At the White House
by Alec Clayton
When we hopped on plane to our nation’s capital to be there when President Obama
signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act we
didn’t even know if we were going to get in. Some 27 hours later we still didn’t
know when — while standing in front of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” triptych at
the Hirshhorn Museum — we got the call from our friend Liz saying we were in.
Liz Latham is a filmmaker and a friend of many years. Over the past decade she
has been working on a documentary about James Byrd Jr. and the struggle to enact
hate crimes legislation, first in Byrd’s home state of Texas when George W. Bush
was governor and then on the national level.
Liz called Gabi on Monday, Oct. 26 and asked, “If I can get you and Alec into
the White House for the signing, would you be willing to fly to D.C. with me”
She invited us because she knew that we had been advocating on behalf of hate
crime victims and their families since our son Bill was assaulted in a gay
bashing in 1995 and subsequently committed suicide because he thought he had
nothing to look forward to the rest of his life but more beatings because he was
openly bisexual. He was 17.
Liz said she would cover our expenses and try to get donations to cover them
later. She doesn’t have a lot of money herself. She owns a cleaning company in
Seattle and cleans to put food on her table and pay rent while working on the
film. She said she was working with staff at Congressman Jim McDermott’s office
(D-WA) to get the three of us in.
In a coffee shop at SeaTac airport the next day, half an hour before our flight
was scheduled to take off, she was still frantically trying to get our
invitations confirmed. On a cell phone in the Milwaukee airport three hours
later we were still frantically trying and it was beginning to look like we
would not get in after all.
A word about flying. Despite all the hassles, the waiting, the cramped seating
and the Petri dish of germs that airliners are, I love flying. When it comes to
looking out the window at the ground below, I’m like a wide-eyed kid. We arced
north by northeast and then south by southeast over parts of Canada, over
Minnesota and Wisconsin. We lifted and dropped in and out of cloud cover. Fluffy
white clouds cast black shadows on the ground. The earth below was a patchwork
of brown, green (a very dull green) and orange. A crazy quilt of sparsely
populated country stretching for miles and miles and miles, beautiful in a stark
and dreary way, although I can’t imagine living in such isolation.
I brought a book to read, Sherman Alexie’s Flight — what an appropriate title.
Great book, but too easy to read; I finished it and had nothing to read on my
We landed at National at 10:05 Eastern time. (The official name of the airport
is Ronald Reagan National Airport but nobody in Washington calls it that, at
least none of the people w know.) It was raining. Our taxi driver was surly, and
he couldn’t find our hotel. Liz thought he was trying to take us out of the way
to run up the meter. He made three u-turns in a four-block area, but did finally
get us where we were going, the Windsor Inn, a lovely little bed and breakfast
near Dupont Circle with a cat named Mimi (aka Mona) in the lobby and a charming
Frenchman named Jamie working the desk in the evening.
Wednesday morning we went with Liz to shop for a video camera. She had not
wanted to bring her camera equipment on the plane without knowing if she would
have something to film. Then we went to visit our friend Cathy Renna, whose
office was two blocks away from the camera store. Cathy used to be a primary
spokesperson and media person for Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD)
and now runs her own communications company, Renna Communications. Her clients
include The Family Acceptance Project and The NYC LGBT Community Center. Cathy
is a dynamo. She and Liz had never met, but they hit if off immediately.
By noon we had heard back that the White House was not able to let us in. Liz
could go as a member of the press. She had to go. The signing was at 2 o’clock,
and she had the chance to film it, which was a great opportunity — it was the
dream ending she had wanted for her film.
Left to right,
outside the White House before the reception following the
signing of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes
Prevention Act: Logan, Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew
Shepard's brother and parents; Jim and Elke Kennedy, parents of
– photo by Cathy Renna
(used with permission).
We’d flown across country, so we figured we’d better make the best of it, and I
very much wanted to see the Hirshhorn Museum. We caught the Metro to the
Smithsonian (after walking down one of the longest escalator in the world, which
wasn’t working), grabbed a bite to eat in “the Castle” and then went to the
Hirshhorn. I had been there about 25 years ago but couldn’t remember much about
it. The art alone was worth the trip. Picasso, Matisse, Frank Stella, Franz
Kline, Robert Motherwell, a whole room full of de Koonings in their permanent
collection, and Anne Truitt in the current featured show. I was not familiar
with her work, but it consists of painted wood in beautiful minimalist forms
with some of the most startling and nuanced color combinations I’ve ever seen.
