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Public Statements

Remarks by John Kerry at Human Rights Campaign Annual Dinner

By:
Date:
Location: San Francisco, CA

I am honored to be here with all of you who are on the frontlines of this great civil rights movement - the latest chapter in the long struggle to make America truly America for all our people. The issue is as new as a current United States Senator's unacceptable invocation of prejudice against gay men and lesbians - and as old as the still unfinished pledge of equality with which this nation began. In generation after generation, the great challenge, the defining American project, has been to widen the reach of freedom. And for all of us in this generation who truly uphold the ideal of America, the fullness of our freedom is not just your issue, it is our cause too. Your rights are not something granted to you or given begrudgingly or conceded by others; they are the common rights that belong to all of us - and they should never be denied or delayed for any of you. In the America in which I believe, and in the country I envision and hope to lead, your community is seen and valued as an invaluable part of our national community.

And what binds that community together - not color surely, or gender or a single faith or sexual orientation - what gives form and shape and soul to the American mosaic is the call to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - with equal justice for all. These are not just words inscribed on a parchment or incised on a marble building in Washington. They are the promise we have made to help our brothers, sisters, and fellow citizens - citizens like Peggy Neff, whose partner of 20 years was killed on September 11th in the attack on the Pentagon.

Peggy Neff nearly lost the home she and Sheila Hein had worked and saved for because without survivor benefits, she could not afford to pay the mortgage. The unbearable loss of someone she loved during an attack on America's ideals was now about to be deepened by America's own denial of those ideals. The Human Rights Campaign and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund took up Peg's case - and although she was ineligible under state law, persuaded the September 11th Victims' Compensation Fund to step in and provide the survivor's benefits. Her home was saved, but I say to you today unequivocally no one should have had to persuade anyone to give Peggy Neff her basic human rights.

Her loss was as terrible as anyone's on September 11th. The terrorists did not discriminate on that day; they just sought to murder Americans. On United's flight 93  Mark Bingham stood up to resist the hijackers and joined with passengers to stop the plane from crashing into the White House or the Capitol. New York fire chaplain Mychal Judge was killed by falling debris while he ministered to a fallen colleague. I believe it's time to remind politicians quick to give speeches about the heroes of 9/11 that these men were heroes - heroes who happened to be gay. And those who were helped or saved that day did not ask whether their rescuer was straight or gay; for in that time we were what we always should be - one America.

So I make you this pledge: If I have the honor on January 20th, 2005, to take that oath and swear to uphold the Constitution and principles of this nation,  I will be a President for all Americans.

I will be a President who insists that no one should be denied access to a partner who is in a hospital in intensive care.
I will be a President who stands up against the prejudice and injustice so many in this room have felt or feared - as I have stood up since my very first year in the Senate, when I worked with leaders in the gay and lesbian community and introduced the Civil Rights Protection Act of 1985 to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

I am proud that California has had the vision and foresight to lead the country on issues of equality and fundamental human rights - and I'm eager to see the day when Jackie Goldberg's ground-breaking domestic partnerships bill becomes the law of the land in California. But I know as you do that most gay people in our country aren't lucky enough to live in a place where the cherished rights protected for most of us are guaranteed for all of us. Our struggle at the federal level isn't over - and we need a new national commitment to get there.

For me, the march toward the fullness of freedom is the essence of the American journey. This nation is being created as we speak - by a million separate acts of courage and decision - to take a risk, to dare and to speak out. What we seek is not change, but completion - an America that lives up to its values, that transcends the shortcomings and builds on the proudest parts of its history.

Yet today, our nation is off course - not only in the march toward equality, but on great issues ranging from the economy to education to health care and social justice.

Let me put it plainly. On every one of those issues, and more, this Administration has moved America backwards or in the wrong direction: The budget busted, the stock market down, unemployment up, the uninsured up, crime rates up, and America increasingly isolated in the world.

I'm running for President to put our economy back on track and put Americans back to work. And when you look at two and a half million jobs lost in two and a half years, I think everyone in this room knows that the one person in this country who needs to be laid off is George W Bush.

Ask yourselves the simple question: Are you better off now in the security of your retirement savings, in your investments or your career, in your earnings or the cost of health care? Can we afford to see our environment on the auction block for special interests - and polluters let off the hook? Can we accept a government that works for the few, but not for you?

