With just a few moments left in a 12-minute acceptance speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s Los Angeles gala dinner on Saturday night, America Ferrera delivered a confession.
“Anything I’ve ever done on behalf of the LGBTQ community, I did in service to myself,” admitted the actress and activist. “Anything I ever did for the rights of this community I did because I believe — with every fiber of my being — that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and in the liberation of my black brothers and sisters, and in the liberation of immigrants, and refugees, and Muslims, and sikhs, and women all over the world, and the incarcerated, and the criminalized, and the uneducated, and the poor, and the hungry, and, and, and, and, and.”
The revelation got a wild reception from the capacity crowd inside the main ballroom at the JW Marriott L.A. Live as attendees jumped to their feet with cheers and applause. Ferrera, who currently stars on NBC’s Superstore, showed up to receive the organization’s Ally for Equality Award, one of two major trophies handed out during the nearly four-hour program. The other prize, HRC’s National Equality Award, went to pop superstar Katy Perry.
Ferrera was first to the stage following an amusing and equally well-received introduction from close friend and fellow actress-turned-activist Lena Dunham. The event marked the first time the two shared a stage following their July 2016 outing at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. They are both longtime supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton (as is Perry), and the fact that they all were gathered at an event which featured the initials ‘HRC‘ wasn’t lost on Dunham. “It feels nice to hear the initials ‘HRC,'” she quipped, in reference to Clinton.
Politics factored heavily into the evening’s festivities, with President Donald Trump’s name mentioned many times by HRC president Chad Griffin and Senator Tim Kaine (D-Vir.), the latter of whom delivered the night’s keynote address. Dunham kept most of her comments about her pal Ferrera, a woman whose “poise, grace and rage” blend together to make an “ideal freedom fighter,” she said. Dunham detailed how they spent most of Election Night together on Nov. 8, even if Dunham checked out early once it was clear Clinton wasn’t going to be the victor.
“America stayed,” the Girls creator and star added. “She was determined to be a part of history and a part of the Democracy, and to never, ever be erased from the narrative. The next morning, through tears, she told me and she told our friends that we could not stop fighting. And America’s friends would do anything for her — and so we won’t.”
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) March 19, 2017
Ferrera also wouldn’t accept the trophy without returning Dunham’s kind words, calling her friend an inspiration and “nourishment for my soul on a daily basis.”
She continued: “I have never met another artist more eager to lift up the voices of her sisterhood. I would’ve been content to admire you from afar and to gaze at your face on my vision board for the rest of our lives. To call you sister, mentor and friend … to receive this award from you tonight, is a profound honor for me.”
The two exchanged “I love you” and then Ferrera doled out a few additional thank yous. She noted her husband, Ryan, calling him “the kind of white, cisgender male we need more of.” Following that, Ferrera name-checked NBC’s Bob Greenblatt and Chip Sullivan for “doing what is right and what is good” by supporting the HRC. The two also support Superstore, a show that she said “celebrates and values humor in the lives of black, brown, Asian and white people, undocumented, gay, disabled, born-again Christian and struggling teen mothers.”
Ferrera used the compliment as a lead-in to an examination of representation and its importance. “We know that representation matters. We know this. Not just in the media but in schools, hospitals, board rooms, halls of power. We know that it makes all the difference to see ourselves reflected by culture with dignity, with humor, with compassion,” she said. “It is how most of us learn what is possible for us, what our place in the world is. Too often we have to spend so many years unlearning what culture has taught us about who we are or ought to be, but It doesn’t have to be that way. We can change that. Every single one of us we can leave the next generation with a better reflection of their innate worth and their inherent power simply by claiming and living in our own power.”
Ferrera then had another confession: She invited her high school drama teacher to the gala.
Her name is Sue Freitag, and the instructor changed her life by inviting her to eat her cold pad thai in the drama theater room so she wouldn’t be alone. “She created a safe space for me,” Ferrera recalled, adding that she was struggling with feelings of depression and isolation at that time. “It was the first time that entire year that I felt like I was going to make it through high school. As a member of the LGBT community, Miss Freitag has extended that safe space to countless students and faculty members. I am proud to know her, and I am grateful for the role she played in helping me find my voice. She is the kind of activist we should be supporting and resourcing. Imagine if all children and students had a Miss Freitag on campus and in the classroom.”
It’s clear Ferrera found her voice, but the 32-year-old admitted that it’s not always easy to use it. “Some days I feel tired and inadequate, incapable of making a dent,” she said. “There are days I would rather crawl under my bed with a box of Captain Crunch and all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek.”
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) March 19, 2017
That’s when Ferrera turns to her husband, friends like Lena, and other activists. “I lean heavily on a community that acknowledges it isn’t easy to maintain hope and optimism in the face of setbacks, losses, backlash,” she explained. “It’s difficult to persist in light of attacks on our rights, in light of attacks on our communities’ physical safety and in light of attacks on our spiritual well being. I find it necessary that we acknowledge and honor what this moment in history is demanding of us. We are all being called to rise up to a level of consciousness and a level of action that we never imagined we would be called to. We are being called to stand together, to fight together, breathe together, rejuvenate together…”
It’s a call that Ferrera made clear she will continue to answer as she closed her speech with a definitive rally cry. “I thank you HRC and Chad for being an ally to me and to all of our communities in this fight for equality,” she said. “I know you’re not going anywhere, and I’m sure as hell not going anywhere, so let’s do this!”
— HumanRightsCampaign (@HRC) March 19, 2017