Fifth annual Gentlemen’s Ball brings the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ to Atlanta

One of the hottest events in Atlanta’s black gay community is back, and bigger than ever. The fifth annual Gentlemen’s Ball takes over Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis Oct. 14-16, with a series of events extending beyond the main event on Oct. 15.

“This year, it’s grown into a full weekend,” says Gee Session-Smalls, who created the Gentlemen’s Ball with husband Juan Session-Smalls. It’s the signature event of the couple’s nonprofit The Gentlemen’s Foundation, and it’s undergone considerable growth over the past five years.

“It started in 2011 as a second-chance prom for the LGBT community, but it really just turned into celebrating the people who are standing out and proud of who they are, because often the media didn’t show that side of our community,” says Session-Smalls. “We thought it was important to show that we are here, and to just interject our voices into what’s going on.”

Session-Smalls compares the black-tie event to a cross between the Oscars and the Met Gala. The glamour of the event is demonstrated through the themes that each year’s ball presents, and this year’s Gentlemen’s Ball is no exception.

“This year, the theme is Harlem Renaissance,” says Session-Smalls. “The Harlem Renaissance really was about celebrating these different facets of music in the black community in the Harlem area, from musical artists to painters to writers. A lot of LGBT people of color were involved in that movement. So this year, we decided to create that Renaissance theme as well, and relate it to the different facets of the gay community, the different identities that we own in our community.”

Series of weekend events lined up

The Gentlemen’s Ball, co-hosted by Miss Lawrence of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame and author/activist Darnell L. Moore, begins at 6 p.m. at the Marriott Marquis with a cocktail hour, where guests can mingle, grab a drink and take pictures on the red carpet. The Imperial Ballroom opens at 7 p.m., with a band inside playing music from the Harlem Renaissance. Around 7:20, the awards presentation will begin. Halfway through, the presentation will break for a three-course dinner with wine service. The show will close with headlining entertainer Monifah performing.

This year’s event is surrounded by a full weekend of events. The festivities kick off Friday at 7 p.m. with a Meet and Greet at the Bailey Agency with host Xscape Puerto Rico, followed by a welcome party at a location to be determined.

Saturday will begin with a Gents Bootcamp hosted by Hollywood Fitness at 10 a.m. at the Marriott Marquis, with a series of panels and workshops following at noon. After the main event, an after party at Opera will start at 11 p.m. The weekend wraps up with a day party on Sunday at Artlanta, beginning at 3 p.m.

Numerous honorees to be feted

Between the Gentlemen’s Ball on Saturday night and the surrounding events, the weekend will be entertaining for guests. As co-host Darnell L. Moore sees it, though, this annual event is about more than having a good time.

“There is no better time than now to gather in celebration of the many people whose work and presence makes the lives of black gay men more loving and more livable,” says Moore. “The Gentlemen’s Ball is our chance to connect with and affirm the profound beauty of black LGBT lives. I can’t wait to dance, laugh, and shed tears in honor of our people in Atlanta this year.”

Among the ways the event celebrates members of the community is through its awards program. The second annual event saw the introduction of an award, and by the next year, the event became a full awards program. This year, six awards will be given out in all.

The main award of the evening is the Gentleman of the Year. The award is an all-around excellence award, based in part on career success and community involvement. This year’s nominees are Bishop O.C. Allen, Karamo Brown, Olubode Shawn Brown, Leo Martinez and Frank Roberts. The winner, as decided by the board of the Gentlemen’s Foundation, will be announced at the Gentlemen’s Ball on Saturday night.

The Gentleman of Artistry recipient is voted on by the community from a list of nominees. This year’s recipient is rapper, producer, model and TV personality Milan Christopher. The Gentlemen’s Foundation board names the winners in the other four categories – Gentleman of Promise, Gentleman of Service, Gentleman of Excellence and Gentleman of Alliance. This year’s recipients are Devin Barrington-Ward, Neo Sandja, former Georgia Voice editor Darian Aaron and state Sen. Vincent Ford (D-Atlanta), respectively.

“I think that it is important to celebrate ourselves, because I just don’t think that it’s something that happens often enough, not only in the black community, but also in the LGBT community of color,” says Session-Smalls. “Historically, many of us grow up not being loved and accepted for who we are, so a lot of times we suppress that. We don’t give anybody the chance to love who we are, and so when we do get to that point, it can be a little hard to fully accept ourselves.

“So I think the more we put those images out there for our community, the quicker we can get to healing.”

The 5th Annnual Gentlemen’s Ball
Oct. 15, 2016
6 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Atlanta Marriott Marquis
General Admission: $125
VIP: Sold Out