Now the Republican Party thinks they can make you forget about every one of these issues by running George W Bush as
Commander In Chief.

Well as someone who trained for my two tours of duty in Vietnam right here in San Francisco at Treasure Island, I'm proud to say I know something about aircraft carriers. I worked with aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. And I can't wait for the chance to remind this President that having a skilled navy pilot land you on an aircraft carrier does not make up for a failed economic plan, a lack of a health care plan, or an environmental agenda written by his campaign contributors. 

It is time we had a President who is on the side of the many, not the few - a President with a real economic strategy to get this nation moving again. That means investing in people; it means restoring fiscal discipline, and it means that when an Enron bilks the retirement savings of ordinary investors and shatters consumer confidence, those greedy few at the top are going to go to jail.

I'm running for President to make our public schools a focus for excellence not a photo-op for tomorrow's front pages—and I am going to criss-cross this country and hold George Bush accountable for making a mockery of the words 'Leave No Child Behind.'

I'm running for President because it is long since overdue that the United States of America stops being the only industrialized nation on this planet that doesn't have health care available for all of its citizens. I'm running to make health care in America a right and not a privilege - to make affordable every American the same health care plan that the President and Senators and Congressmen give themselves. And nothing more clearly shows the seamless nature of the challenges we face - because the health care plan I propose will provide for something I have long sought for and fought for - the simple justice of extending health insurance coverage to the partners of federal employees.

I'm running for President because the Supreme Court is at stake and we have to stand up for civil rights, equal rights, and a woman's right to choose. When I'm President, there will be no John Ashcroft treading on the Bill of Rights.

And I'm running for President to make America energy independent - because America should never be held hostage to hostile powers and foreign oil.

Today our country is undeniably strong in the world, but we can be stronger - not just in the power of our arms, but in the
power of our ideals. For as committed as we are to having a military second to none, even this great nation needs to win friends and allies on this increasingly small planet.

In the fateful fight to defeat terrorism, we need to share intelligence - and share the burden with other nations  -- and when we do have to defend our country and its values, we cannot afford to waste the bravery and service of a single American. In Washington, D.C., in the old congressional cemetery a lot of people don't notice a veterans' simple tombstone with a
haunting inscription:  'the Army gave me a medal for killing a man, they gave me a dishonorable discharge for loving one.' I am proud that I was the only combat veteran in the United States Senate to testify before Strom Thurmond's Armed Services Committee against the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy - and more than ever I believe there is a place for every American who wants to serve and defend their country and this is a time to find public servants not public scapegoats.

These issues symbolize something even bigger; it is not just about the defense of America, but about the definition of America. For the stronger, safer, more secure country we seek is not just for some of us, but for all of us.

We know there was a time when many of our nation's leaders would have preferred that gays and lesbians stay in the closet and stay out of the way. For some of our leaders that time is still now. But I'm running because I believe that time must end.

The past decade brought one or two steps forward, and one step back. Gay and lesbian issues came to the forefront of the civil rights struggle. But DOMA became law and ENDA still has not passed. I'm proud that I was the only Senator running for reelection to vote against DOMA - because it represented the conservative right's hijacking of the United States Senate for the sole purpose of gay-bashing, and that's wrong. I will not rest until ENDA at last becomes the law of the land—and when the Republicans come forward with their new, divisive, politically contrived, poll-tested, wedge issue of a
Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage, I will stand against it. 

Across this country, millions of gays and lesbians have come out and been welcomed, embraced, and cherished by families and friends. Yet Matthew Sheppard was crucified on a darkened lonely road simply for being who he was. And I will not rest until this nation outlaws hate crimes at the federal level. We may not be able to banish hate from every heart, but we can and should send the hate criminals to prison.

The time has come - but only if we're willing to stand up the way Harvey Milk did right here in San Francisco, when he brushed aside hatred, suspicion, fear and death threats to serve his city. Even as he foretold his own assassination, Harvey prayed that "if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." He knew that true citizenship belongs only to a people armed with the courage and conviction to face down  prejudice.

I do not tell you that it will be easy; in the long history of our land, it never has been. But I pledge to lead in the struggle until we prevail. And I ask you to join me not just in a campaign, but in this resolve - to restore America's economy, to lift up America's vision, to build up America's true strength, to overcome the barriers and achieve one America that in our time fully lives up to that timeless standard of "liberty and justice for all.

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