And the other featured show, “Strange Bodies,” with odd figurative paintings and
sculptures by everyone from Julian Schnabel to Renee Magritt. I’ve never much
liked Schnabel, but his portrait of Andy Warhol on, of all things, black velvet
was amazing. I was also blown away by Francis Bacon’s painting “Diptych: Study
of the Human Body — From a Drawing by Ingres.”
We were in the Hirshhorn when we got the call from Liz. “You’re in. Go back to
the hotel and get dressed and be at the East Gate to the White House no later
We still don’t know who pulled what strings, but though we’d missed the signing
we were in for the reception. We grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. Jamie the
desk man met us with a thumbs-up. He’d already heard from Liz, and he was
excited for us.
I put on my sports jacket and a tie. That’s as formal as I ever get. I don’t own
a suit. Liz came down to our room looking terrific in a beautiful black
pinstripe pant suit. Gabi had dressed earlier in a basic black wool dress with a
blue silk scarf. We were off to the White House.
The driver dropped Liz off at the press gate and drove us around about four
blocks to the entrance we were supposed to use. There was a huge crowd at the
gate. The first person we recognized was Marsha Botzer from Seattle, founder of
the Ingersoll Gender Center. Cathy Renna was there taking photos of everyone. We
hugged Judy Shephard and met Dennis and their son Logan, and we met Elke Kennedy
and her husband, Jim. Elke is the mother of Sean Kennedy, a gay man who was
murdered in a hate crime. She and Gabi had been in touch by email and telephone
for a couple of years but had never met in person.
It was a festive gathering, everyone chatting while waiting to be let in.
Thankfully the predicted rain had not shown up. It was pleasantly warm.
We formed a ragged line to get through the first security check. The last people
to show up were a man who looked very familiar and his date, a striking blonde
who also looked familiar. I was sure I must have seen them on television or
something and thought at first they might have been actors — faces you recognize
but can’t identify. I later found out he was Joe Solmonese, Executive Director
of the Human Rights Campaign, and she was the singer Cyndi Lauper, a longtime
supporter of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The line snaked through the gate where Secret Service agents checked our IDs
against a guest list. There was a moment of panic when I thought: What if our
names are not on the list? It would be so embarrassing in front of all those
people and so frustrating after all we’d been through just to get in. Sigh of
relief, they let us through. We went up a long ramp, through a tent, alongside a
back wall and into a room that was set up like an airport security check with
metal detectors and a conveyor belt where I deposited my cell phone and keys.
Then we went into a hallway with red carpeted floors where we passed portraits
of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush and Ronald Reagan. We passed picture windows
with a view of a lovely garden. I commented on it, and Gabi made fun of me with
something like, “What do you expect? We are in the White House.”
About every 10 to 20 feet as we walked the halls we were greeting by Marines in
full dress uniform and uniformed maids and butlers who greeted us and welcomed
us to the White House. We went with the flow of the crowd until we reached a
flight of stairs. Gabi said she needed to rest a moment before going up. A young
Marine standing by asked if we needed an elevator and escorted us farther down
the hall to an old fashioned elevator with a uniformed operator, an elderly
black man who said he’d been on the job since 1957. Imagine what tales he has to
When the doors opened one flight up the same Marine was standing there to greet
us. He must have run up the stairs but was not in the least winded and seemed to
have been standing there all along. He directed us to the reception area where
everyone was standing around talking. Another Marine was playing soft music on a
piano, and drinks and hors d’ouvres were being served. By the time we made our
way to the bar it was time for everyone to move into the next room where the
president was to speak. A servant took our wine away (I’d had only one small
sip) because apparently no one is allowed to drink alcoholic beverages within a
certain distance of the president. At least that’s what someone told me, which
seems weird considering the much ballyhooed “beer summit” between President
Obama, Professor Louis Gates and Cambridge police Sgt. Joseph Crowley. It’s not
the George Bush tee totaling White House any more.
