Onstage accepting the Human Rights Campaign's Ally for Equality Award, America Ferrera shared a personal story about searching for representation as a young Latina in America. "I didn't grow up seeing a lot of examples of short, brown, chubby, poor daughters of immigrant parents [who] grow up to be successful actresses and loud activists," Ferrera said. "I had to use my imagination most of the time."
Thankfully for Ferrera, she found friends and mentors who encouraged her to use her talent and find her own voice. "One of those teachers is in the room with us tonight," the actress revealed, flashing a huge smile at the audience. "My high school drama teacher, Sue Freitag.
"In my senior year of high school, when I struggled with feelings of depression and isolation, [Freitag] created a safe space for me," Ferrera said. "I will never forget the first time she invited me to eat my cold pad thai with her in the drama theater room. It was the first time that entire year I felt like I was gonna make it through high school. "
HRC, the nation's largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, hosted its annual gala at the J.W. Marriott hotel in downtown Los Angeles to honor Ferrera and musician
Highlighting the work of her mentor, Ferrera continued, "As a member of the LGBTQ community, Ms. Freitag has extended that safe space to countless students and faculty members. She has opened up a dialogue about equality. And she has transformed her campus into a safe one for all of her students and colleagues. I'm proud to know her and I am grateful for the role she played in helping me find my voice."
Ferrera, a child of Honduran immigrants, received three standing ovations during her speech, which touched on representation, social activism and inclusion.
"I must confess that anything I've ever done on behalf of the LGBTQ community, I did in service to myself," Ferrera said. "Anything I ever did for the rights of this community, I did because I believe with every fiber of my being that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters," she said to wild applause. "And in the liberation of my black brothers and sisters. And in the liberation of immigrants. And refugees. And Muslims. And Sikhs. And women all over the world. And the incarcerated, and the criminalized, and the uneducated, and the poor, and the hungry, and, and, and, and." Ferrera's speech trailed off to another standing ovation.
Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's vice presidential running mate and a senator from Virginia, kicked off the gala with a keynote speech about heroism and the Constitution. Throughout his speech Kaine alluded heavily to
"We are living in a stress test of our constitutional democracy," he said. "We have taken this thing in for the 230-year checkup to see whether the institutions that were put in place in 1787 still exist. And if Congress does, and the courts do, and the press does, and the citizens do the roles that we were intended to do, this chapter will have an end. And the end of the chapter will be that our system was vindicated over any temporary occupant of any of the positions in the Constitution."
HRC president Chad Griffin also mentioned the current administration, though far less subtly.
"We are going to hold Donald Trump's tiny little hands to the fire every day," he said. "We won't stand by as he waves a rainbow flag while undermining equality behind closed doors. We won't stand by while he denies asylum to LGBTQ refugees fleeing persecution, violence or even death. Or while he deports thousands of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants living in America today."
At the end of the night, Perry was honored with the prestigious National Equality Award, the organization's highest honor. Longtime friend and "Westworld" star Shannon Woodward, presented Perry with the award, and also threw Ferrera her vote for future president.
In her acceptance speech Perry spoke about her religious upbringing and slow journey toward activism. "My first words were 'mama' and 'dada,' 'God' and 'Satan,'" she said. "When I was growing up, homosexuality was synonymous with the word 'abomination.' And hell, a place of gnashing of teeth, continuous burning of skin and probably Mike Pence's ultimate guest list for a barbecue.
"No way, no way! I wanted the pearly gates and the unlimited fro-yo toppings. So most of my unconscious adolescence, I prayed the gay away at my Jesus camps. But then in the middle of it all, in a twist of events, I found my gift. And my gift introduced me to people outside my bubble. And my bubble started to burst. These people were nothing like I had been taught to fear, they were the most free, strong, kind and inclusive people I have ever met. These people are actually magic, and they are magic because they are living their truth. Oh my goddess, what a revelation! And not the last chapter of the Bible."
Choking back tears, Perry dedicated the award to "one of my greatest champions of my life," longtime manager Bradford Cobb.
"These days, I get an incomparable high from finally knowing myself and it feels more real than any story I was ever told on a felt board," she said. "And truth be told, I think a lot of that has to do with the magic that has rubbed off on me from all of you. Thank you so much."