Speaking at Black Tie Dinner, deaf activist and actress Marlee Matlin urges LGBT community to never give up the fight
TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
Recalling the barriers she has faced as a hearing-impaired person in a hearing world, and especially as a hearing-impaired actress in the entertainment industry, Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin told the capacity audience at the 30th annual Black Tie Dinner last weekend that “we must make noise as often as we can” to win the fight for equality.
Matlin recalled how she overcame the barrier of her hearing impairment as a child, and later while working in the entertainment industry, with the support of her family and friends.
When critic Rex Reed said that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science members voted Matlin best actress winner in 1986 for her role in Children of a Lesser God, they only did so out of pity, Matlin said it was her old friend Henry Winkler who “reminded me that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
And when she was attacked by a “small but vocal” group of deaf activists for speaking rather than signing the names of the nominees when she presented the 1988 best actor Oscar, Matlin said it was Whoopi Goldberg who told her, “Girl, it’s time to do what’s right for you.”
It was the guidance and friendship she got from them and from other friends and family that helped her defy the critics and overcome the obstacles in her path.
“No one should ever take no for an answer,” Matlin told the Black Tie audience, speaking in sign translated. “We can break down the barriers of prejudice if we work together. Every day, I vow never to give up the fight.”
While tying the fight for LGBT equality to her own battle to overcome prejudice against the deaf and others with physical challenges, Matlin also explained her own personal tie to the LGBT community, other than her role as a lesbian on The L Word: One of her brothers is gay.
When her brother told their parents he is gay, Matlin said, “They said that was OK, as long as he settled down and married a doctor.” Today, she added, her brother and his partner, a doctor, have been together for 26 years.
“We have to make noise,” Matlin continued. “We must all make noise on Twitter, on Facebook. We must make noise to our elected officials, as often as we can. We must fight every day until hate and discrimination are eliminated.”
And, she said, those fighting for equality can’t allow their opponents to set up barriers to deflect them from their goals.
“The only barriers out there for all of us are all up here, in our minds,” she said. “There are those who try to handicap our minds with hate, with fear and prejudice. We cannot let them do that.”
Matlin capped off an evening that included a speech by Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese and entertainment by emcee Caroline Rhea and singer Taylor Dayne.
This was the first year the Black Tie committee has brought in someone to emcee the dinner, and Rhea kept the audience laughing throughout the night. The comedian also helped pump up proceeds for the event by donating two tickets to attend Hugh Jackman’s one-man show now on Broadway with Rhea, and then meet Jackman after the show. Two individuals paid $12,500 each for the tickets.
Dayne and a single back-up singer, performing a mixture of her new songs and her iconic hits, had the audience dancing in the aisles and crowding the edge of the stage, raising their smart phones to take photos and shoot video as Dayne danced and sang.
Also during the evening, gay veteran Eric Alva, a former Marine who was the first U.S. serviceman injured in the invasion of Iraq, was presented with the Elizabeth Birch Equality Award for his work in pushing for repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, gay actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of ABC’s Modern Family was presented with the Media Award, and local advocates Chet Flake and his partner, the late Bud Knight, were presented with the Raymond Kuchling Humanitarian Award.
In accepting the award, Alva said that although in the days immediately following his injury — he lost a leg when he stepped on a land mine — he wished he would have died, he has since found renewed purpose in advocating for LGBT equality, in the military and elsewhere.
“I just could not resolve the sacrifice I made with the way my country treated me like a second-class citizen,” Alva said. “I’ll stay in the fight with you, and we will stay in the fight together until it’s finished.”
In accepting the Kuchling Award, Flake explained that he and Knight had never consciously decided to volunteer in the LGBT community — “It just happened. And one thing just led to another. When we saw something that needed to be done, we just tried to do it.”
Flake also applauded the progress the LGBT community has made. “Dallas has evolved tremendously,” he said. “Our community has become more respected, because people have become more educated.”
Black Tie Co-chairs Nan Arnold and Chris Kouvelis noted during the dinner on Saturday that tickets to the events had been sold out since August, the earliest sell-out in the event’s history.
Arnold said this week that final totals have not yet been determined. She said checks will be distributed to Black Tie’s 17 local beneficiaries and to the Human Rights Campaign during a reception Dec. 15 at the Dallas Museum of Art.