“There are over 1,600 people living with HIV today [in Georgia] whose access to life saving medication hangs in the balance, and there are men and women who support us that are up for re-election this year and re-election or election next year who need our support.”
The event, transformed this year into a seated dinner, drew a who’s who of local politicians and leaders to the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center. Graham told the crowd that Georgia Equality’s annual budget “hovers on a good day” around $200,000, and that only 300 of the estimated 300,000 LGBT Georgians donate to the organization each year.
In rousing closing remarks, he asked attendees to imagine all that could be accomplished if they helped get more people involved in donating and volunteering.
“That’s the world I want to live in,” Graham said. “That’s when I know it does get better for all of us — regardless of our age, aside from the fact that we live here in Georgia.”
The bulk of the event was devoted to honoring those already doing the hard work to make sure “it gets better” for LGBT people in the state. And due in part to the two award winners from Atlanta being unable to attend, the evening’s most poignant and inspiring moments belonged to “OTP” activists — those working in cities outside Atlanta’s perimeter.
Macon HIV activist Johnny Fambro, seated in a wheelchair, drew a standing ovation from the crowd for his decades of work on HIV and LGBT issues in the central Georgia city.
Now semi-retired as executive director of the Central City AIDS Network and Rainbow House in Macon, Fambro received the Guiding Star Award. It was presented by Georgia Equality board member Jamie Roberts, who told of working on HIV issues for Fambro’s organization as a recent law school graduate also in the process of gender transition.
“Even though there was some part of that that was profoundly isolating and alienating, I could always find a loving family with unconditional positive regard at the Rainbow Center,” Roberts said.
Roberts described Fambro’s diverse work that ranged from organizing against Anita Bryant, to owning a gay bar, to creating an HIV program when he saw his friends begin to grow sick and die from the disease, to running for office as an openly gay candidate and continuing to grow the city’s AIDS organization.
Fambro, who charmed the crowd with remarks that were both amusing and inspiring, humbly accepted the award by claiming that he got it for being “lazy” — that with so few people doing anything to fight for HIV and LGBT rights, he could do a little and be seen as doing a lot.
“I do accept this in the name of all the people who died for this award, for all of the people who have helped, for all of my friends who have died, and friends I have never met. It was not me who did this. It was all of the people who stood behind me on cold and rainy nights,” Fambro said.
Michael Petty, Georgia Equality’s board chair and an Athens resident, presented the Allen Thornell Political Advancement Award to Olivia Long, executive director of AIDS Athens.
“I have seen firsthand the amazing work she is doing,” Petty said, noting that when Long joined the organization, she had $55 in the checking account, and now manages a budget of approximately $1 million.
Long has also led AIDS Athens to providing advocacy as well as social services, he noted.
“In the five years she has been with the organization, she has not only changed the perspective, but she has poured her heart and her soul and her life, not just into the organization but into the cause and our community,” Petty said.
Long alternately laughed and cried as she accepted the award, joking that her reaction when she first learned of it was, “why, did they run out of people?”
She tearfully credited the hard work of her dedicated staff and voiced her appreciation to leaders like Georgia Equality’s Graham and the Boybutante AIDS Foundation, which helps raise funds for AIDS Athens, allowing her more time to focus on advocacy.
“I just feel really, really blessed,” Long said.
Earlier in the eventing, State Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat from the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates, received the Champions for Equality Award for her leadership in the General Assembly as the first openly gay person elected to the legislature.
Drenner is serving her sixth term and this year introduced the State Fair Employment Practices Act that would ban job bias against state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity, noted Kenyatta Mitchell, board chair of the Equality Foundation of Georgia.
Drenner was unable to attend last night’s event because she was at Harvard University attending the Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, a two-month leadership course, on a scholarship from the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Fund. Openly gay Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan is also attending the program.
Georgia Equality also honored Bill Nigut, the southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, with the Phillip Rush Community Builder Award, although Nigut could not attend the dinner.
Rabbi Joshua Lesser, leader of Congregation Bet Haverim and an Equality Foundation board member, detailed Nigut’s dedication to fighting both anti-LGBT hatred and anti-Semitism.
In an interview the day after the dinner, Graham said the event raised about $23,500, with proceeds from the silent auction still being tallied.
“This was the most successful event financially we’ve had for Evening for Equality,” said Graham, noting that he hopes to hit $24,000 and exceed budget projections for the event. “I’m so glad this year we really did make a conscious effort to reach beyond just Atlanta.”
About 250 people purchased tickets to Evening for Equality, Graham said.
— Dyana Bagby contributed.
Top photo: Macon HIV activist Johnny Fambro drew a standing ovation as he accepted the Guiding Star award at the June 23 Evening for Equality. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)