Hope From Hate: HRC Keynote After Orlando

A week after the Pulse shootings in Orlando, I gave the keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner in Louisiana. It was a very difficult time to address the positive steps we’ve made in regards to gay rights in America against the backdrop of our mourning and loss. Here is the transcript and link. My hope is that we can glean some hope from the hate.

HRC Louisiana Gala – June 18th, 2016

On June 24th, 1973, right here in New Orleans on the last night of gay pride, on the 4th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, “The Upstairs Lounge,” a small gay bar in the French Quarter, was engulfed in flames by an arsonist. Buddy, the bartender, rescued 30 people then ran back in for his boyfriend, Adam. Thirty-two died that night, trapped. The authorities never cared to close the case, no one was charged. Some of the bodies were left in the building for days. Many men, not out the closet, had no families to claim them. They were left without the dignity of a proper burial.

We have come a long way and yet, in some ways, it feels like we’ve not evolved much at all. In light of the tragedy in Orlando last weekend, I am at a loss for words to describe how I feel… attacked… hurt… angry. It was like Mathew Shepherd and every friend I lost to AIDS fifty times over in one day.

But today, I choose not fear, but rather, pride. Pride in the generations that came before us; and I choose to stand up and speak up against hate; and yes, I choose to celebrate who we are, who I am; and I take refuge in the family of LGBT brothers and sisters and straight allies and the whole civilized world that has stretched out their arms to embrace us.

Family: that’s a word I heard a lot this week as the victims were being mourned. So many young faces, full of life and joy, snuffed out by ignorance and hate – their families grappling with the unimaginable.

Family: it’s a word that I’ve had an on-again/off-again relationship with, I’m sure many of you can relate. As a gay man, I’ve not always felt included in my own family, sometimes through no fault of their own, sometimes because I chose to withdraw rather than be rejected.

When I was a little boy growing up in Uruguay, being raised by affectionate and loving parents and three siblings, who were as adversarial and loving as you would expect in any family, I was a unique creature highly artistic, highly sensitive, and totally swishy. I loved to play with dolls and often dressed in my mother’s dresses – but only the glittery evening gowns made the cut. This was around age six or seven. I was very free and funny. I would put on puppet shows with full impersonations of our neighbors. I had no idea what I was or whom I loved. I was just me, an innocent creative child.

As I got a little older, 9 or 10, I became HIGHLY aware that whatever I was was a cause of concern for my parents. And when strangers began to question my gender, I felt I was becoming an embarrassment to them, something to be corrected or shut down, get fixed or eliminated.

It began with mom and dad calling out my effeminate behavior in the form of a firm grasp on the arm when I tried to skip down the street, or steering me away from my sisters’ dolls, or scolding me to “walk like a boy,” to walk like my brother, Lawrence, I guess, who at the time was my best friend and a total jock.

Finally, mom and dad took me to see a shrink. It was one visit. I’m not sure what he told my worried mother, but I remember her scurrying me away from the office. She seemed pissed off. On the bus home, she told me that we would never return there, that made me feel happy and safe. That might have been the first moment my parents made the choice to accept me as I was – And I guess this is the first moment I realize that. And that had to take some courage on their part, because being gay, or trans, or whatever word they were using in those days. Well, the word in Uruguay was “maricon” (faggot), and it covered pretty much all queers. That word flung around carelessly as insults in the playground or amongst adults in casual banter my whole childhood, making those of us who were that word feel unloved and so terribly wrong.

I think at that time, I was probably gender neutral. I had a great love and affinity for women (I still do). I declared myself a feminist at the age of ten! I had my sisters and my mom and all my best friends, all girls. I felt safer with women, so it made sense that I would pick up their gestures and their movements and their emotional freedom, something boys were not allowed to have.

But as my teen years crept in, I became more closed off and guarded around my family. Home became an unsafe place where my growing secret (my attraction to boys), if exposed, could leave me in a club where many LGBT kids end up disowned, probably not homeless, but definitely without a home. So I became very private, disconnected, and guarded. Then came puberty! We were immigrants in the U.S. now, so by default already second-class citizens, and I was already the target of bullies in the public school system, one of the toughest in New York.

