*Remarks as prepared for delivery
“Phonso, don’t put your hand where your hand can’t reach, but never forget to dream?”
Those were the words of my mother, who passed away 6 years ago.
I can hear those words as if it were yesterday. The cadence of her voice communicating love, caution and wisdom.
Those words have been etched in my memory, etched in my consciousness since I was a child.
They are as vibrant a memory as my first birthday party, my acceptance into law school and the day I came out as a gay man.
Her words became a motto for the reality of life and for the power of dreams.
My mother understood the challenges we face globally as people of color — from indifference in some parts of the world to overcoming the shackles of colonization.
She understood the challenges we face in this country as immigrants — from fraudulent immigration service providers to readjusting to a new station in life that does not resemble anything you know.
But she also understood (with all of her being) the power of faith, the power of manifestation, and the power of determination to affect change.
To my family, friends, colleagues and allies here in New York, my hometown . . .
Thank you for exercising courage in fighting for change, thank you for not wavering to pressure, thank you for all of your support over the years.
Tonight, I come before you asking you to trust (like never before) in the power of faith, in the power of manifestation and in the power of determination.
In 2 days the Iowa caucuses take place. In 163 days is the start of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. In 276 days is Election Day. These are facts — they cannot be disputed or labeled as “fake news.” This is real.
These dates serve as keys to our future. They also highlight a sobering reality — time is limited. Each day that passes is another day closer to the most important election of our lives, and perhaps in our nation’s history. The outcome of this election will truly determine the future of our democracy and the rule of law, and we cannot take a single moment for granted.
We know how high the stakes are. Over the past three years, we have witnessed an onslaught of attacks on our Constitution and Bill of Rights by a president who has never read either of them. From day one, Donald Trump has chipped away at the principles that have guided this nation since its founding.
He has emboldened hate groups and white supremacists. He has embraced brutal dictators and alienated our allies. He has undermined the rule of law and stacked the courts with grossly unqualified judges. He has torn families apart at the border and tried to define some of us as less American than others based on our religion or the color of our skin. He has sought a license to discriminate and attacked transgender troops and transgender students. He has waged war on the truth, while bringing us to the brink of war in the Middle East.
There is a death blow threatening the soul of our country, and we cannot allow darkness to win. We cannot allow our Constitution to become meaningless. We must be the radiation and sunlight that our country needs right now. We must stand up, we must organize and we must fight back to ensure all of us are treated equally under the law.
This year, we must mobilize our community to be the change this moment in our history demands. We must mobilize every person who we know, and we must be willing to dedicate our time and our resources to engage others who we may not know. At the core of our work this year is protecting the right to vote. As we approach the most important election of our lives, we must all fight against voter suppression efforts, and against the erosion of our democracy. We see it with offensive gender marker and document requirements, we see it with misleading polling information and we see it with onerous registration processes. We cannot win this or any future election, if we do not address the fact that many voters are being denied their constitutional right to vote.
Which is why the Human Rights Campaign is partnering with Stacey Abrams and her organization Fair Fight. With this partnership, we are working to combat voter suppression efforts which all too often target members of the LGBTQ community, including people of color, young people, and transgender people. When we remove the barriers to register and to vote, we can elect pro-equality candidates across this country to protect the rights of all of us. We can also elect a pro-equality Senate that will follow the House’s lead and pass the Equality Act, and we can elect a president who will sign it into law.
And as we fight to elect pro-equality public officials into office, we must also fight against the forces that further marginalize our community. We must do everything in our power to end an epidemic of violence that claimed the lives of more than 150 transgender people – nearly all of them Black trans women – over the past several years. We have launched a new Transgender Justice Initiative, we have hired a director to manage the program nationally, and we are working with local activists and advocates who have been doing this work for decades to provide additional support, advance programs and ultimately change systems to drive long-term change. We cannot ignore the plight facing any member of our community.
As we combat all forces that marginalize our community, we will also fight in the courts to balance the scales. We can never lose sight of how central the judiciary has been in our struggle for equality and in protecting the disenfranchised and the marginalized. That is why we are expanding our legal footprint to do impact litigation work. Working with all of our movement partners, we are going to advance cases both domestically and internationally. We must see the young white man in Oklahoma with the same eyes as the young black girl in Nigeria. Equality is our goal, and we can never forget that equality (in order to grow and survive) must extend beyond our own borders. Equality is just as contagious as populism, if we work to advance it.
