On Feb. 11, 2017, Meryl Streep accepted the Ally for Equality Award given by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ rights group.
The honor came about a month after her rousing speech at the Golden Globes accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award, when she took on Trumpism (without ever once saying the president’s name), celebrated an open and fair press, and defended immigrants everywhere.
Even with the bar held so high, though, Streep’s remarks at the HRC gala didn’t disappoint.
Streep’s speech touched on several key points that put this moment in LGBTQ history clearly into perspective, inspiring us to keep pushing onward:
1. First, Streep reflected on the progress we’ve made so far, with a story from her own childhood about a transgender teacher who changed her life — and the country.
“When I was a young girl growing up in middle-class New Jersey, my entire artistic life was curated by people who lived in the straightjacket of conformist suburban life,” she said. “In the late ’50s and early ’60s, in my neighborhood, all the houses were the same size, in the developments they were the same style, and in school the goal was to put pennies in your loafers, to look alike and act alike. Standing out, being different was like drawing a target on your forehead. You had to have a special kind of courage to do it.”
“Some of my teachers were obliged to live their whole lives hidden, covertly,” Streep said, referencing her sixth- and seventh-grade music teacher Paula Grossman, who transitioned later in life, as “one of the bravest people [she] knew.” (Streep’s choice to refer to her former teacher by her deadname, however, was a disappointing moment in an otherwise excellent speech.)
As Streep pointed out, Grossman had been fired for being transgender and fought the decision for seven years in a case that eventually made it to the Supreme Court.
“She was a garrulous, cantankerous, terrific teacher, and she never taught again. But her case set the stage for many discrimination cases that followed.”
2. Streep slammed the president’s disregard for governing norms and human rights — by thanking him and his most voracious supporters for the reminder that we can’t take progress for granted.
“Amazingly, and, in terms of human history, blazingly fast, culture seemed to have shifted,” Streep said, noting how the 20th century brought up an unprecedented fight for equality among women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and more.
“We should not be surprised that fundamentalists, of every stripe, are exercised and fuming. We should not be surprised that these profound changes come at a steeper cost than we originally thought. We should not be surprised that not everyone is actually cool with it.”
“If we live through this precarious moment, if his catastrophic instinct to retaliate doesn’t lead us to nuclear winter, we will have much to thank our current leader for,” she said. “[Donald Trump] will have woken us up to how fragile freedom is. His whisperers will have alerted us to potential flaws in the balance of power in government. To how we have relied on the goodwill and selflessness of most previous occupants of the Oval Office. How quaint notions of custom, honor and duty compelled them to adhere to certain practices of transparency and responsibility. To how it all can be ignored.”
3. And Streep ended her speech with a rallying cry, encouraging all of us to double down on our efforts to keep the fight for progress alive and honor those who came before us.
“Here we are in 2017, the year the browser seems to have gone down. In danger of losing much of our information, we seem to be reverting to factory settings,” Streep said. “But we are not going to go back to the bad old days of ignorance and harassment, oppression and hiding who we are. Because we owe it to the people who have died for our rights — and who died before they got their own.”
“We owe it to the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement, like Paula Grossman, and to the people on the front lines of all civil-rights movements, not to let them down.”
“The good thing about being older is that you do get to mark the progress of decades,” Streep concluded. “You can honestly say, ‘Things are better now.'”
“But what is the famous quote? ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance?'” she asked rhetorically. “Everybody thinks that was Jefferson, but it was an Irishman, John Philpot Curran, don’t ‘cha know, who also said: ‘Evil prospers when good men do nothing.’“