We were jammed into the East Room, a room much too small for the crowd, where we
sweated and talked to our neighbors while waiting on Obama. It felt ridiculous
to stand there like adoring fans waiting for a glimpse of the president. But
somehow it was reassuring to know that Senator Arlen Spector and Speaker of the
House Nancy Pelosi and Attorney General Eric Holder were jammed in with us. Gabi
and I were standing next to PFLAG Executive Director Jody Huckaby, whom we had
recently met in Olympia. We talked to him about our local PFLAG chapter and
Referendum 71 in Washington State.
Finally the president was introduced. He stood at the podium in front of the
Shepards and James Byrd Jr’s sisters, Betty Byrd Boatner and Louvon Harris. He
said, “…today, we've taken another step forward. This afternoon, I signed into
law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This is
the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade. Time and
again, we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed.
Time and again we've been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in
which we're all free to live and love as we see fit. But the cause endured and
the struggle continued, waged by the family of Matthew Shepard, by the family of
James Byrd, by folks who held vigils and led marches, by those who rallied and
organized and refused to give up, by the late Senator Ted Kennedy who fought so
hard for this legislation and all who toiled for years to reach this day.”
Left to right,
outside the White House before the reception following the
signing of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes
Prevention Act: Alec Clayton, Elke Kennedy, Gabi Clayton, and
Executive Director Jody Huckaby.
– photo by Cathy Renna (used with permission).
President Barack Obama speaking in The
East Room of the White House at the reception after the signing
of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention
Act. Standing with him are Matthew Shepard's parents, Judy and
Dennis Shepard, and James Byrd Jr's sisters Betty Byrd Boatner
and Louvon Harris. – photo by
Gabi Clayton (used with
After his speech Jody introduced us to a reporter from The Advocate, who asked a
few questions and took notes. Then we all adjourned back to the reception area
where we finally got to partake of the drinks and hors d’ouvres and visit with
some of the many guests. I stood for a long time next to Nancy Pelosi wishing I
could talk to her about health care, but there were too many people trying to
talk to her. As it was time to leave, the same Marine found us and asked Gabi if
we needed the elevator. She thanked him and told him she would be fine on the
stairs as long as there was a banister.
It was dark and raining when we left the White House and shared a taxi with Jody
to the Human Rights Campaign office for another reception. We had another surly
taxi driver who, when Jody tipped him, said, “That’s a shoddy tip,” and then
reluctantly acknowledged that he had miscounted.
At the HRC reception we heard an inspiring speech by Rep. Barney Frank, whom I
mistakenly addressed as Senator, and I made smart-alecky remarks to Candace
Gingrich about her brother Newt. I told her that I also had a rabid, lunatic
Republican brother. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she laughed, and
she thanked me for coming when I told her why we were there.
After this reception we went across the street for a late dinner at a hotel
restaurant (I can’t recall the name). Jim and Elke Kennedy came in and joined
us, and we had a very enjoyable visit with them.
Finally, another taxi ride back to our hotel where we chatted with Liz for an
hour or so while unwinding. We packed and briefly slept before getting up at
three o’clock the next morning to fly back home. The flight home was grueling,
two hours from D.C. to Atlanta, then after a two-hour wait —and being
misdirected to a gate in the wrong terminal as far as you could go and back
again for a five-hour flight to Seattle. For most of the trip we were above
clouds and could not see a thing, but somewhere over Colorado or Nevada the
clouds cleared and I saw endless expanses of uninhabited desert and mountain
areas and lots of snow in the foothills of what must have been the Rockies. And
then nothing else to see until we dropped below the clouds coming in to Seattle,
where the vegetation and the fall colors were richer and denser than anything I
had seen across the wide country. It was good to be home.
Remember His Name a documentary about the murder of James Byrd, Jr. by Liz
Renna Communications -
Sean’s Last Wish, an appeal to the passage of hate crimes legislation by the
family of murder victim Sean Kennedy -
More on our trip to D.C. including photos on the Safe Schools Coalition site -
copyright © Alec Clayton 2009