“We have to celebrate our successes fully when we get them, and this is definitely one of those,” Julie Wood, co-chair of the Atlanta HRC Dinner committee, said of the end of the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers.
About 1,000 people are slated to attend the silent auction and dinner, and Wood expects the auditorium to be raucous when the Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award is presented to Jeff Cleghorn, who has been at the forefront of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” battle for the past 20 years.
“I think the place is going to go crazy when he walks out on stage,” Wood said. “What he has done has really embodied the theme of this year’s dinner, ‘Our Stories.’ He’s been out there telling our stories for this one particular piece of the cause, and been doing it so brilliantly and with such passion and dedication. This is a fantastic time to celebrate.”
When the last Atlanta HRC Dinner took place in 2010, Jeff Cleghorn couldn’t foresee that the fight he had been engaged in for almost two decades was finally about to end.
“This time last year, personally, I was hopeful we would repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — I’ve always been hopeful — but I didn’t know when it would happen, and I certainly had no reason to expect that it would happen this quickly,” said Cleghorn, a board member for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which led the effort to repeal the gay military ban. “Even talking about it today, it still feels a little too good to be true, having been in the trenches of such a difficult fight for so many years, to actually realize that we won.”
After participating in ROTC at North Georgia College, Cleghorn served as an officer in the Army’s military intelligence corp for almost a dozen years.
“I left in ‘96 because although I had been in a pretty long time, I was no longer able to reconcile the conflict of having to subjugate my life as a gay man as a precondition to service to my country,” Cleghorn said. “The conflict had become unbearable to me, and so I decided to leave the military to go to law school.
“But I also promised myself that I would continue to do whatever I was able to do to help those gays who continued to serve in the military, and who hopefully one day would see the day when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was gone and we could have full and open service,” he added. “And I think that day is fast approaching.”
Although Congress and President Barack Obama passed the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in December 2010, full implementation of the new gay-friendly policy is pending certification and military training.
“In the meantime, the good news is that the military’s treatment of its LGBT troops in terms of investigating them and discharging them has altered dramatically,” said Cleghorn, who represented gay servicemembers impacted by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and advocated for repeal in numerous media outlets.
“We’ve learned several things that are important, or we’ve been reminded of several things that we already knew, not the least of which is to never quit, never quit, never quit,” Cleghorn said. “You keep fighting for what you know is right, for what you believe in, no matter how dark some of the days, and months and years feel.”
‘A new dialogue’
Paul Plate describes himself as “a quiet director of a quiet agency,” a humility that leaves him amazed at receiving this year’s Leon Allen & Winston Johnson Community Service Award from HRC.
“Paul has accomplished so much in his work with Positive Impact, and is always giving the organization the credit when, really, he has been a driving force since it was founded 18-plus years ago,” said dinner co-chair Matt Garrett. “Paul has really reformed, in a lot of ways, the way the community thinks about the issue of HIV and AIDS, and so we just thought it was appropriate and timely to recognize Paul as one of our local heroes.”
For Plate, receiving the award is a chance to “begin a new dialogue” about one of the pillars of the gay rights movement that continues to fade from modern LGBT consciousness.
“AIDS has played such an important part in the history of the gay movement because it shifted our journey so much,” Plate said. “I think there was a point of fatigue where people got tired of talking about HIV, so they kind of put this conversation in the background. It’s been in the background for quite a while, and so to bring it to the forefront again, I think is what needs to happen, and I applaud HRC for choosing to do that.”
The passion that Mo’Nique exudes during a stand-up routine or while delivering an Oscar-winning performance is just as intense when she talks about society accepting LGBT individuals.
“She has been doing a lot of outreach from her show and the interviews that she’s done, speaking to the issue mostly of the African-American LGBT community and how there are things in the culture that need to change, and especially in the churches,” Wood said. “She’s a great ally, and she’s been incredibly supportive of the community on a really public format.”
Joining Mo’Nique at the Atlanta HRC Dinner is openly gay director Lee Daniels, who directed the star in “Precious.”
“When allies, people that are in positions of privilege or power, when they speak out on our behalf it really helps change hearts and change minds. So we’re thankful that she uses that platform that she has to help advance our cause,” Wood said. “So we’re thankful that she uses that platform that she has to help advance our cause.”
Top photo: Actress Mo’Nique (top left) will attend the Atlanta HRC Dinner with ‘Precious’ director Lee Daniels (bottom left), where she will receive the Ally for Equality Award. (Photos via Facebook, by Thomas Attila Lewis, respectively) This year’s local community award winners are Paul Plate (top right) and Jeff Cleghorn (bottom right). (Cleghorn photo via Facebook; Plate photo courtesy ProjectQAtlanta.com)