If her speech at the Golden Globes was merely a warm-up, Meryl Streep swung for the fences tonight on behalf of human rights, in a speech marked by passion, some tears, and a crowd-rousing call to action. She blasted the President who had called her “overrated” and, in an emotion-packed interlude, sang the words written by Emma Lazarus for the Statue of Liberty.
The event was the annual gala for the Human Rights Campaign, a national group that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ rights, where Streep received the group’s
National Ally For Equality Award. Among the other honorees and speakers were Senator minority leader Charles Schumer, who was more impassioned and freewheeling than we are used to seeing him on the Senate floor; Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney; and late-night host Seth Meyers. But it was Streep who carried the night.
Introducing her, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns noted that after Donald Trump tweettacked her following the Golden Globes speech, “she said if she ended up in the East River I would know whodunit.
“But they’re too scared of her to do anything,” Burns continued, to cheers from the packed grand ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. “especially when she reminds us constantly when the emperors of the world have no clothes. They’re too embarrassed to do anything but hide in their castles and tweet.” And, if her activism needed any justification, Burns added, he recalled words often, but wrongly, attributed to Abraham Lincoln: ” ‘To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.’ It wasn’t said by this man, Lincoln, but by a woman, of course. A fierce and courageous one like our honoree, she was a poet; her name was Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Please remember her.”
Then it was Streep’s turn. She spoke of the early and powerful influence of teachers when she was growing up in suburban New Jersey, and particularly of Paul Grossman, her music teacher when she was in sixth and seventh grades. He had taken the class on a field trip to the Statue of Liberty, she recalled.
“I can’t remember what I did Tuesday, but I remember that,” Streep said of the song on Liberty Island sung long ago.
“Our whole class stood at the feet of that huge, beautiful woman and we sang a song that he had taught us with the lyrics taken from the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved at the face of the monument.” Streep paused as if considering her next move, and then began to sing. “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore Send thee the homeless tempest toss’t to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
At one point she turned away from the audience, her eyes red with tears before continuing, and when finished, she half-whispered, “I can’t remember what I did Tuesday, but I remember that.”
Streep said that Paul Grossman later became Paula Grossman and was promptly fired, never seeing a classroom again. But her example and those of others, including many in the room, brought them all to today.
“So here we are in 2017 and our browsers have gone down,” Streep said. “And we’re in danger of losing all our information and we seem to be reverting to the factory settings. But we’re not, we’re not going to go back to the bad old days of ignorance and repression and hiding who we are. Because we owe it to the people who have died for our rights, and who have died before they even got their own. And 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.” She continued, making the speech more and more personal as she went along, even referencing Trump’s insults.
“I am the most overrated and the most overdecorated…and currently I am the most over-berated,” she said. “The weight of all my art is part of what brings me here to the podium. It compels me. It’s against every one of my natural instincts, which is to” – and again she lowered her voice to a near whisper – “stay the fuck home.
“It compels me to stand up in front of people and say words that haven’t been written for me, but that come from my life, from my convictions, and I have to stand up. It’s embarrassing and it is terrifying to put the target on your forehead, and it sets you up for all sorts of attacks by armies of brownshirts and bots and worse. And the only way you can do it is to feel you have to, you don’t have an option you have no option is to stand up. Be up. Act up!”
The last was of course, a purposeful reference to the post-Stonewall riots era of LGBTQ activism, and no one in the room missed the point. “We have the right to live our lives,,” she concluded, “with God or without, as we choose. There is a prohibition against the establishment of a state religion in our Constitution, and we have the right to choose with whom we live, whom we love… and who and what gets to interfere with our bodies. As Americans, men, women, people, gay, straight, L, B, G, T, Q, all of us have the human right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And if you think people got mad when they thought the government was coming after their guns? Wait’ll they come and try to take away our Happiness!”
Streep adjourned, to roaring cheers from the crowd.