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Jean Smart and Sterling K. Brown Honored for Queer Allyship: LGBTQ Rights and Racial Justice Are Not ‘Separate Battles’

Though the Human Rights Campaign gala on Saturday night in Los Angeles contended with a brief interruption by protestors calling for a Gaza ceasefire, the annual stayed largely on course, serving as a rallying cry for Democratic candidates and the LGBTQ+ community.

In addition to the keynote speech from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Jean Smart and Sterling K. Brown were honored with the National Equality Award and the Ally for Equality Award, respectively.

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Smart has long been associated with series that have had a strong resonance with queer people, including “Hacks,” “Watchmen” and the 1980s sitcom “Designing Women,” which featured one of the first storylines addressing AIDS on network television.

“I was asked … how I felt about being a gay icon. And I thought, ‘Well, if I’m in the company of Judy and Liza and Bette and Joan and Bette and Cher, then I’m [honored],” Smart said. “Really, what was it about those women? I think it’s because they told you exactly what they thought and didn’t give a crap, but always looked fabulous doing it.”

Smart’s first New York theater credit was playing a lesbian in the play “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.”

“The show took off and it moved to off-Broadway, where women in the gay community were starved for a story like this – where they could see themselves in a positive light. And they came to see it six, eight, 10, 12 times and even more,” Smart recalled.

She also talked about a friend of hers who died of AIDS at the height of the crisis. Then living in Los Angeles, Smart flew to New York to be at his bedside in his final days. She was shocked to discover that his mother refused to come see him, and his beloved little sister had only been to visit once.

“I sat with him and I held his hand,” she related. “He was barely conscious and he was on oxygen. And I really didn’t think that he knew that I was there. But later I learned from his dear friend that after I left, he whispered, ‘I feel so loved.’”

Smart added that “in a world where children are starving and dying because of war, it seems insane and beyond understanding that any of us should be concerned with someone else’s sexuality.”

Brown evoked the importance of HRC’s work in his remarks, drawing the connections between civil rights and LGBTQ rights. Brown said that his Oscar-nominated role in “American Fiction” was an homage to his “vibrant, brilliant, Black lesbian” aunt, Vera Harris.

“I yearn for a world where Aunt Vera, and countless others like her, are embraced and celebrated for the entirety of their being without exception,” Brown said. “Because of movements like the Human Rights Campaign, I believe that the world is within our reach. We just have to find the strength to keep fighting forward. And to do that, we’ve got to recognize the interconnectedness of our struggle. The fight for LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice cannot be seen as separate battles. They are inextricably intertwined.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 23: (L-R) Kelley Robinson, President, Human Rights Campaign and Hannah Einbiner attend the 2024 Human Rights Campaign dinner at Fairmont Century Plaza on March 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Human Rights Campaign)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 23: (L-R) Kelley Robinson, President, Human Rights Campaign and Hannah Einbiner attend the 2024 Human Rights Campaign dinner at Fairmont Century Plaza on March 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Human Rights Campaign)

Biden praised HRC while making the case for her husband’s re-election.

“This is our chapter of history, and it’s up to us as to how it ends,” Biden said. “We have pulled ourselves up from the depths of despair with hope, with grace, with love. Our victories testify to that strength. Thanks to President Biden, marriage equality is now the law of the land. He ended a ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood. He made it possible for trans Americans to serve openly and honorably in the military. He’s standing firmly against conversion therapy.”

She also remarked on the “victories in the small moments,” such as queer people being able to use their chosen pronouns and walk down the street as their authentic selves.

“Yes, the MAGA extremists are seeking to erase these hard-fought gains, trying to unwind all the progress that we’ve made. They want us to be afraid. They want to take our victories away. But we won’t let them. We’re going to fight, and we will win – today, tomorrow and all of the days after – until all of the people in all of the places can live freely surrounded by love. I love you. Your president loves you.”

After an introduction by her daughter Ashley Biden, a small smattering of pro-Palestinian protestors interrupted the opening of Dr. Biden’s speech, chanting, “Ceasefire now!” Secret Service and security guards at the Fairmont Century Plaza swiftly removed the disrupters as the audience drowned out the chants with, “Four more years!” A larger group of protestors was also gathered at the entrance to the Fairmont’s driveway.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Justin Mikita at the Human Rights Campaign’s 2024 Los Angeles Dinner held at the Fairmont Century Plaza on March 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Justin Mikita at the Human Rights Campaign’s 2024 Los Angeles Dinner held at the Fairmont Century Plaza on March 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

Among the stars in attendance was Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”), who reflected to Variety on his own unique place in the history of LGBTQ+ representation on television.

“What’s really heartwarming is I’m meeting people who are just starting to watch [‘Modern Family’] with their kids again, and new people that are discovering it for the first time,” Ferguson said. “So, I think back to when I was a youth and I didn’t have a show like that. I’m so proud that I can be there for kids and for families that need us now.”

“Ghosts” star Rebecca Wisocky discussed the importance of using humor to reach and educate a wide network audience on queer issues. “I think our show manages to be a silly blob of a comedy and also very subversive with the kind of political digs that it manages to get in and indictments that it manages to make of the … ghosts in these various different time periods,” she said.

Comedian Dana Goldberg led the fundraising portions of the evening, netting more than $30,000 from on-the-spot donations. Goldberg spoke to Variety about the important role HRC plays during an election year.

“I’ve been working with the organization since 2009,” Goldberg said. “And we are leading the fight right now politically to get people out to vote. We’ve got 64 million equality voters that care about the LGBTQ community, and they will vote based on that.”

The overarching theme of the evening could be surmised with the word “vote,” as virtually every speaker reminded attendees of the stakes in the 2024 election.

“Now is not the time for complacency,” HRC president Kelley Robinson said. “Now is the time to keep pushing forward.”

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