Stacey Freidman addresses the LGBTQ+ community: we can all do more

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On October 21, 2019 SAGE awarded Stacey Friedman, general counsel at JP Morgan and Chase Co. and fierce LGBTQ+ advocate, the Jack Watters Corporate Leadership Award. Addressing the practitioners, leaders, and change makers in the room, Stacey delivered a powerful and inspirational acceptance speech, which commented on the state of the modern LGBTQ+ movement and where we must go from here. Watch Stacey’s speech below, or read the transcript. If you’re interested in watching Leslie Jordan or André De Shields‘ acceptance speeches, you can find footage of the entire event here.


Thank you very much. Congratulations to the other awards recipients.  Thank you, in particular to my family, and my wife Dawn, because none of this happens without a lot of love and support. So, thank you all for that. And thank you all for everybody who is in the room tonight. It is incredible what you have done for SAGE — to stand up and say that nobody should be denied access to basic rights because of who they are or whom they love.  Thank you so much for that, because it means a ton to our community.

I am going to ask you just to bear with me for a few minutes to have a bit of a serious conversation about what’s going on in the world.  This is the problem when you give a lawyer an award, as opposed to somebody who can sing or dance. And, yes and Beyoncé is my favorite artist. See me after for the tragic incident on the road when I was running and dancing to her song.

Anyhow, I want to lay out a little bit of an oral argument for you guys — I do think that our community is at a crossroads.  And I do think that we have a decision to make tonight and in the near future as to what we’re going to do in the face of this crossroads. And I’m going to ask you tonight to help me with this.

And just to sort of set the stage, a lot of you have probably followed this a little bit. Some of you maybe more deeply, but the Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases about two weeks ago. And fundamentally, what this administration is trying to do — what they’re asking the Supreme Court to do — is to allow discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in employment.

And the three cases are pretty simple.  The first case is Aimee Stephens’ case. Aimee Stephens has been a funeral director in Detroit for about six years. Aimee was born a man, but she’s actually known since the age of five that she is a woman. It’s taken her decades, literally decades, to decide to live her true self. And over time, she decided first to come out to herself, then to come out to her friends, then to come out to her family. One day, she decided to come out to her coworkers. And she came into work, introduced herself to her boss as Aimee, and he fired her. And there was no pretense here. There wasn’t any discussion of ‘oh Aimee, maybe it was because of your performance’ or this or that — he just fired her.

The other two cases were about gay men — very similar. Gerald was a social worker for at-risk youth when he told his employer he was gay, he was fired. The other person is Don. Don was a skydiving instructor just 100 miles from here on Long Island. One day, he told a client who was diving with him ‘I’m gay,’ the client told his boss, and his boss fired him.

Now you may be sitting there a little bit in disbelief thinking ‘oh my god, this is 2019, that can’t be. You can’t really just fire people because they’re gay or lesbian or trans, right?’ What you feel in your heart is pretty much right. Most of the cases in the lower courts totally agree with that feeling that you have. But this administration has gone out of its way to try to make it the law of the land that it’s okay discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. Which leads to my question tonight, what are we supposed to do about this?

And I really want to give fair air time to that question because sometimes what we’re supposed to do is just protest on Instragram, or come to a SAGE dinner. And sometimes it’s really hard to tell when you’re actually supposed to do something more. And that’s not just because it’s sometimes hard to tell — I think it has to do with the LGBTQ+ movement. Because the way we’ve made it down this path is always been sort of incremental. You know – there aren’t a lot of big leaps. And for the most part it’s two steps forward, and one step back.

When I was growing up in Modesto, not far from San Francisco, I actually completely remember when Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors. He was the first openly gay elected official in California. He was one of the first openly gay elected officials in our nation. And it was a big deal at this time. It was still, in the medical journals, it said it was a mental illness to be gay or lesbian. It wasn’t safe to be out at work. It wasn’t even safe necessarily to walk down the street and be queer, even in San Francisco. And he got elected and he started to push back against this. And he actually got the anti-sodomy law in San Francisco overturned and he started to push this out to other cities and other states.

