Posted 12:01am October 14
by Marcus Mrowka
U-WIRE Washington Bureau Chief
Al Gore, Congressman John Lewis, the cast of “The West Wing” and the “Fab 5” from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” headlined this year’s annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner Saturday in Washington.
The annual event is meant to honor those who play an important role in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community. Those honored this year included the cast of “The West Wing” and Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Hours.”
Saturday’s event was also a farewell to HRC’s Executive Director, Elizabeth Birch. The event attracted an estimated 3,000 people.
“We are here to share the joy of progress,” said Gore. “This nation’s destiny will never be fulfilled if any basis is used for discrimination.”
Gore said Saturday’s dinner was one of the warmest welcomes he had ever received. After a quick joke on how he should be president, he spent most of his speech detailing the success of Birch and talking about his personal friendship with her.
“Elizabeth Birch will leave a legacy of skill and creativity and passion,” said Gore.
Lewis, an eight-term congressman and civil rights leader, served as the dinner’s keynote speaker. He joined the Freedom Riders in 1961 and organized the massive sit-ins during the civil rights struggle.
“Forty years ago, a different group in our society was fighting for rights,” said Lewis. “It was a nonviolent revolution under the rule of law.”
“The civil rights movement and the gay rights movement are fights for what our country is based on,” he said.
Lewis said that HRC was at the forefront of gay rights and praised Birch for her leadership. Lewis also announced his support for gay marriage.
“People fall in love, want to get married and live in peace with each other,” he said. “People ought to be free to do that.”
The event coincided with National Coming Out Day, a national program designed to promote the acceptance of GLBT people and an urging for people to announce their sexuality.
“Kids are arriving at college with more tolerance,” said Thom Filicia, one of the stars of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
“Just have fun,” said costar Kyan Douglas on the subject of coming out in college. “When you are young, there is no need and no rush to fit into a category.”
The night ended with a video tribute and farewell speech by Birch. Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean were all featured in the video.
Birch concentrated her remarks on the progress HRC has made and what is still to be done. Her tearful goodbye ended her nine years as head of the organization.
“We are the light on the front of this nation on the path to equality,” Birch said. “Tonight I say farewell but I will never say farewell to our dreams together.”
Birch criticized President Bush for endorsing “marriage protection week” which runs this week saying that “the right wing has declared a new cultural war on gay America.” Birch advocated secular marriage licenses, better HIV and AIDS prevention methods, the abolition of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell policy” and dedicating the GLBT cause to the nation’s youth.
“We need comprehensive laws that will let our young people grow up with rights,” she said. “We have got to take care of the next generation.”
“Abraham Lincoln was born poor and created equal, Martin Luther King Jr. was born black and created equal and Elizabeth Birch was born gay and created equal,” said Lewis. “We can build a beloved community where we can live peacefully and equally.”