But the most moving moments at the May 1 dinner at the Hyatt Regency came from local leaders, who spoke of their own struggles with self-acceptance and discrimination, and urged attendees to work for equality — in the words of the dinner’s theme — “Every Day.”
“What I need for you to do so that I can continue to support you in the Georgia state legislature is I need you to be proud to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — July through May, not only during the month of June,” said State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the first openly lesbian African-American state legislator in the country.
Bell received the Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award, and was accompanied on stage by her partner, Valerie Acree; Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, and Graham’s partner, Peter Stinner.
Bell repeatedly joked with the audience that her speech was limited to two minutes, and while she went a bit over, the enthusiastic applause that frequently interrupted her remarks showed dinner patrons wanted much more.
Bell called on attendees to remember that LGBT people exist in Georgia outside of Atlanta; to care about issues like MARTA, economic justice and healthcare; and to “show up as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in other people’s movements” because “we cannot ask them to help us if we have not built the foundation.”
And at an event where proceeds are earmarked for HRC’s national efforts, Bell thanked the organization, while calling for more attention to battles in our state.
“We need your resources here in Georgia,” she said, adding that “we have a lot of firsts that are still to come in this particular state.”
“We are pushed aside so often by our national organizations because we are the South,” she said.
Messages of hope
Before Bell took the stage, Vandy Beth Glenn received the Leon Allen & Winston Johnston Community Service Award for her bravery in suing Georgia legislative leaders after she was fired from her job as a legislative editor for being transgender.
“Transgender people are fired for their gender identity every day in the United States,” Glenn said. “Without the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or with the version of ENDA that was passed by the House of Representatives in 2007, most of them don’t have legal recourse like I have through Lambda Legal.
“I accept this award humbly on their behalf,” she said.
Glenn’s award was presented by Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell, who is part of the team representing Glenn in her federal lawsuit. Glenn has also testified before Congress about the need to pass an inclusive version of ENDA.
Each year, YouthPride members participate in an essay contest on LGBT rights, with the winning essay read at the HRC Dinner. Gabriel Haggray, a student at Georgia State University and president of YouthPride’s youth board, spoke of how he works to empower other young people.
“I can relate to my peers because I know what it is like to be kicked out of my home, to be called all those ugly names, to be singled out by people I thought I trusted,” Haggray said.
“I know what it is like to be afraid of saying ‘I’m gay’ out loud, but I also know what it is like to fall in love, to not be discriminated against, to find happiness. I know what it is like to find meaningful friendships, and to make amends with the pain.”
Taking the stage as the last speaker, HRC National Visibility Award winner Andy Cohen tried to keep up the empowering theme of the evening, but his message had a hard time competing with the woman who presented it — NeNe Leakes of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast.
Cohen, the Bravo network’s senior vice president of original programming and development, is the host of “Watch What Happens: Live” and is responsible for such reality shows as “Project Runway,” “Queer Eye,” “Top Chef,” “Flipping Out” and the “Real Housewives” franchise.
Leakes spoke off the cuff about drinking and her “fabulous” table, before reading the prepared HRC presentation, which lauded Cohen for his work increasing LGBT visibility in the media.
She remained on stage behind Cohen during his speech, and her efforts to remain serious drew audience chuckles that prompted Cohen to quip, “NeNe, what are you doing behind me?”
In a speech peppered with pop culture references, Cohen compared his childhood in St. Louis at a time when there were few positive gay characters on TV to the plethora of gay people now on Bravo and other networks.
“Kids around the country can see our gaggle of gays and see incredibly talented people with strength and courage and pride in themselves,” he said. “They see gay people in an inclusive world where thriving around straight people is a way of life.”
Attendance for this year’s HRC dinner topped 900, and finances are still being tallied.
“What I can tell you is that this year’s Atlanta HRC Dinner was a tremendous success,” said Brad Difore, who co-chaired the dinner with Julie Woods.
Atlanta’s HRC Dinner Committee has been honored as the best in the nation for both 2008 and 2009, and organizers are equally pleased with this year’s event.
“There are critical issues including repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and a fully inclusive ENDA that demand action this year,” Difore said. “And the success of the Atlanta dinner will help HRC continue to fight for equality for the entire LGBT community.”
Top photo: Vandy Beth Glenn at the Atlanta HRC dinner (By Sher Pruitt)