As an example, we are transforming the workplace for LGBTQ people throughout this country using the Corporate Equality Index. The measure of success for business is often viewed through a lens of return on investment. Just as meaningful however, is creating inclusive work spaces for employees to show up, produce and excel. Consider this: when we launched the Corporate Equality Index in 2002, only 61% of Fortune 500 companies in the United States had sexual orientation protections and only 3% had gender identity protections. Today, those numbers are 93% for sexual orientation and 91% for gender identity respectively. In 2002, just 13 companies scored top marks on the corporate equality index. This year, we have a record-breaking 686 companies receiving top marks, some of whom are in the room tonight. We are going to build on this success and expand its reach, while recognizing that far too many members of our family are still fighting for access to and visibility in the workplace.
Since I took the helm of the Human Rights Campaign, we have entered a new chapter in the history of this organization, as we deepen our partnerships and expand our footprint.
All of you here tonight have devoted your time and resources to attend this event. Some of you have been supporting this effort for years and in some cases for decades. I want to thank you all for continuing to support our work — our quest for full equality. But I also want to challenge all of us to engage others who are not here and help create transformational change.
We cannot continue to engage in convenient illusions. This is the time to break free of the comforts of our own worlds, venture into new spaces and challenge our understanding of what it means to fight for full equality. I know it can be scary, but this is New York and nothing ever scares New Yorkers (well except giant rats, bad pizza, and scary fashion). But seriously, I know you have it in you and we have it in us as a nation. And I know from the bottom of my heart that we must engage in a new way to win and create the equality we profess to want. We must see beyond ourselves. We must see beyond the policy issues we care about most. We must see beyond the tax benefits and personality contests. We must see beyond the attack ads and one liners. Contrary to what some pundits are peddling, economic success and social progress are not mutually exclusive. We need both. But without social progress, we are nothing but machines. We must see this election for what it really is – a battle for the soul of our country.
And as I stand before you as the first person of color to lead the Human Rights Campaign in its history, I promise you that I will fight as hard and as long as necessary to make the dream of full equality a reality for all of us.
As I wake up every day to fight for change, and break down barriers in this state and across the country…
I am fighting for you the black transgender woman who is struggling to survive violence and indifference.
I am fighting for you the lesbian executive who is pushing uphill to break through that glass ceiling.
I am fighting for you the Latinx bisexual immigrant who is living under a barrage of attacks from this federal administration.
I am fighting for you the young white gay man who faces indifference when trying to create a family.
I am fighting for you the LGBTQ ally who stands with us because you understand that if one of us is attacked for who we are, we are all attacked.
Throughout our history, we have had to fight to ensure our founding principles are fully realized.
When our relationships were criminalized, we had to fight.
When we were denied custody of our children because of who we are, we had to fight.
When our very being was deemed a sickness, we had to fight.
And by organizing and mobilizing, by speaking our truth and exercising our political muscle, we didn’t just change hearts and minds – we changed a nation and the world.
As we enter a new decade, we have an opportunity to fully realize who we are as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. And we must ask ourselves, will we allow this decade to define us, or will we define this decade?
Are you willing to smile at fear? Are you willing to tackle fear?
I say, let’s expand our horizons. Let’s move beyond the normal to the extraordinary. Let’s be daring. Let’s ride the waves of life with enthusiasm, passion and freedom in our hearts, not for some of us but for all of us. Open our arms wide and receive the opportunities that life is presenting us. Let’s engage and see clearly and see beyond ourselves. Let’s all engage in the power of manifestation and determination that I learned so many years ago in Liberia. Our destiny awaits us. Let’s skip towards it. As the prophetic activist Beah Richards once said:
Today is ours. Let’s live it.
Love is strong. Let’s give it.
A song can help. Let’s sing it.
Peace is dear. Let’s bring it.
The past is gone. Don’t rue it.
Our work is here. Let’s do it.
Our world is wrong. Let’s right it.
The battle hard. Let’s fight it.
The road is rough. Let’s clear it.
The future vast. Don’t fear it.
Is faith asleep? Let’s wake it.
Today is ours. Let’s take it.
Let’s take it for you, let’s take it for us and let’s take it for the next generation yet to come.
Thank you, New York!