Jean Smart Says She’s “Thrilled” to be Considered a “Gay Icon” at Human Rights Campaign Dinner

The Human Rights Campaign honored Jean Smart and Sterling K. Brown at its 2024 Los Angeles Dinner, held on Saturday night at the Fairmont Century Plaza and featuring a keynote speech by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

The night — which toasted those working for LGBTQ+ equality — kicked off with Biden’s speech following a short introduction from both First Daughter Ashley Biden and HRC president Kelly Robinson. Early into the her address, the first lady was interrupted by protesters shouting, “Ceasefire now.” One person who was escorted out by security held up a sign that read, “Queer Jews Say Ceasefire Now.” Biden momentarily paused her speech, but didn’t directly address the protesters.

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Biden spoke about her relationship with the president before jumping into issues the LGBTQ+ are currently facing. “This community is under attack,” Biden told the crowd. “Rights are being stripped away. Freedoms are eroding. More and more state laws are being passed, targeting this community.”

Biden also touched upon the administration’s victories in regards to the LGBTQ+ community including marriage equality, removing the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, and making it possible for transgender soldiers to serve openly in the military.

“We’re going to fight and we will win,” Biden said as she finished her speech. “Today, tomorrow and all of the days after until all of the people in all of the places can live freely, surrounded by love. I love you. Your president loves you.”

Later in the night, Smart’s Hacks co-star Hannah Einbinder took the stage to present the actress with the National Equality Award, beginning her speech sharing her excitement about being asked to introduce Smart because she thought “they only gave these awards to queer people.”

Hannah Einbinder
Hannah Einbinder

“Finally, I thought, now’s my chance. You know, we’re both single — but alas I was informed Jean’s being honored for her allyship to our community and is still very much straight,” the 28-year-old comedian joked. “Maybe next year.”

Einbinder praised Smart for championing LGBTQ+ visibility through storytelling, particularly noting Smart’s role in Designing Women and the show’s landmark episode spotlighting the AIDS epidemic.

Smart then took the stage, thanking Einbinder for being her “brilliant, hilarious playmate at work, my friend, my confidant and my woke-ness counselor.” The five-time Emmy-winner shared her positive thoughts on being labeled “a gay icon,” teasing, “if I’m in the company of Judy and Liza and Betty and Joan and Bette and Cher, then I’m thrilled, absolutely.” She mused, “But what was it about those women, what is it? I think it’s because they told you exactly what they thought and didn’t give a crap, but always looked fabulous doing it.”

Smart also spoke to the crowd about her experience acting in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, a trailblazing off-Broadway play focusing on a group of women that vacation yearly at a lesbian beach colony. Smart credited the play for starting her career, and shared her entry point in learning about the LGBTQ+ experience. “I personally learned about gay life through some very painful experiences,” she said. The actress then went on to share a heartbreaking and personal story about her late friend Jimmy, who died of AIDS.

Smart finished her speech touching on timely topics and their relation back to the community. “And in a world where children are starving and dying because of war,” Smart began. “It seems obscene and beyond understanding that any of us should be concerned with someone else’s sexuality,” she continued.

In the final portion of the night, Brown was presented with the Ally for Equality award. Screenwriter and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney – who won an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight, the film based on his play – introduced the star. McCraney gave a heartfelt introduction touching upon Brown’s empathy and what McCraney dubbed his biggest honor – being godfather to Brown’s two sons.

Sterling K. Brown speaks onstage during the Human Rights Campaign's 2024 Los Angeles Dinner.
Sterling K. Brown

“There’s something that I have as an overarching sort of goal in my life and that is to be the embodiment of love,” Brown began saying to the crowd. “It’s not to be loving, but it is to be love itself,” he continued.

Brown centered much of his speech around the parallels between his aunt Vera and his recent role as Cliff — who is newly out of the closet after divorcing his wife — in American Fiction, which earned the actor his first Oscar nomination. “I yearn for a world where Aunt Vera, and countless others like her, are embraced and celebrated for the entirety of their being, without exception,” he told the crowd.

Brown also urged the crowd to recognize “the interconnectedness of our struggle,” saying, “the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice cannot be seen as separate battles … they are inextricably intertwined.”

Other speakers throughout the night included Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought of The Roots, along with an impassioned speech from the organization’s president Robinson. HRC is the nation’s largest civil rights organization working towards equality for the LGBTQ+ community, with Saturday night’s event acting as a fundraiser for the organization.

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