Equality Florida honors Voices for Equality at annual Sarasota celebration

By : Krista DiTucci
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Sarasota – Join Equality Florida under the stars for a night of awards, music, friendship, and food at the 2015 Suncoast Celebration.

The celebration will take place on Saturday, Nov. 21, from 5-7:30 p.m. atop the Palm Ave. parking garage, 1289 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota.

Guests will be greeted by live, upbeat music designed to create a fun cocktail party ambiance. Upon arrival, guests can also partake in an open bar and heavy hors d’oeuvres courtesy of Louie’s Modern by Tableside. Servers will also be making the rounds to deliver glasses of wine and champagne.

Once guests have had a chance to mingle and satisfy their taste buds, the celebration will kick off with an introduction and welcome by Jarred Wilson and Kimberly Bleach, co-chairs of the Equality Florida Suncoast steering committee. Next, Bleach will announce the 2015 Voice for Equality Award recipient, Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre.

Michael Farmer, Equality Florida statewide deputy director of development, says the Voice for Equality Award is granted to a local person who has stood out throughout the year as a consistent voice for equality, “someone who, whenever they can, raises their voice and uses their position to advance equality.”

Edwards says he believes his use of theater as a connection to social capital is the main reason Equality Florida chose to honor him. Edwards has been a voice for the LGBT community through the American Character project, in which he selects shows directly connected to the LGBT experience, and the OUT@Asoloseries, in which the LGBT community can network and socialize while enjoying live theater.

“I’ve been very much an urban gay man and I was nervous about coming to Sarasota,” Edwards says. “I was nervous I would be isolated from my friends in big cities, but it turns out the opposite has happened. I’m more engaged in the community and I have a wonderful set of friends and supporters. Getting this award is a way to acknowledge how happy this community has made me.”

Wilson says no other organization in Sarasota has brought LGBT groups together and given them a platform for discussion quite like Asolo has.

“One of the things I admire most about Michael (Edwards) is when he first came to Sarasota, he didn’t hesitate to jump right in and come up with novel ideas about how to engage the community,” Wilson says. “When he did The Laramie Project shortly after he came to Sarasota, he didn’t hesitate or question whether it would be a good or bad move for the theater. He just did it, and I thought that was really spectacular.”

Ida Eskamani, Equality Florida development officer, says Edwards is unique because he builds connections between nonprofits and donors.

“He has been a trailblazer but also an advocate for social justice and supporter for the local community,” Eskamani says. “Folks adore him and want to celebrate him.”

After Edwards receives the award and takes the stage to present his achievements, Wilson will introduce nationally renowned civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto as the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

Farmer says the Lifetime Achievement Award is not granted often and is reserved as a special recognition for those who have dedicated their entire lives to LGBT equality.

Bonauto’s contributions to the LGBT community include winning the case that brought marriage equality to Massachusetts in 2004 and, in turn, making it the first state in the U.S. to legalize marriage equality. This year, Bonauto fought on behalf of the case that won marriage equality nationwide.

“I’ve read about her for years and she has been involved in almost every major marriage equality decision,” Eskamani says. “She’s a rock star and a national symbol, and she will go into the history books as a national champion.”

Wilson says Bonauto’s national work has been evident even in the local LGBT community.

“One of the things people love about Equality Florida is that we are local and statewide,” Wilson says. “You can see our work happening right here at home, but we also want to acknowledge national works that make it happen. I’m pleased that Mary can spend time with us in Sarasota so we can acknowledge the work she’s doing.”

Once both awards are announced, Farmer will introduce Stratton Pollitzer, Equality Florida co-founder and deputy director. Pollitzer will then give a State of the State address to recap what Equality Florida has been doing over the last year and what they have achieved.

The celebration will conclude at 7:30, but Wilson says he hopes people will stay in the area to enjoy downtown Sarasota. He is encouraging guests to make dinner reservations at Louie’s Modern as it is conveniently located on the parking garage’s ground level. Most importantly, Wilson says he wants to send as much business as possible to Louie’s since the family affiliated with the restaurant provides continued support and services to Equality Florida.

“I’m thrilled that it’s going to be a record-breaking event,” Farmer says. “The reality is that a lot of LGBT organizations have always worried about what would happen after we won the big fight. Some have done really well and some haven’t. The amazing number of ticket sales and sponsorships so far shows that people understand there is still so much work to be done. It’s incredibly exciting and inspiring.”

Wilson says he sees the night as an opportunity to thank those who have supported Equality Florida’s work this year and to educate new people about the organization.

“Since we’ve started in the Suncoast region, we have built this incredible family,” Eskamani says. “We are always growing and always passionate. For me, the night is about having the opportunity for everyone to come together to celebrate our victories and mobilize the community to move forward.”

Community members can show support for Equality Florida and the LGBT movement by attending the 2015 Suncoast Celebration and also by making a donation. Tickets to the event are $125 in advance and $150 at the door. Sponsorships range from $500 to $50,000 and beyond. Sponsors may choose to pay for a donation up front or through monthly payments. Those who choose to sponsor at the Florida Council level and above are invited to attend a bonus event – at 4 p.m. before the celebration kickoff, Equality Florida will host a reception for these sponsors and give them an opportunity to spend time one-on-one with Mary Bonauto.

Tickets and sponsorships may be purchased here, and interested sponsors can learn more about available sponsorships here.

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