The invitation to attend the White House signing event came on a Monday morning. The event was planned for Wednesday.
Kendall Clawson had less than a day to make arrangements to travel from Portland to Washington , D.C. to witness a "once in a lifetime opportunity" – the signing and commemoration of the first federal hate crimes legislation to protect people from violence based on their sexual orientation.
As the executive director of Portland 's Q Center – an organization for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning community and their allies – Clawson says the opportunity to see President Barack Obama sign the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act came after a "crazy sequence of luck."
During a meeting of the National Association of LGBTQ Community Centers, she met Brian Bond, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. For the last eight years, voices from the gay community had fallen on deaf ears. Now, a president was willing to assist them in their quest for equal rights.
"This is what I told him, I said, 'Brian, if you need someone to sit with the president, I will sit with the president, I will come to the White House, I will talk to him about what is going on the ground in Portland and other places. I'm ready to move this along and not just be an arm chair quarterback,'" she says.
After several weeks of correspondence with Bond, Clawson found herself walking through the portrait-lined halls of the most famous house in America. With more luck, she was able to secure a position near the front of the President's podium. The opportune spot was nearly ruined when the excessively tall Washington, D.C. councilman Michael Brown stepped in front of her.
Not knowing who he was, Clawson decided to say something.
"I said, 'Brother, now you know, when we took school pictures, cats like you stood in the back so you could see over people like me," Clawson said.
The councilman graciously stepped behind Clawson.
With a number of others in attendance, including Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., members of the Byrd and Shepard families and singer/songwriter Cindy Lauper – President Obama eventually walked in after signing the bill and gave a gracious, heart-felt speech.
As he handed out pens commemorating the moment, Obama eyed Lauper, says Clawson. She said their exchange went something like this:
Obama: "Oh my god! You're Cindy Lauper!"
Lauper: "And you're Barack Obama!"
Obama: "I love you! I grew up listening to your stuff!"
Lauper: "You were just with Lady GaGa."
Obama: "Well, Lady Gaga is good, but you taught her what she knows."
A Needed Bill
While walking through the halls of the White House, she said she had a moment of pause.
"There I am a Black woman in a house built by slaves, now occupied by a Black man," she said. "It's something you never think will ever happen."
She hopes the latest expansion of federal hate crimes legislation will help prevent the kind of violence that occurred to Matthew Shepard or James Byrd Jr. Shepard was beaten, tied to a post and left to die outside the town of Laramie, Wy. because he was gay. Byrd was dragged behind a pickup truck to death because he was Black.
"To those who take issue with the LGBTQ community," she says. "As to why they need specific laws … Unfortunately, there are incidents that go on every day where violence is ending in death and its apparent current laws aren't going far enough."
The Q Center moved to its new community gathering spot at 4115 N. Mississippi Ave. in February. Boasting a small business incubator with an insurance agent, a landscape architect, the Gay and Lesbian Yellow Pages and the Portland Area Business Association, the center also has several large meeting rooms and possibly the largest LGBTQ library in the state.
Although the Q Center supports the political ambitions of groups such as Basic Rights Oregon, Clawson said their main mission is to provide a safe place for gays, lesbians and their allies to gather. She's been cultivating relationships with other organizations in Portland and works to push down the stereotypes for her community.
With a variety of art and culture programs, social events and causes, she sees the Q Center as a healthy alternative to the bar culture that can dominate the social scene for gays, lesbians and many straight people.
"We do a lot of cool things, and not just for gay people," she said.