Equality Florida raises $350K at 2015 Tampa Gala

By : Steve Blanchard
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Tampa – More than 600 supporters of Equality Florida packed TPepin’s Hospitality Center for the organization’s annual Tampa Gala Feb. 21. As organizers continued to calculate the night’s success, it was determined that more than $350,000 was raised for the LGBT organization.

It was a celebratory night and speakers discussed the changes brought about within one year—specifically marriage equality. But the message of the night was clear—there is still a lot more work to do.

The organization honored Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner with its 2015 Voice of Equality Award for his work in repealing a gay pride ban in the county, creating a human rights ordinance that protects LGBT people and for spearheading a domestic partnership registry in the traditionally socially conservative county.

“While this award has my name on it, it was truly a community that made all of this happen over the past 10 years,” said Beckner, who was first elected in 2008. “A question I get asked often is now that we’ve accomplished all of this in Hillsborough, where do we go from here? Is our work done yet? The simple answer to that is no.”

Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith agreed with Beckner, and encouraged supporters to continue financially supporting the organization, even though marriage equality has finally arrived in Florida.

“Kevin is right—the work is not over,” Smith echoed. “Because as much as marriage is transformational—and make no mistake, it is—it ain’t for everybody. But those couples that got married Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 and the days and weeks that followed triggered the conversations many of us have had with family members…Those ripple effects are the change we haven’t even fully calibrated yet.”

Celebrating the hard-fought win for marriage equality is expected, and even encouraged, Smith said. But she added that marriage equality isn’t the end point or the brass ring in the fight for equality.

“My biggest message is simply this: Do not quit,” said Smith, adding that leaders of other equality organizations have warned her that donations would drop off after marriage equality became the law of the land. “We’re not going to turn our back on the kid that just got kicked out of his home or the seniors who are fearful and have to go back into the closet to survive their retirement community. The standard we want isn’t simply the changing of laws, but the changing of culture. The cost of arriving here has been very high, but don’t lean back even for a moment.”

Smith went on to say that groups who oppose equality haven’t disappeared and are, in fact, reorganizing.

“Fifty percent of our state at the local level has protections that ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Smith said. “But the places that aren’t protected are the places that need it the most and they are experiencing the harshest backlash.”

Beckner, who spoke of his spouse, Gil Sainz, shared that while he is happy to call his long-time partner his spouse, there are still areas in the country—and in Florida—where people can be fired for simply being gay.

“Until the day comes when every single individual…can go out and pursue their version of the American Dream without fear of discrimination, we have a lot of work to do,” Beckner told the audience. “Until no child is bullied because of sexual orientation or gender identity, our work is not done. Until the day comes when family is no longer defined by gender of individuals but by the shared love of its members, our work isn’t done.

“We all have a lot of work to do and it’s not just up to elected officials. It is up to each and every one of you to continue to build the house of equality that we have started.”

Photos by Laurie Ross.

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