My special Pride Month celebration began early — at 7:30 a.m. — when I would be giving a speech on a topic no new U.S. citizen had ever heard.
Immigration officials in Miami invited me to address 160 new American citizens during their naturalization ceremony at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Kendall.
“The USCIS Kendall Field Office is commemorating ‘Pride Month’ during our naturalization ceremony,” read my invitation in May. “We strive to provide guest speakers from our outstanding citizens in our community. This provides an even greater meaning to that special day in our new citizens lives. We would be honored to have you as our guest speaker.”
As Miami Herald’s LGBT issues reporter, I was honored.
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I was told to be there 7:30 a.m. on June 20 to give a speech about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride. My speech would be the first of its kind delivered anywhere in the world to a group of new American citizens.
Upon arriving, I was stunned to find the auditorium packed with moist-eyed, cheering new Americans from 24 nations, including 93 from Cuba, 10 from Peru, six from Nicaragua. They brought their friends, parents and children. An LGBT rainbow flag was passed into the room.
After a reading of President Obama’s 2014 LGBT Pride Month proclamation and the official swearing-in ceremony, it was my turn to speak: “I see so many happy and proud people here today. I, too, am happy and proud to be here, as are, I'm sure, LGBT Immigration employees who join us and LGBT people who may be part of your group.”
I then told the story of a Coral Gables couple, Daniel Zavala and Yohandel Ruiz, who met three years ago in South Beach when Zavala visited from Mexico. They fell in love and eventually married in Washington, D.C. Two days after the May 1, 2012, ceremony, Zavala’s tourist visa expired and he faced deportation.
“Zavala and Ruiz, along with thousands of other gay and lesbian bi-national couples, faced separation because of DOMA, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing legally married same-sex spouses,” I told the new citizens. Many gasped when they heard Zavala might be separated from Ruiz.
But they smiled and applauded when I told them of the couple’s happy ending following the June 26, 2013 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that a portion of the DOMA was unconstitutional and ordered the federal government to recognize all legally married same-sex couples. “Just like opposite-sex married couples,” I told them.
Two weeks later, I was again part of a special event shared with other gay Americans from throughout the United States: We were all invited to the White House on June 30 for an LGBT pride reception hosted by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
I attended with my husband, Miami public relations executive Ric Katz. We married Feb. 14 in New York, on our 29th anniversary together.
Another South Florida couple at the presidential reception, Miami Beach businessmen Brad Carlson and Austin Allan of Miami Beach got engaged — at the White House.
“I didn't know I would live to see this kind of thing happen,” said Carlson, 49, a board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “As we were leaving and walking down the colonnade near the visitor entrance, he turned me around, put a ring on my finger and asked me to marry him. Of course I said yes.”
“Everything the president has done for us, as people, as a community. It was icing on the cake for a perfect day,” Allan said.
If Obama were running again, he’d have their vote.
The sixth annual White House pride reception startled most of us who struggled as young men and women with our sexual orientations. To think we would be invited by a president to celebrate coming out was mindbogling.
Among the South Florida attendees: state Rep. David Richardson, 57, a Miami Beach Democrat and Florida’s first openly gay lawmaker. “I didn’t come out until I was around age 30; I was very worried how it would affect my business career.”
Richardson, a forensic accountant, attended the White House reception with Tony Lima, executive director of Miami-Dade LGBT-rights group SAVE.
Attorney Rand Hoch, founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, attended the reception with Dan Hall, the organization’s treasurer since 1990.
In 1992, then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Hoch, 59, a compensation claims judge in Daytona Beach. “I was Florida’s first openly gay judge,” said Hoch, who served one four-year term.
Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney Lea Krauss said she and life partner April Halle, also a lawyer, “were both overwhelmed and so overjoyed, we couldn’t believe we were being invited to the president’s home.”
Political consultant Christian Ulvert, board chair of SAVE, attended with husband Carlos Andrade. They married in July 2013 in Washington, D.C. and are one of eight couples who in March sued the state of Florida to recognize their marriage.
Florida voters in 2008 amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage. On Thursday, Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia overturned the ban and ordered the county clerk to marry to gay Key West bartenders. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi swiftly announced her office will appeal Garcia’s ruling, which then automatically was put on hold.
Herb Sosa, president of Unity Coalition, Miami-Dade County’s leading Hispanic LGBT group, has been out since 16 and has always had his family’s support. His date at the White House event: mother Teresa Penichet. “Being able to bring my mom — a first-generation Cuban exile — it was an honor to share that with her.”
Sosa, 50, describes the Washington visit as “absolutely surreal.”
Hopefully next year, and with each year after that, the presidential pride reception will become less a “surreal” experience for attendees and simply another celebratory event at the White House.