Fortunately, I found family amongst a group of social misfits in the school’s drama club, a magnet for girly boys, big girls, geeks, and the occasional jock, who harbored a secret wish to kick his heels in a Broadway musical. In fact, the boy I thought was super straight and was the object of my crush later turned out to be a Broadway chorus boy, which does not automatically make him gay… but in this case, he was and I could have had him. Damn! This was in high school and by then I knew I was gay. I had no confusion whatsoever. I felt happy in my body, but too afraid to explore or share it, for good reason.

That year I had gone to our family doctor and read a medical magazine in the waiting room with the headline “The Gay Cancer.” My blood went cold and I thought, “Oh shit, now you can get cancer just for being gay???” This was the beginning of the AIDS crisis and the unfolding of my early adult gay life filled with fear and dread… and sure there were plenty of happy times: getting my first Broadway show; falling in love with my first partner, Eddie; getting our first apartment in the city; our first dog. But there were also some impossibly hard times, Eddie getting sick and dying of AIDS. He was 33 and I was just 23 and yet, there was always family. My mother came to the city and laid in bed with Eddie in his last days. My dad and siblings did the best to console and help, so did my friends. And they all gave me the support to rebuild and to move to LA after he died. But I had a fair share of survivor’s guilt. How was it that I was ok? Why was I not infected? Many nights I prayed wishing I were. Then I met Kyle and everything changed. Twenty-four years later we’re both still here and happily married.

The last time I spoke at an HRC dinner was in September of 2014. Three weeks later my mother suddenly died, and in the midst of that horror that is losing your last parent, while we cleaned up her apartment and made arrangements for her funeral, my sisters, my brother and I found each other again. We cried a lot and laughed a lot. I found mom’s onyx earrings, the one’s I used to wear when I was alone and I put them on said, “Hey guys! You should have seen me do Dream Girls in these!” My brother, Lawrence, whom I had had a distant once-a-year phone call relationship, with confessed the reason we were not closer was that he assumed I must “hate him” for calling me fag when I was a kid. I said, “I love you brother and everyone called me fag, you weren’t that original, so let’s get on with it.” In that dark hour of losing our mother, my brother and I became friends again. So, there is hope even in the darkest of times.

Last Sunday, Kyle and I sat watching a mother on CNN, through tears re-telling what she knew about the carnage while she waited to be told if her son was dead or alive. Yes, a scene too common these days, another mass shooting, but this one, this one was about MY FAMILY. This one was about the echo chamber of anti-LGBT hatred that bounces from pious two-faced preachers to orange faced politicians, who after the attack doubled down on their hate for us, some even suggesting that this was god’s response to gay marriage.

This idea that it’s OK to target us has been in the public blood stream for generations from the “Up Stairs Lounge” in New Orleans to “Pulse” in Orlando. Like racism, like misogyny, and xenophobia, in fact, they happen to be the current GOP platform. This was a hate crime against us and there are plenty of people with blood on their hands starting with the NRA and the senators that voted against sensible gun control and I’m thrilled that HRC is committed to going after them.

So, Kyle and I spent the better part of Sunday crying. Then, at 5:10 PM, our friends Rob and Greg brought into the world a ray of hope, a baby boy, a new family. And that moment I knew, we would be OK because life had won out, hope had survived, and love had conquered hate.

But don’t mistake my emotion here, because I intend to put every bit of my anger, my strength, and grit to make sure the next President is a woman who believes in gun control, who believes in our human rights and who has the strength to look at the bullies in the eye and say, “not while I’m in the oval office!” And yes, I do picture Hillary in my mother’s onyx earrings.

And… I know we’re sad right now, but I also know we are tough, resilient, and battle-tested. We have fought for the right to love, we have fought for the right to live, and we will continue to do that until we live in a country that represents the best of us, a real inclusive American Family.

Thank you, HRC for the tireless work you do on all these issues and thank you all for contributing and showing up tonight and for being proud!

As my mom used to say, “I Love you too much.”

Have a great night!

Jonathan Del Arco At HRC Louisiana Gala

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