Lewis also urged the LGBT community to “hang in there and never, ever lose hope or give up. Continue to push and continue to organize and we must all use the vote. It is the most powerful, non-violent instrument.”
Molly Simmons, co-chair of HRC’s national board of governors, honored the many Georgia politicians in attendance before Georgia House District 56 candidate Ken Britt, who is gay and a longtime political advocate, introduced outgoing HRC President Joe Solmonese.
This dinner was the last for Solmonese before he leaves his position at HRC for a new venture with the Obama 2012 campaign.
“Atlanta was the first HRC dinner I ever spoke at seven years ago. I’ve really grown to love this community so it’s a sad night for me,” Solmonese said.
“We have a lot more work to do here in Georgia. This is an incredibly committed community so there’s no doubt that we’re going to continue to see change. We have a lot of healthcare providers here tonight. We’re doing a lot of work to try to change that experience for the LGBT people and their families,” he said.
Local activists honored
Several years ago, HRC launched a Healthcare Equality Index to rank healthcare providers in a similar way to their Corporate Equality Index. To highlight HRC’s goal of changing medical care for LGBT Americans, HRC honored the Health Initiative, which recently expanded its scope and changed its name from the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative, with this year’s Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award.
Representing the Health Initiative was Executive Director Linda Ellis, who was there with her partner, Lesley Brogan, and their 13 year old son, John. Ellis noted that although HRC works for national policy changes and the Health Initiative works at a local level, they are absolutely working toward the same end.
“The HRC has made this national effort with the Healthcare Equality Index which is raising the levels of LGBT inclusiveness at the policy-making level with the major healthcare systems. Our work is more at the street level making sure that they take the policies throughout the various healthcare systems and make them practical — that they make it all the way down to the bedsides,” Ellis said.
Asked in an interview for her reaction when first learning about the honor, Ellis replied, “We were shocked. It was an amazing surprise and a wonderful feeling.”
The winner of last year’s Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal activist Jeff Cleghorn, was also elated for the Health Initiative.
“Linda Ellis is a hero. The Health Initiative does so much work for so many people and has for years. People who do that kind of work need to be recognized, valued and appreciated. I’m glad to see them getting their long overdue recognition,” Cleghorn said.
Rev. Phillip Thomason, outreach and pastoral care minister at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Atlanta, was recognized with the Community Leadership Award.
Addressing the dinner guests, Rev. Phillips said, “My mom instilled in me what fairness is all about, what equality is all about. To be able to share what little bit of knowledge I have, to be able to give folks a sense of belonging. If you’re poor, you’re rich, you’re black, you’re white, if you’re gay or you’re straight, it’s all one journey that we’re on. When we miss that thinking that we’re all on one journey, it’s going to be a tough world to live in.”
‘Dare to dream’
Matt Garrett, co-chair of the event, reminded the audience that the first Atlanta HRC dinner 25 years ago had the theme “Dare to Dream” and made a point to honor all of those LGBT freedom fighters that came before him.
“We are celebrating 25 years of Atlanta’s deep, rich history of involvement with this movement. As we honor those past leaders, having future history makers like Tammy Baldwin in the room is great. There were people in the past who were arrested and had to put their lives in danger for the cause and we’re fortunate that we don’t have to do that today. That should motivate us more to give our time, our skills and our resources to keep progress going for the next 25 years,” he said.
The main speaker for the evening was U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Baldwin is the first out lesbian and first openly gay non-incumbent member elected to Congress. GA Voice talked with Baldwin before the dinner and she shared her thoughts about the past and future.
“As the Atlanta HRC dinner celebrates its 25th anniversary, it’s good to reflect on how far we’ve come as a movement. I think back 25 years and there were just a handful of openly gay and lesbian officials in the world. Today, in this country, we’re in the hundreds. We’re poised to break through glass ceilings and that’s what I’m doing right now as I run for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin,” she said.
If elected, Baldwin will be the first openly lesbian member of the U.S. Senate.
Sean Hayes, famous for his role as way-gay Jack McFarland on the sitcom “Will and Grace,” was honored with the Visibility Award.
As if to put an exclamation point on the fact that so much progress had been made in the past 25 years, attendees were reminded that at the first dinner, only a few people in attendance volunteered to be photographed because of fear of being outed.
Now, 25 years later and for the first time in the history of the dinner, there were several members of the military who were present and in full dress uniform thanks to the end of the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Politicians at the table
The May 5 Dinner attracted a list of politicians and former political leaders. In addition to Baldwin and Lewis, attendees included state Sens. Vincent Fort and Nan Orrock; state Reps. Stacey Abrams, Simone Bell, Pat Gardner and Rashad Taylor; Morrow Mayor J.B. Burke; Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner; and former Atlanta City President Lisa Borders.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not attend the dinner. The mayor was traveling, according to openly gay spokesperson Reese McCranie, but purchased a table that seated several local activists, politicians and city officials, including Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta); state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), Sonji Jacobs, the mayor’s director of communications; Yvonne Cowser Yancy, the city’s Commissoner of HR; and the Atlanta Police Department’s Deputy Chief Renee Propes, Lt. Brent Schierbaum and Alice Johnson.
Top photo: The Human Rights Campaign honored actor Sean Hayes at the 2012 Atlanta HRC Gala Dinner (by Brent Rence Corcoran/RNZ Photography)