Every year all over the state, Equality Florida hosts fundraisers to harness dollars for its programs, including the “Get Engaged” campaign to push for marriage equality in Florida.
The Greater Orlando chapter surpassed its goal raising $139,000, a record, and drawing more than 300 people to the gala on Nov. 1 at The Mezz downtown. The chapter includes Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Volusia and Brevard counties.
Michael Farmer, Statewide Field Director for Equality Florida, said the financial boost couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We have reached a place in this movement where we are at a tipping point and people understand we have to decide whether we want to sit back and hope we win on the wings of inevitability or do we want double down,” Farmer said. “The fundraising at the gala shows people want to win.”
In addition to the food, drink and fundraising, Equality Florida honors people who have gone above and beyond in the fight for LGBT equality. The Greater Orlando Chapter awarded Orlando Weekly writer Billy Manes and Lake County student Bayli Silberstein with its Voice for Equality Awards.
Manes was honored for telling the story of his partner Alan Jordan’s suicide and the difficult emotional and legal issues that resulted because the couple was unable to legally marry. Vicki Nance created the award-winning documentary Billy & Alan based on that story.
“You gave me a chance to take something that could have ended my life and made me do something that made my life better,” Manes said, thanking Equality Florida members for their support. “I am twice the man I was when he died and ten times the man I was when I met him.”
Bayli Silberstein, the former eighth grader at Carver Middle School who fought for the right to start a Gay-Straight Alliance Club (GSA), accepted the other Voice for Equality Award. With the legal support of the ACLU, openly bisexual Silberstein took on the Lake County School Board and stood up for bullied students everywhere.
“Thank you so much; it means a lot,” Silberstein said as she told the story of wanting to start a GSA club because her friend Megan was bullied for having a girlfriend. Megan accompanied Silberstein and her mother to the Gala.
Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith gave her “State of the State” address and talked about the 120-plus local ordinances that have been created around the state that help the LGBT community.
“This is an amazing time,” Smith said. “We want to thank those who have been with us from the very beginning and those who have just started with us because our fight in Florida is not complete.”
Contributors to Equality Florida were able to choose whether they wanted their donation to go to the Equality Florida Institute for grassroots lobbying or to Equality Florida for educational programs.
“We really want to work toward expanding our staff, particularly in Orlando,” Farmer said.
“As we look to winning marriage equality in Florida, we need to double in size. When that time comes, we want to be ready to go.”
Similar galas are scheduled for chapters in Key West, Miami, Broward, Palm Beach, Naples, Sarasota, Tampa, Pinellas, Gainesville, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.
The Tampa Chapter has scheduled its event on Feb. 22 at The Vault, and Sarasota will have its gala on May 3 at The Francis.
Photos by Lonnie Thompson.