Annually, Charlotte’s LGBT community gathers to honor the leaders and community members who excel at positive action, visibility, growth and advocacy for all. This year, the Don King Awards, to be presented by the Charlotte Business Guild on Sept. 15, honor four community members who have helped to shape and grow the Queen City’s LGBT-positive image.

Sabrena Gray, the Don King Award female recipient, has used her expertise in web applications and computers to build PrideSisters into a 655-member email group that at first announced events for lesbians and evolved into a networking and information service.

Past award winners

Originally called the Community Service Recognition Award and presented in 1993 by the Charlotte Pride organizing committee, it was later announced the award would be named after its first recipient, Don King. The award has been presented by two other organizations since then: OutCharlotte and the Charlotte Business Guild.

In 1995, the award was expanded to be presented annually to both a female and male recipient. In 2005, the award was also presented annually to an LGBT-owned or LGBT-friendly business. Finally, in 2008, a straight ally award was also added to the growing rolls of annual honors. In its first year, the straight ally award was presented to three individuals.

1993 Don King
1994 David Ferebee
1995 Sue Henry, Dan Kirsch
1996 Sue DuChanois, John Quillin
1997 Kimberly Melton, Randy Votsch
1998 Diana Travis and founders of the Charlotte Gay & Lesbian Film Series
1999 Connie Vetter, David Lari
2000 The late Billie Rose, Phil Wells
2001 Tonda Taylor, Jeff Schmehl
2002 Susan Shackelford, the late Alan Rosenberg
2003 No awards
2004 Rev. Tonyia Rawls, Tom Warshauer
2005 Linda Breen, Shane Windmeyer, business winner Q-Notes
2006 LaWana Mayfield, Darryl Logsdon, Southern Estates
2007 Candice Whiteside, Curtis Tutt, The Charlotte Eagle
2008 Kelley Doherty and Debbie Warren (tie for female), Frank Kalian, Tyvola Design and straight allies Rev. Debbie Warren, Rev. Steve Shoemaker and Rabbi Judy Schindler

Male winner Scott Vitez, as “diva hostess” Shelita Hamm, has helped Charlotte’s 40 Gay Bingo Nights raise $627,468 for the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), for which Vitez has served two three-year terms on the board of directors and one as board president.

“Straight ally” winner Denise Palm-Beck, since finding out about gayness within her own family six years ago, has worked relentlessly to strengthen the Charlotte Lesbian & Gay Community Center. She has also helped grow Pride Charlotte, the city’s annual gay Pride festival, to 2009’s record-breaking attendance of nearly 15,000.

The business winner, Hartigan’s Irish Pub — a lesbian-focused bar and restaurant in Third Ward and under new ownership since summer 2008 — has become a strong supporter of Pride Charlotte and the Community Center, according to co-owner Bethany McDonald.

The awards, founded in 1993, are named after the first recipient, former Charlotte Observer marketing writer Don King, who will deliver the keynote address at the September presentation. In the 1970s, he was one of the city’s first to positively address gay and lesbian issues in media reports.

Besides bettering the lives of gay and lesbian people, Palm-Beck, Vitez and Hartigan’s are also narrowing the gap between the gay and nongay communities.

Palm-Beck — herself a non-gay wife, mother and businesswoman — has volunteered for years in leadership positions for educational, historic and religious organizations. In 2003, her activism enlarged into the gay community.

“What motivated me was anger at the unequal treatment of people in the LGBT community, treatment tacitly supported by some religious organizations,” she said. “That did not ring true with my own spiritual centeredness. And there’s so much false and fear-mongering information put out to the public.”

Beginning in 2000, the wit of Vitez and a bevy of Bingo Verifying Divas entertained thousands of fans, gay and non-gay, until bingo took a hiatus in 2007 and returned as a once-a-year event in 2008. Vitez had presented the concept to RAIN after seeing Philadelphia’s version in 1999.

A few years earlier, Vitez had started serving people with HIV/AIDS by volunteering for the care team at his church, St. Peter’s Catholic. And for more than 10 years, he has volunteered with St. Peter’s Episcopal’s soup kitchen at the Urban Ministry Center.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national gay organization, honored Vitez in 2007 with its Legacy/Trailblazer Award recognizing individuals who have become role models because of their years of work to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

At Hartigan’s on Carolina Panthers game days, imagine the crowd that stuffs the bar and restaurant merely a touchdown pass west of the stadium. Football fans, many unaware of the bar’s lesbian focus, join the usual clientele. The bar’s staff has had no problems maintaining cordiality between the disparate groups.

Meanwhile, the new owners have firmly established the business as a supporter of the gay and lesbian community. “In the first year we’ve owned it, we’ve reached out to practically every organization to reestablish a connection,” McDonald said. “We’ve always wanted to do that.”

Among the 2009 award winners, Gray has had the least activism in the nongay community. She’s hardly had time for it.

In the 1990s, she volunteered for the film series initiated by OutCharlotte, a festival of gay and lesbian performances and culture. Then she helped with the first Pride Charlotte celebrations.

Interest among lesbians in attending games of the Charlotte Sting, a professional women’s basketball team, generated the first email listings and messages that evolved into PrideSisters, for which Gray has been moderator since 2001. The service has added a subset that is a Craig’s List-style service for gay men, bisexuals and transsexuals as well as lesbians.

If you go…

What: Don King Awards
Where: Crowne Plaza Hotel, 201 S. McDowell St.
When: 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Cost: $15, members/$25 guests, non-members
Tickets: Buy advance tickets at Petra’s Piano Bar, Paper Skyscraper, White Rabbit, Lesbian & Gay Community Center or from event chair Renae Elam (704-502-2415, nageuse1@yahoo.com)
Featuring a wine tasting, ballroom dance performances and music by The 4 Bows String Quartet. Reservations should be made by Noon on Friday, Sept. 11 by emailing businessguild@yahoo.com or calling 704-565-5075. For information on sponsorship opportunities contact Renae Elam (see above) before Sept. 10.