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HRC Gala attracts 1,200 attendees
Trans group follows through with boycott

by Tiffany Brand . Contributing Writer

Elke Kennedy received the HRC Equality Award for her work with Sean’s Last Wish, the foundation named in memory of her son.

CHARLOTTE — The 13th annual Human Rights Campaign Carolinas (HRC) Gala, the second-largest HRC fundraising dinner in the country behind the National Dinner in Washington, D.C., was a rousing success with over 1,200 attending the Feb. 16 event.

“It’s a beautiful cause. I think it’s worth it to give a piece of myself for it,” said Brianna Collins. Around her the Charlotte Convention Center buzzed with activity — people talking, embracing and perusing the offerings of the silent auction.

“The sense of community and coming together is powerful and wonderful,” added June Carter as she made her rounds through the packed lobby.

Jennifer Roberts, the chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, was in attendance for her fourth Gala. She credits HRC with helping to keep people informed about LGBT issues in the Carolinas.

“I believe in what HRC does,” she said. “It helps build momentum for fairness and justice in our society. It helps get people together, gay and straight, of all genders and races and ages to talk about shared values and shared stories, from many minority groups in our society, in the struggle for acceptance.”

She is proud that Mecklenburg County bans employment bias on the basis of sexual orientation for county workers. She is also optimistic about the possibility of adopting domestic partner benefits for county workers and passing an anti-bullying policy for Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools that includes sexual orientation and gender-identity.

In addition to Roberts, several more elected officials and candidates were in attendance at the dinner. They were recognized by event co-chairs Scott Bishop, Robert Dogens and Cherie Green.

“It’s a great time for the community to come together,” said Jim Neal, an openly gay candidate vying for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. “I’m committed to listening to all the people of North Carolina so I can represent their voices. The values of equality and fair play drive my campaign. It means not exploiting fear and ignorance to set one group of people off against others for political gain. We’re a better nation than that.”

If Neal is victorious over state Sen. Kay Hagan in the N.C. Democratic primary in May, he will face Republican incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the general election.

Three awards were presented during the Gala.

Elke Kennedy of Greenville, S.C., was the HRC Equality Award recipient.

Actress and AIDS activist Kathy Najimy delivered the keynote address at the 13th Annual HRC Carolinas Gala in Charlotte.

“No mother should lose a child to hate. No mother should have to fight for justice for their child,” she said in a recorded video statement. “To parents who reject their children for their orientation, what would you do if you got a call at three in the morning telling you your child had been murdered?”

The Rev. Dr. Bennie Colclough was honored with the HRC Trailblazer Award. In addition to pastoring Providence Christian Church in Manning, S.C., he has worked tirelessly for LGBT acceptance, including campaigning against the anti-gay marriage amendment that voters ultimately passed in 2006.

He was the first African-American to serve on the board of the South Carolina Equality Coalition and one of two black clergy members from S.C. who answered HRC‘s Clergy Call for Justice in Washington, D.C.

“I got the call to be a progressive leader and I love it,” Colclough said prior to the Gala. He stressed the importance of introducing the discussion of sexual orientation into the church. “For some reason, sex and sexuality is taboo in the church.”

Myers Park Baptist Church and Senior Pastor Steven Shoemaker were also honored, receiving the second HRC Equality Award. The church was expelled from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for openly supporting its gay parishioners.

The highlight of the night was the keynote speech by actress Kathy Najimy, an outspoken activist and feminist who has dedicated herself to fighting AIDS for the past 25 years. Najimy displayed her sharp wit as she touched on many current political and cultural issues affecting the LGBT community. On the lighter side, she related how she first met gay icon Barbra Streisand — delivering a singing telegram in a white bunny suit.

The fun-filled night took on a more serious tone when HRC President Joe Solomonese spoke from the stage. He outlined HRC’s challenges for the coming year, including electing more LGBT-friendly Congress members and “a president who genuinely believes that we are a part of the fabric of America.”

During a recap of HRC’s lobbying efforts last year, he addressed the community unrest over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was gutted of transgender protections in the U.S. House last fall. “I understand that a few of the members of our community feel forgotten,” he said, stressing patience and urging attendees not to give up hope. “We are in the blinding, grueling middle of the fight.”

As previously reported by Q-Notes, HRC’s decision to support the trans-exclusive version of ENDA prompted one transgender activist group to boycott this year’s Gala. It’s Time-North Carolina, who had representatives at the Charlotte Convention Center and host hotel, challenged HRC’s contention that ENDA had a better chance of passing without transgender

protections. Although they bypassed the dinner, It’s Time-North Carolina members invited attendees to join them for open dialogue at a hospitality suite in the Westin Hotel.

“If Joe Solomonese were standing in front of me right now, the only thing I could say to him is listen with your heart,” said Stephanie of the Charlotte Gender Alliance.

“We’re hoping we can get [the trans-inclusive ENDA] voted on again. We can’t let it die,” It’s Time-North Carolina Director Angela Brightfeather declared. “We’re trying to get commitments from people who are running. If the bill reaches a Democratic president, I want it signed without reservation.” She added that Barack Obama backs the trans-inclusive bill, but that Hillary Clinton has been elusive about the issue.

Earlier in the day, Brightfeather and other transgender activists spoke to around two dozen college students at HRC and CampusPride’s Carolinas Youth Leadership Day. Each of the students received free tickets to the Gala.

According to The Charlotte Observer only one protester stood outside of the event. Three members of the anti-gay group Operation Save America purchased tickets and attended the dinner. One of the student attendees complained that he was harassed by the trio, who were seated at his table.

At the end of evening, 35 new HRC Federal Club members were announced, including five major donors. This year’s fundraising goal was $425,000.

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