Thirty-one individuals who have made a difference in the local LGBTQ community were honored at a virtual edition of the 2020 Gay City News Impact Awards gala on September 24.
The long-awaited event, modified to a virtual format for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic, brought together leaders of the community who either traveled to the Ravel Hotel in Long Island City — where the event was originally slated to take place on March 26 — to deliver brief remarks in an open-air, socially-distanced setting or submitted acceptance speeches via video for an online broadcast that aired last Thursday evening.
Attendees joined the program online and watched as honorees made moving speeches that expanded on the important work they do every day and elaborated on the pressing issues facing the community, including the staggering death toll of transgender women of color nationwide, the unique hardships facing the most marginalized queer New Yorkers during the pandemic, and the crucial election battle looming in November.
Victoria Schneps, president of Gay City News’ parent company, Schneps Media, opened the evening with remarks welcoming the honorees and thanking the event’s sponsors, while founding editor-in-chief Paul Schindler offered a call to action as he prepared to introduce the honorees.
“If we and our like minded friends, family, and allies across America remain united — and we all pitch in, especially in online activism focused on critical swing states — we can move through this uncertain time and arrive on the other side better off for our struggle,” Schindler said. “Our honorees tonight are critical players in leading us to the other side.”
Award recipients ranged from influential activists to non-profit leaders, political advocates, and innovative pioneers representing industries spanning from finance to law. Honorees reflected on their own accomplishments and commended the work of their fellow award winners, many of whom have overcome obstacles to generate change for the better in their own communities.
Jevon Martin, the out trans founder and executive director of Princess Janae Place, which serves homeless LGBTQ New Yorkers, particularly trans folks, dedicated his speech to Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera. In an interview moments later, Martin recalled his own journey launching Princess Janae Place in the Bronx five years ago at a time when he was housing numerous individuals in his own home. He explained the ways in which he has been addressing the critical needs of his clients during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve still been housing people because the homeless can’t quarantine,” Martin said. “I’ve been out almost every other day putting people in hotels.”
Another organization confronting the challenges of clients during the pandemic is Griot Circle, the nation’s only non-profit specifically focused on the needs of queer seniors. José Albino, the organization’s executive director, and Griot Circle’s director of strategic collaborations, Katherine Acey, jointly accepted an award and paid tribute to the members they serve day in and day out.
“I stand on the shoulders of our founders and our current vibrant elder members who refuse to be invisible, who refuse to be silenced despite the barriers of racism, sexism, gender, and sexual orientation oppression,” Acey said in her acceptance speech.
In an interview with Gay City News following the acceptance speech, Albino further emphasized the perseverance of Griot Circle’s members in the face of a deadly pandemic that has especially impacted the most vulnerable communities of color.
“Clearly the pandemic doesn’t have any eyes but it knows exactly who to attack and who to kill, and that’s by design,” Albino said. “It’s rooted in system racism, it’s rooted in classism and inequities across all sectors including economics. I think our members have been affected disproportionately because of it. They’re older, they’re gay, largely woman, they’ve been otherised for so long. The history of the otherization is showing up now in this particular disease.”
The virtual gala included a fundraising effort to support Griot Circle’s work.
Other honorees featured at the event have made important strides in boosting trans representation. Emilia Decaudin, who made history in Queens this summer alongside Melissa Sklarz when the pair became the first out trans Democratic district leaders in New York City, elaborated on her additional work in bringing about changes to the gendered rules governing local politics.
In an interview after she accepted her award, Decaudin said, “Where I see my lane is changing the norms that are embedded in our language and our laws and how we refer to people in general, especially the use of gendered language and pronouns, as well as sex-based language like male and female which, while appropriate in some contexts, is not in others at the detriment of trans and non-binary people specifically.”
Many honorees’ work extends far beyond the confines of New York City. Brian Silva, the founder and executive of the National Equality Action Team (NEAT), is actively engaged in efforts to mobilize voters nationwide to show up in November. But he notably redirected the focus of his speech to the most urgent matter facing the community: the deaths of transgender individuals of color. He listed every name of the transgender folks known to have suffered violent deaths this year.
“These are the 28 transgender people murdered in the United States so far this year — already more than 2019 and these are only the ones that we know about,” Silva said. “They are disproportionately Black and brown and women. Each of them had a story. People they loved and loved them. Register to vote now, then vote by mail, vote in person, vote like our community’s lives depend on it, because they do.”
Another one of several honorees to emphasize the importance of voting was Aaron Morris, the executive director of Immigration Equality. Morris’ organization plays a crucial role in representing queer and HIV-positive immigrants and advocating on behalf of those individuals.
“It is such a pleasure to do work with immigrants and refugees every day, even during the time when, in the very top parts of our government, there is a narrative that immigrants are to be feared, immigrants are bad people,” Morris said in his acceptance speech. “When that kind of hate speech comes from the president — and let’s be honest, it comes from that source — it is all the more important that all of us every day counter that with the truth, and the truth is and always has been that immigrants are the lifeblood of this nation.”
He added, “Thank you so much for the acknowledgement — and please do vote.”
Honorees also opted to pay tribute to those who have helped them in their respective career journeys, including individuals who have passed. Tracie Gardner, vice president of policy advocacy at the Legal Action Center, said her intersectional work and focus on people living with HIV/ AIDS would not have been possible without her support system.
“I think this is an acknowledgement of the loved and respected LGBTQI folks in my life, both personally and professionally,” Gardner said. “I’ve been supported and guided and taught and nurtured, and if my accomplishments are even a little bit noteworthy it’s because of these family members both alive and no longer with us.”
The event was made possible by the evening’s presenting sponsor MetroPlus Health Plan. Other sponsors included Amida Care, the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr., Fund, TD Bank, and First Central Savings Bank.
Among those presenting honorees with their awards were Todd Canning, the director of clinical services for the Partnership in Care Program at MetroPlus Health Plan, Patrick McGovern, Amida Care’s chief business development and policy officer; and Cathy Marino-Thomas, who was a founding member of Gays Against Guns and serves on the board of Equality New York. Amida Care’s president and CEO, Doug Wirth, also presented.
View the bios of each honoree and watch accompanying video interviews with them here.
View the entire gala here.
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