But Daniels’ own story proved among the most inspiring of the evening, as he opened his remarks with a simple declaration: “I am Lee Daniels and I am gay. I am 51 years old and I am gay. I was born gay. This I know is true.”
“I pay my taxes — OK, sometimes — but I really do pay my taxes,” Daniels joked, before making a more serious point.
“I am a good father. I am a very dedicated son,” he said. “I try to be a good partner… There is no reason I should be made to feel like a second-class citizen, but that is what the government says I am.”
Daniels then presented the Ally for Equality award to Mo’Nique, noting “she has been trying to be a gay man for the last 20 years.”
Mo’Nique also kept her comments personal, describing how her family shunned her effeminate gay cousin, how her best friend from elementary school finally came out as a lesbian, and how she felt embraced early in her career by gay audiences who saw her as more than “this fat black girl.”
“To give me an award this evening for loving is a little confusing because I feel like I should be giving you an award for loving me when no one else did,” Mo’Nique said, adding that “God made you just the way you are supposed to be.”
“Let’s get back to loving without judgment, and maybe we won’t have to keep having these dinners for acceptance,” she said.
The Atlanta HRC Dinner also included presentations of two local awards. Jeff Cleghorn, who has been at the forefront of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” battle for almost 20 years, received the Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award.
Cleghorn served in the military, then worked for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a non-profit dedicated to helping those impacted by the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. An attorney, he now lives in Atlanta and serves on SLDN’s national board.
Cleghorn was honored late last year when he was invited to the White House to witness President Barack Obama sign legislation that will repeal the ban on openly gay service members. Repeal has not yet been implemented, and HRC President Joe Solmonese said at the Atlanta dinner that his organization would fight any attempts to stall it.
Accepting the Humanitarian Award, Cleghorn, who is from the small town of Griffin, Ga., noted that his mother was in the crowd and described how “the movement for equality saved my life.”
“It saved me from a life of shame because it empowered me to come out and stand up against the lie — the absolute lie — that there is anything wrong with who we are as LGBT Americans,” Cleghorn said.
Paul Plate, executive director of Positive Impact, received the Leon Allen & Winston Johnson Community Service Award.
In a video introduction, Plate discussed how his job at the HIV agency allows him to combine his work with his personal life and passion.
“When I first heard about GRID [gay-related immune deficiency, an early name for what came to be known as AIDS], I knew it would be the rest of my life,” Plate said, noting his own diagnosis 27 years ago and the death of his partner 13 years ago.
Plate accepted HRC’s award on behalf of himself and Positive Impact, which provides culturally competent mental health and other services to people with HIV.
Earlier in the evening, local HRC member Maggie Lopez, accompanied by her spouse, Patt Cianciullo, told her story of battling breast cancer in a state that refuses to recognize their relationship.
To rally attendees to join the HRC Federal Club, a group of donors who give at least $1,200 per year, Lopez noted the need to fight for rights for LGBT couples — particularly overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to ignore gay marriages performed in other states.
Lopez and Cianciullo are legally married in Connecticut, but have no legal relationship since moving to Georgia because the state won’t recognize their union.
As Cianciullo accompanied her to hospital and doctor visits, Lopez said she was alternatively referred to as her “friend,” “emergency contact” and even her “ride home,” but not her spouse.
“Patt was there for me when I had cancer, the government was not … DOMA hurts my family,” Lopez said.
Victories and ongoing battles
This year’s Atlanta HRC Dinner came at what Solmonese, the organization’s national president, called “a tipping point” for LGBT rights.
In remarks at the dinner, a video presentation and interviews before the event kicked off, Solmonese stressed a series of recent victories for gay and transgender rights. They included President Obama signing hate crimes legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, as well as the Obama administration implementing hospital regulations that protect gay couples and refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act against federal lawsuits.
Solmonese also noted Atlanta law firm King & Spalding’s decision to drop the DOMA defense case after pressure from HRC. The private law firm, which has been known for its gay-inclusive policies, had originally agreed to take the case for the Republican-led House of Representatives, which stepped in to defend the gay marriage ban when Obama wouldn’t.
As “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal nears implementation, key priorities for HRC will include expanding marriage rights to additional states and helping reelect President Obama, Solmonese said in an interview before the start of the dinner.
GA Voice and Project Q Atlanta collaborated on coverage of the 2011 Atlanta HRC Dinner. GA Voice wrote this article and shot video of stage speakers, Project Q shot video interviews before the dinner and Brent Corcoran of RNZ Photography provided photos for both media outlets.
Top photo: ‘Ally for Equality’ award winner Mo’Nique (by Brent Corcoran/RNZ Photography)