But then in 1978, Dan White took a .38 revolver, and walked in through an open window of the basement in City Hall to go around the metal detectors. And when into the mayor’s office and killed Harvey Milk.

And the newspapers read that day: “Harvey Milk died because he was a Gay man” And I remember – I remember the picture on the front page of the Chronical – and probably many of you have seen this… and you know, the drag queens and gays, and lesbians, and everybody sitting on the front stairs of City Hall? And what’s fascinating about that picture is everybody is mourning Harvey Milk – but nobody looks surprised. One step forward, two steps back.

And in the 80s, I remember sitting at the dinner and I don’t know about everybody, but our dinner table we always sort of sat in the same positions. My dad was on the left — my mom was on the right. Actually, my dad’s a Republican, so, but just where we sat. My brother was across from me so we could make faces at each other, but I digress. But I remember during the 80s sort of in my high school years, there was this conversation that happened really slowly over a couple of years where we would read something in the press about gay men dying. Where we would read that the dentists in San Francisco had decided that they wouldn’t see gay men because they weren’t sure how this gay plague was being transmitted from one person to the other. That gay men were starting to be kicked out of apartments. That gay men were starting to be excluded from cemeteries. That gay men wouldn’t be hugged by people because people weren’t sure how this gay plague was being passed along. And our federal government was silent about this, they wouldn’t even utter the words HIV or AIDs. And at the same time in 1986, the Supreme Court in Barrows v Hardwick comes out and they say the sodomy law in Georgia is constitutional.

And the message to all of us was quite clear: Same sex love is demonized, and same sex intimacy is criminalized. And we were definitely having a step back.

But shortly after that I had the opportunity to work for Senator Feinstein and I remember being in the Capitol, and I remember being in the Capitol when the quilt arrived. And suddenly all these thousands of people were coming out and honoring these men who’d passed away. And I remember the day — I remember the day in October of 1992, when ACT UP went to the White House and threw the ashes of our brothers on the lawn and they said you have to say the name of this disease, and you have to pressure the FDA to speed up the drugs and you have to develop and get these drugs out faster and guess what, it worked.

And the FDA started to develop the HIV drugs faster, and started to get the drugs out faster to people and men lived and people thrived and we definitely had had one step back but we took two steps forward.

And there’s this sort of honeymoon period — or I’ll call it the “Ellen period” you know, where first everybody dropped out of advertising on her show, and then she was on Time magazine, and it seemed pretty good.

But I remember being in a law library in 1998 and reading about Matthew Shepard. And thinking to myself, ‘how can it be that a gay American student in Wyoming gets beaten and tortured and left to die.’

I literally remember sitting in the law library — and it was the night of October 6 when it hit — but as much as that was one ginormous step backwards, it brought attention to something that had been happening for a long time. Attention in the United States. Attention internationally. The idea of a hate crime. The idea that if you were going to be violent towards somebody because of who they were, who they loved, because of their sexual orientation or because of how they presented themselves, that that was a crime that deserved extra punishment.

And it took a decade, it took a decade actually until 2009, before that law, the Matthew Shepard law was passed in the law, but it did happen one step forward right then. Only one step back.

And sort of an improvement on the Ellen years were the marriage years, right? I mean, oh my god, there was Claire and Arden, and Jess and Pascale, there was me and Dawn, there was… I’m sort of getting a hangover thinking about it all. And it was great, and we celebrated it at SAGE, and we all were rejoicing in the fact that all of a sudden we were at a point that now love was being legalized and hate was being criminalized, and we were totally in this two steps forward place.

And now we’re here this evening. And the United States Supreme Court is thinking about giving the green-light to LGBTQ+ discrimination.

And so I get the question — I get the question when you look at our history how you would ask, is this just the normal path? Is this another time when we’re sort of, we’ve moved forward now we move back but it will all be okay? Is this actually a time when we should stop and say no, this isn’t normal, there’s much more going on and my friends I’m going to submit to you today — there is much more going on.

