in the right direction,'' he said, adding that his 1993 entry into the U.S. Senate was marked with the so-called ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy for gays in the military. He said he nevertheless remained optimistic that gays were moving toward equality.
''I was still optimistic -- until the [Defense of Marriage Act] came along,'' he says, pointing to the measure that allows states to deny marriage to same-sex couples, and asserts the federal definition of marriage to be a union between a man and a woman. ''I was appalled, frankly, by how many Democrats voted for that,'' he continued, calling DOMA ''awful'' and ''mean-spirited.''
To cheers, he added that the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would essentially write DOMA's restrictions into U.S. Constitution, ''belongs absolutely nowhere near the Constitution of the United States of America.... I support marriage equality in all cases. If two people love each other and they want to get married, they ought to be able to.''
Proulx did not offer a politician's enthusiasm. Instead, she appeared somewhat bashful as she took the lectern, her soft monotone a sharp contrast to the other speakers' styles. ''They never told me I'd have to say something, but I will,'' she deadpanned.
Proulx, in from Wyoming for the awards dinner, spoke about her stretch of the country as a ''mean, spare, hard'' place. ''It's a tough place. I like it because it's a tough place. Its beauty is hard and subtle."
That hardness comes with a particular challenge.
"People don't really disturb the ancient traditions of rural places, and that's too bad," she said. "You really have to take a look at what's not right, and not support the status quo.''
She closed with an invitation, observing that there are many GLBT people from her part of the country, but that they often leave her rough terrain in favor of gay-friendly cities. With an apparent desire to turn that tide, she imparted, ''If any of you are contemplating a move to the country, do it.''
Though Matt Foreman, executive director of the Task Force, may not have as much celebrity as the other speakers on the stage, he remains the personification of his organization.
''Time is on our side. Because of you, winning is not only possible, it's inevitable," he said. "And it's going to happen in our lifetime.''
For photo coverage of this event, please see our online Scene coverage.