Georgia Equality celebrated two decades of fighting for LGBT equality in the state with its 11th annual Evening for Equality on Saturday, June 20, at the InterContinental Buckhead Hotel.

More than 300 people showed up to the event that recognized two organizations and a rural Georgia mayor for their work for LGBT equality in the state.

This year’s recipient of the Phillip Rush Community Builder Award was Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, or SOJOURN, for its work as a faith community opposed to the so-called “religious freedom” bill that was eventually defeated in the Georgia General Assembly.

Waycross Mayor Clarence Billups received the Champion for Equality Award for public stance supporting marriage equality. Billups is one of dozens of Georgia mayors who signed a resolution supporting marriage equality, but he is located in the most rural community.

And receiving the Guiding Star Award was the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association, an organization that publicly advocated against the proposed “religious freedom” bill in the General Assembly and lobbied state legislators to oppose it.

IMG_2803Emcee for the Evening for Equality was Melissa Carter, co-host of the morning show on B98.5 FM and columnist for Georgia Voice.

Jeff Graham, executive director for Georgia Equality, began the evening on a somber note by noting this was not just a time of celebration but also a time of reflection as he asked everyone to remember the nine people killed during a Bible study class at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., by a racist gunman. Georgia Equality joined a press conference with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition to decry the massacre on June 19.

“Tonight’s also a night of reflection, recognizing that our work could not and would not work without strong allies—allies in politics, allies in advocacy and allies in the struggle for human rights,” he said. “This past week we have seen how far our country and our society still has to go.”

Those killed were “our colleagues in the movement for human rights,” Graham said, adding that we must name the attack for what it is: racism, hatred and bigotry.

“Our struggle as LGBT Georgians, as LGBT beings, is intimately in line with these and other struggles. No one is free until everyone is free,” he said.

Graham also pointed out that the Southern Baptist Convention is calling for “spiritual warfare” if the Supreme Court decides in favor of marriage equality.

“[A]s we celebrate, let us all take a moment hold dear the nine people that lost their lives, and also remember that way too many black men, way too many transgender women of color, way too many LGBT youth that have been lost this past year to racism, hatred and bigotry,” he said.

A time to look past and to look forward

Georgia Equality is an organization dedicated to political advocacy and shaping the state’s legislative policies, making it different than any other LGBT group in the state, Graham said.

IMG_2726In the past year, Georgia Equality’s accomplishments include:

• Engage youth living with HIV/AIDS with local elected officials and other leaders to be trained in advocacy and to educate on needs of those living with HIV in Georgia.

• Expand outreach throughout state, with first presence in Columbus, Georgia, and also in Albany and Augusta. Also bringing African-American and LGBT leaders together, not just on marriage, but on many issues where fights for equality intersect.

• Reached 20,000 LGBT and LGBT-friendly voters in the organization’s largest get out the vote effort through direct mail and follow-up phone calls to ensure they cast their ballots.

• Again defeated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bill, also dubbed the so-called “religious freedom” bill in this year’s session of the General Assembly. This included forming the Georgia Unites Against Discrimination campaign, funded by Gill Foundation, and a strong relationship with HRC.

• And if the year wasn’t “strange” enough, “we also had Mike Bowers,” Graham told the audiences to laughter and applause. Bowers, the infamous Georgia state attorney in the anti-gay Bowers v. Hardwick case, was hired by Georgia Equality to give his legal analysis of the state RFRA bill. Bowers said the bill’s only intent was to discriminate.

RFRA is coming back again during next year’s legislative session, Graham added, and it will be important for Georgia Equality to be again at the Capitol to fight against the bill.

Fight for LGBT equality ‘will never end’

State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the first out lesbian African-American elected to a state legislature, also talked about the fight against RFRA.

“In the last five to six years, I’ve seen this organization grow. We are not just at the tables for LGBT issues because Georgia Equality understands the magnitude of work that has to be done … we’re at the table in solidarity with other organizations … and they stand with us,” she said.

When people at the Capitol ask her if she works for Georgia Equality, Bell said she tells them, “No, Georgia Equality works for me.”

The Civil Rights movement has never ended, as the massacre in Charleston proves, Bell said. “And the LGBT movement will never end. We have to be in this for the long haul. We’re going to have gains and have setbacks. But if we can stand together … we can continue to move this state forward.”

New campaign coming in July

In July, Georgia Equality will be rolling out its “All Things Being Equal” campaign, a video-story project of people in the state who have been discriminated against and overcome the bias. Two videos were premiered at Evening for Equality—one featuring Giselle Lawn, a transgender woman who transitioned at her place of employment, Shaw Industries, in a very supportive environment; and Flint Dollar, a gay music teacher at a Catholic school who was fired after his supervisors learned he was marrying his partner.

Georgia is ready for marriage

Elected officials at Evening for Equality included: Atlanta City Councilmembers Alex Wan and Mary Norwood; State Rep. Margaret Kaiser, who is running for the mayor of Atlanta in 2017; State Reps. Stacey Evans and Vincent Fort; openly gay Fulton State Court Judge Jane Morrison; and Fulton Probate Judge Pinkie Toomer. Cathy Woolard, former president of the Atlanta City Council and lobbyist for Georgia Equality, is also running for Atlanta mayor in 2017.

Toomer is a defendant in the Lambda Legal federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But she is a strong supporter of LGBT equality and plans to have Fulton County ready to provide marriage licenses if and performing ceremonies if needed as soon as 1 p.m. at the Fulton County Government Building the day the Supreme Court’s ruling comes down.

Also attending were DuBose Porter, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia; and Jamie Ensley, the national president of Log Cabin Republicans.

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Also recognized at Evening for Equality were the founders of Georgia Equality 20 years ago, from left, Cherry Spencer-Stark, Ed Stansell and Larry Pelligrini.

Other photos from the event:

DuBose Porter, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

DuBose Porter, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

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