I believe we are at an important crossroads. Because when I sat down to think about what to say today, it isn’t just this case about LGBTQ+ discrimination that’s going on in the courts — although to be clear the Supreme Court cases will affect many more people than marriage. It will effect anybody who works. It will affect anybody who wants a discrimination-free housing. It will affect anybody who wants discrimination-free schools. It will affect anybody who wants a discrimination-free healthcare. But my friends, that is not all that’s happening. This is just a small snipped of what’s happened in the last 36 months.

So on inauguration day, this administration scrubbed all mentions of LGBTQ+ individuals from the websites of the White House, the Department of State, and the Department of Labor.

The next month, the Department of Education withdrew guidance explaining how schools must protect transgender kids.

In July 26, 2017, I’m going to read you this quote, because it is stunning. The administration announced, via Twitter, “the United States Government will not allow or accept Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the United States Military.”

Three months later: The Department of Justice submitted its first brief saying it’s okay to discriminate against gays and lesbians. And just three months after that, the Department of Health Services’ Office of Civil Rights — the Office of Civil Rights — told South Carolina it’s ok not to let LGBTQ+ individuals be foster or adoptive parents.

And just this past month, the Department of Health and Human Services cancelled a plan that would have said ‘if you discriminate against our community, you can’t receive Medicare or Medicaid.’ Cancelled that plan.

I am here because SAGE is a great organization, but I am here because injustice is here.

We have fought for decades for these constitutional and God given rights, and over a very short period of time we are seeing these walked back.

We are at a crossroads.  As to the question of what we should do — it would be much easier for me to get up here and just say ‘it’s ok, we’re all going to be fine, it’s just a couple of steps back.’ But when you have seen your community kicked out of the military.  When you have seen arguments at the Supreme Court saying it’s okay to discriminate against us. When you watch SAGE fight to what it has to fight for.  When you know that the highest level of suicide is in the LGBTQ+ community for kids.  When you put all of those things together, you know why I’ve invited you here tonight.

I’ve invited you here tonight because we are at a crossroads and I need your help.

And I acknowledge and accept that there are a ton of people in here who’ve known for a long time the crossroads that we are at, and you are already fighting very hard every day to help make sure we get on the right path.

But, I’m just guessing amongst all of the people here, there are a few of you — even those of you who dedicate a lot of time to these causes, you are wondering to yourself, ‘is there something more I should do?’ And there’s a few of us that maybe haven’t put this story together fully who are wondering ‘Is there something more I should do?’

And there is a little bit something more we could all do. First of all, embrace that this is not normal. Embrace that this is not normal. Think about what this means not just to the LGBTQ+ community but to civil rights in general. Martin Luther King said injustice to one is a fight against justice to all.

And so I am deeply grateful for all that you have done but I want you to take a moment, and I want you to think about ‘Is there something more that you can do.’ And again I have deep appreciation for all you’ve already done — those in the room — but I’m just telling you that this is a time, this is a crossroads where we should all just lean in a little bit more.

And I have complete appreciation for however you want to do that ‘something more.’ However you move through life, whatever works for you. I mean Michael Adams is going to be up here in a minute to talk about SAGE and if you want to do more for SAGE, that is great. But if there’s some other organization that you love and you care about, give them an extra donation. Volunteer for them.

If you hear about a march, a rally that’s calling out injustice, injustice to our community or injustice to any community — go join that march. If you want to do ‘get out the vote’ do ‘get out the vote.’ Do whatever fits best with how you move through life, but please please, please act.

What happens next is not inevitable. We can determine what happens next, but it will take all of us together to claim back the rights we deserve.  And I am completely confident with the people that are in this room tonight, and the people that can’t be here with us tonight, if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, we can demand what we deserve.

Because really, we can demand that never again should someone be attacked because of who they love. And we can demand that never again should people have to hide who they are to serve in our military. And we can demand that never again should somebody be discriminated against because they are gay or lesbian, trans or queer.

And so thank you. Thank you for the award tonight and thank you especially for considering my humble request to do more.