The other day I was in Detroit to speak at that city’s annual black-tie Human Rights Campaign dinner. About 1,200 people. I was to speak first, followed by Allan Gilmour, who until a few years ago held the number two spot at the Ford Motor Company. (Back then, as Ford’s Vice Chairman, he felt he could not be openly gay. Retired, and with the world having come a long way, that’s no longer an issue.)

Allan would be followed by Elizabeth Birch, who heads the Human Rights Campaign (and who, with her partner Hilary, has adopted two wonderful babies), followed by Senator Bill Bradley, the keynote speaker.

Though the average American claims to prefer death to public speaking, I was not overly concerned. It’s easy going first. The audience is fresh; you don’t have to worry about repeating what someone else has said; and then you get to eat. (Bad idea to eat first — all the blood that should be in your brain, thinking, rushes to your stomach, digesting.)

As it happened, the Bradley schedule required his leaving as quickly as possible, so the speaking order was changed to put him first. Once everyone was seated after the cocktail hour, and once the pre-set salad had been consumed, the dinner chairs introduced Senator Bradley.

Three minutes into his speech, someone with a headset who apparently actually believed that the Senator would be speaking for just 10 minutes found me and took me over to the on-deck area.

The Senator spoke — wonderfully — for half an hour.

(Let me hasten to say: we at the Democratic National Committee are neutral. The Vice President, as more and more people will come to realize, is also wonderful. Either one of them would be a terrific president.)

Bradley’s delivery was measured, as he leaned down, down, down to the lectern mikes. No thumping or shouting or histrionics. But his message rang clear and true: equal rights for all, including gays and lesbians.

(You can’t be fired in America just for being Jewish or black. But in most places you can be fired just for being gay. Or consider this: Georgia Congressman Bob Barr’s third wife — or his fourth if he should remarry — is entitled to full spousal Social Security benefits if something should happen to him. But the lifelong partner of a gay man or lesbian receives not a dime, even though the gay couple may have paid more in taxes and been together five times as long.)

The crowd interrupted many times for applause and when the Senator was done, he received a standing ovation.

Spirits and noise level in the ballroom were high.

Bring on the entree! It’s nine o’clock. We’re hungry!

At which point, an invisible voice from the ceiling announced, “Pleadh wllcccm the trzhr othe demcrtc natl commi an auth andy tobzhzh” — over the noise, who knows what anyone listening might have been able to make out. And no one was listening. The crowd was excited by the speech they had just heard, excited to be with their friends, and excited by the prospect of the entree. And even if they had heard — can you think of an introduction that sounds duller than, “Please welcome the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee?” (“Please welcome the county auditor,” perhaps?)

Up I bound to the stage, and this is not the first time in my life I have ever given a speech. But it is the first time in my life I have been shorter than the microphones.

Yes, the Senator had been stooping to reach them, but for me they were at hairline level. And I’m not sure, but I think my hairline may even have begun to recede a little in recent decades.

Hours later I would remember that lecterns like this have levers to raise and lower them. But with the bright lights and the need to seize the moment, I was just too stupid to think that fast.

“That’s a tough act to follow,” I shouted, hoping to get people’s attention, “and the great thing is — it wasn’t an act! The Senator means it! And so does the Vice President! And the President! And the Democratic party!” . . . my thought being to capture the enthusiasm in the room and segue straight into my own remarks, about being so proud of all that the Democratic Party has accomplished for millions of gay Americans and their families. “I will be brief,” I continued — eliciting a cheer from a table someplace in the back. This turned out to be my only applause line.

I have no idea what else I said, as I raced through my notes to get out of the way of the sliced chicken Kiev. I think I may have mentioned that the Log Cabin Republicans (the gay group) had been barred from the Texas State Republican convention, and that the Governor of Texas — his name escapes me — did nothing to reverse that.

Anyway, here’s my advice. Vote for either Gore or Bradley — enthusiastically — but do anything you can to avoid following them at the podium.

Also, not to get too personal, but be sure to check a new formal shirt for pins everywhere before you get all tuxed up and cummerbunded. Talk about surprises! But that’s another story.

 

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