Jimmy Nguyen with 2011 LA Equality Awards co-chair Jeannette Yazedjian.
A couple weekends ago, I experienced a great night for equality at Equality California’s 2011 Los Angeles Equality Awards. I’ve served on EQCA’s board for several years, and this year, had the privilege of co-chairing the gala with the charming Jeannette Yazedjian.
EQCA’s new Executive Director Roland Palencia was introduced and EQCA honored New York Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell (sponsor of New Yorks’ historic Marriage Equality Act and Rosie O’Donnell’s brother); social media company Facebook; and pop star Adam Lambert.
We got extra entertainment and a “YouTube moment” when the always-unpredictable Kathy Griffin presented Lambert with his award by commanding an impromptu singing duet with the “American Idol” runner-up.
The audience also experienced deep emotions when Wendy and Shawn Walsh took the stage to honor their son and brother Seth, the 13-year old California boy who committed suicide after being bullied at school.
As the three award recipients made their acceptance speeches, they each reminded me of poignant lessons for our LGBT’s community fight for equality.
Lesson No. 1: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
Listening to O’Donnell accept his award, I realized this is the clear lesson from the marriage equality journey in New York.
In 2006, the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) ruled there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage. That ruling surprised many in the LGBT community, who felt that judges in the progressive Empire State would recognize marriage equality.
Battles then turned to the legislature. The New York State Assembly passed bills recognizing same-sex marriage in 2007 and 2009; those bills languished in the state’s Senate and the 2009 bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate.
By 2011, Andrew Cuomo had succeeded David Paterson as governor. Much more popular than his predecessor, Cuomo had the political capital to push for key Republican votes.
Add to that a determined O’Donnell, numerous alliance partners, as well media and political machines running an all-out campaign. The result was a watershed win for equality.
It was W.C. Fields who gave us the oft-quoted sentiment “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” but few people ever hear the remainder of his thought which is: “Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
I’m glad marriage equality advocates in New York did not take the rest of W.C. Fields’ advice. Quitting on the equality mission is not an option, even if there’s a chance of looking like “a damn fool about it.”
So often (such as after California voters passed Proposition 8), our LGBT community can be disheartened in the face of judicial or legislative defeats. But the powerful lesson from New York is that we have to try, try again – in every jurisdiction — until we win full equality in every respect.
Lesson No. 2: Social media will improve the lives of LGBT people worldwide
This a bold proclamation. But after listening to leaders of Facebook’s LGBT group accept EQCA’s “Equality Advocate” award, I am confident it is true.
Facebook’s mantra on this equality night was to encourage each of us to be your “unapologetic, authentic self.”
The social media giant helps that cause for LGBT people in numerous ways – most poignantly, adding “Domestic Partnership” as an option for someone’s relationship status. While that seems like a small move, it is huge.
Now, people all across Facebook’s worldwide social media network (some 700 million users and counting) can see same-sex couples publicly declare their legal status as something other than “In a Relationship” (or my personal favorite, “It’s Complicated”). More people worldwide will get accustomed to seeing, and hopefully, accepting, legally-defined same-sex relationships.
Of course, we can’t wait for more gay and lesbian couples to rightfully be able to click the “Married” box.
The growth of Facebook and other social media will help people in less accepting towns in America and globally in less accepting countries, actually see the LGBT community. There’s no better way to humanize LGBT persons than to see pictures of us, our friends, and our very real (and often extra colorful) lives.
Social media also gives LGBT youth or even adults still coming to terms with their sexuality an outlet to see they are not alone. They can also find a sense of community – both online and offline.
Famed media scholar Marshall McCluhan observed that “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” Years later, his observation still rings true as the technological tools of social media shape the world – and in particular, the LGBT community — for the better.
Lesson No. 3: Do not be ashamed of being a “weird”
This lesson came from Lambert (though I’m sure it could have equally come from Griffin).
During his speech accepting the Equality Idol award, Lambert told his life story of being perceived as a “weird fag” when he was younger. Yet, during his “American Idol” run in 2009, it was his bold, often outlandish and eccentric performances (along with great vocal talent) that fascinated the public and propelled him to the Finals (count me as one of those people who still thinks he should have won that night over Kris Allen). It also Adam’s “weirdness” that continues to captivate audiences today.
So while I am not encouraging unchecked insanity, I do encourage everyone to own their identity.
Don’t run away from what is unique about you — embrace your uniqueness to its fullest. While this is a life lesson for people of all sexual stripes, it is particularly important for LGBT people.
By having a different sexual orientation, we are already deemed “weird” by part of the population. Throw onto that an outlandish personality, and a “weird fag” can quickly become ostracized while growing up.
Consequently, many of us spend years hiding who we truly are. We can also overcompensate in trying to be what is perceived as “normal.” Don’t do it anymore.
Since I’ve been on the quotation train with these lessons, I have to call upon the immortal Judy Garland. She advised: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”
As Facebook would encourage, be your unapologetic, authentic self. You won’t please everyone, but the people and things in the universe meant for you will eventually find you.
In one fell swoop, Griffin summed up the night’s lessons best.
She repeatedly tried to get Lambert on stage to sing his hit “Mad World” with her. Eventually, she had to come down to his table to coax him into an impromptu duet, which is now all over YouTube. It’s a straight-gay combination of two people with extraordinary talent who some would call “weird.” In short, the Kathy-Adam duet was a lesson in persistence, social media’s power, and owning your weirdness.
Thanks, Kathy, for wrapping together so neatly for us all the lessons from this night of equality.
Jimmy Nguyen is an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, LGBT leader and diversity advocate whose work appears on SDGLN. In 2008, Lawdragon named him one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America, and in 2010, the National LGBT Bar Association recognized him as one of the Best LGBT Lawyers under 40. Jimmy also blogs at JimmyWin.com or you can follow him on Facebook by clicking JimmyWin.