The LGBTQIA+ community knows the power of words. We use words to tell loved ones that we’re queer, and they, hopefully, use words to say they love and accept us. And of course, we know about the bigots who wield words to defame the queer community, to invoke hate and provoke violence.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many queer people have turned an obsession with the power of words into a profession to leverage that power. We’re proud of all the queer novelists and journalists, screenwriters and, in our case, speechwriters.
So, to celebrate Pride Month, four queer speechwriters on the West Wing Writers’ team shared their thoughts on four queer speeches.
The one where Rosie O’Donnell came out at a comedy club
In middle school, I would run from the bus to catch Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show. She fascinated me. There was something about her that felt so familiar. A few years later, I found out what that something was: in 2002, I met my first girlfriend at freshman orientation and O’Donnell came out publicly at a comedy club.
Celebrities have come out in all sorts of ways. A stirring speech. A short tweet. A solemn statement. But years before same-sex marriage was legal, amid heavy speculation about her sexual orientation, O’Donnell came out during a stand up set. “I’m a dyke!” she declared. And she followed that up with material on everything from Anne Heche’s relationship with Ellen DeGeneres to Florida’s law prohibiting gay men and lesbians from adopting children.
For most queer people, coming out is a process. I assume that was true for O’Donnell; it certainly was for me. It doesn’t always feel freeing to tell your friends, family, or the world that you’re queer, but a sense of freedom is exactly what you feel when you read about O’Donnell’s set. In that moment, she no longer felt a responsibility to be the “Queen of Nice,” that closeted character I related to while eating cereal and watching my 13-inch TV so many years ago. She was simply herself. Bold. Bawdy. Brassy. And queer.
The one where Harvey Milk taught us how to hope
In the eighth grade, I dumped my boyfriend for Harvey Milk.
Alright — it was a little more complicated. But barely. In the eighth grade, per the suggestion of my favorite teacher, I chose Harvey Milk’s Hope speech for a research paper our class was assigned on historical texts. This was the fall of 2008, when “hope” was a buzzword for a wholly different reason, associated with a wholly different man.
But I first had eyes — and ears — for Harvey. I’d stay up late each night, my eyes glued to the bulky computer monitor in my kitchen and a pair of wiry airline headphones wrapped around my ears, binging all the footage I could find of the country’s first openly gay elected official delivering his signature stump. Over the next month or so, I memorized the text in full — and then the pauses, the pacing, the pitch of his voice.
I used to joke that the speech was a gateway drug to so many of the identities I now claim. It awoke my inner politico and made me a Democrat. It hooked me on the power of words and led me to my current job.
Still, for most of my life, its actual content — a call for the LGBTQ+ community to come out of the closet, to replace stigmas and stereotypes with family and friends — felt beside the point. I was straight, I thought. And so, Milk’s words weren’t aimed at me.
Then, a year ago, I fell in love with a woman. And the speech went from poetic and powerful to deeply, deeply personal. Though mine is a generation that spurns labels as limiting, calling myself queer felt important — and freeing. Like coming up for air.
“Without hope, the us’s give up,” Harvey Milk said to eighth-grade me.
Today, I can still recite his whole speech from memory. But it reverberates differently. Now, when I talk about hope, I’m speaking from experience. And when I talk about “the us’s,” I’m included.
The one where Hillary Clinton said “gay rights are human rights”
Sometimes a great speech deserves a sequel. That was the case on December 10, 2011, International Human Rights Day, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared “gay rights are human rights” at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva. Echoing her famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech, Clinton sought to elevate LGBTQ rights as the next frontier in the moral arc of history.
Clinton spoke before an audience that included delegates from countries with harsh anti-LGBTQ laws and attitudes. She pulled no punches in describing the legally sanctioned violence imposed on the LGBTQ community, and called for all countries, rich and poor, to recognize the basic dignity of its citizens. Her words were even backed by action, as she announced policies to protect queer people around the globe.
In 2018, I stood in the room where Clinton delivered this speech. As I reflected on its importance, I realized for the first time that I could be both out and safe. Clinton — and the Obama Adminstration — imagined a world where queer voices are heard, and queer lives are valued. In a time of rising phobias, this speech, delivered not even a decade ago, may seem but a relic of some bygone age. But so long as ordinary people stand up for our rights, its dream of a bright future will never disappear.
The one where Alok Vaid-Menon proclaims fashion’s degendered future
Every day, an infinite amount of rebellions transpire around the planet. Trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people everywhere are constantly defying a world defined by the gender binary. They are breaking free of the arbitrary distinctions of “man” and “woman” to live as their truly diverse, authentic selves. Alok Vaid-Menon, better known as Alok, is an artist and designer whose voice speaks to the heart of this uprising. On December 5, 2019, Alok highlighted the importance of this struggle at the Business of Fashion’s annual fashion gathering, and declared a vision of gender liberation for all people.
Drawing from the struggles of their trancestors, Alok powerfully indicted the fashion world for being complicit in societal oppression of TGNC people. They talked about how colors, fabrics, scents, and more have been arbitrarily assigned one of two rigid genders, and how those who attempt to break free of the Western gender binary are viciously attacked. As Alok knows well, TGNC folks have always been a part of the story of fashion (as stylists, for example) but their labor and creativity get exploited, and they are denied opportunities to take center stage. Alok charts the course for a better future where clothes can be so much more than merely masculine or feminine. “Fashion,” Alok emphatically states, “should proliferate possibility, not constrain it.”
Fashion is such a powerful mode of expression, not only because it lets us be who we want to be, but also see who we want to be. In being their genuine self, Alok represented a path forward, and in being my genuine self, I hope to do the same for others. After coming to terms with my identity, I found myself in society where TGNC representation is dominated by white people, and in industries like fashion, cisgender heterosexual people are often the ones modelling “gender neutral” bodies. I could never see myself truly escaping the binary walls that had long since enclosed around me. But through the smallest opening, I finally saw and heard someone like me making the impossible seem possible, and I found a way out.
Is there a queer speech you love? Tell us why in the comments, and we’ll try to tweet about it.
There may not be parades and parties this Pride Month, but there will always be powerful speeches to share.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.