Brandi Carlile may be a "sad gay," as she shared during a speech at a Human Rights Campaign gala -- but she also remains hopeful in a time when LGBTQ+ rights are under attack.
The lesbian singer, while accepting HRC's Visibility Award Saturday at the LGBTQ+ group's Los Angeles dinner, shared a story of marriage to her wife, Catherine Shepherd, to illustrate the power of joy in the face of institutional abandonment.
When Carlile first performed at an HRC event in the early 2000s, she sang the melancholic "Hallelujah" after her state, Washington, had failed to pass a marriage equality initiative. But that didn't stop Carlile from tying the knot to her loved one. In fact, "we got married a bunch of times, because we like to drink and get dressed up a lot," shared Carlile, who noted how the government wouldn't recognize her union with Catherine at the time under the Defense of Marriage Act.
In one of these ceremonies, Carlile was hopeful for a higher form of recognition; a priest had agreed to officiate the wedding, but canceled at the last minute due to an alleged bout of E. coli -- and also, she had mixed up the date. That left Carlile "standing outside a giant barn in a dress" feeling deserted.
However, saving the day, a friend from the couple's church stepped in to officiate. "And it was exactly as legitimate slash illegitimate as if a good priest had done it. We got drunk and sang Madonna-themed karaoke. And the rest is history. We got two kids, and we're all dressed up with you angels receiving this nearly unspeakable honor," she recounted.
Carlile noted how this story resonates in a time when an unprecedented amount of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has appeared in state legislatures -- notably, Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, which would prohibit education of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools to young children, as well as political assaults on trans youth in Texas.
"We're here and the priest ain't coming," Carlile noted of the current political moment. "That legitimacy, that dignity, the pro-queer pro-trans legislation. The validation that we all need is not here today. It's in this room, but it's not in this country."
The Grammy-winning artist bemoaned how conservatives have turned LGBTQ+ rights into "wedge issues" to promote their own political agendas. "They weaponize sexuality, and they sequester us off in the categories of deviants, making us inherently age-inappropriate," she said, adding, "And yet, we celebrate. That's what leaders do. We honor one another in this way because we come from a long line of people who know how to find joy right smack in the middle of a fight. And that's where we are."
"And not unlike my first HRC night in the early 2000s. This isn't the most blissed-out moment in queer history. I know where it's headed though," said Carlile, who then burst into song from her acclaimed track "The Joke": "I have been to the movies, I have seen how it ends."
"It ends at Madonna-themed karaoke," she joked. "In all seriousness and gratitude, we will win these fights like we won the ones that came before 'em. There's beauty in the struggle. There's joy in the fight, and I will never stop being grateful for this honor and this visibility. Thank you so much, and God loves you."
Carlile was presented with the Visibility Award, an honor "for LGBTQ+ individuals who are living open and honest lives at home, at work, and in their greater community," according to an HRC press statement, by soccer star Abby Wambach and her wife Glennon Doyle. Transgender 9-1-1: Lone Star actor Brian Michael Smith was also honored.
The HRC Los Angeles dinner was held at the JW Marriott in DTLA. HRC's interim president Joni Madison and Rep. Sharice Davids also gave remarks at the event, which featured performances from Shea Diamond, Vincint, and comedian Dana Goldberg.
Watch Carlile's speech below.
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