At the Atlanta GLAAD gala, a time of celebration and determination

GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis with Billy Gilman, who performed during the gala, pose on the pre-event red carpet. Photo: Jennifer Brett

The GLAAD gala held the other night at the Atlanta History Center was the place to celebrate, mix and mingle with celebrities and give those dancing shoes a workout, but supporters also said the gathering was a time to focus on serious issues.

“Now is not the time to sit down. Now is the time to stand up,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the advocacy group’s president and CEO. “We are being challenged like we have never been challenged before.”

She ticked off a litany of topics in the news that drew GLAAD’s outrage, including recent comments Georgia Rep. Betty Price made during a study committee; she asked a state health official if people with HIV could legally be quarantined. In a subsequent statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Price said the remarks had been “taken completely out of context,” that she, in fact, does not favor a quarantine and was speaking only rhetorically, as she is troubled that “too many of our fellow citizens who have HIV are not compliant.”

Mention of Price’s name drew a chorus of boos, after which Ellis said, “I’m here tonight to double down on our call for action. How about an early retirement like her husband?”

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Price stepped down as Secretary of Health and Human Services last month amid bipartisan furor over his taxpayer-funded travel on military and private jets.

Ire over the current administration was a recurrent theme Wednesday, as speakers noted policy developments such as the ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military, an edict President Donald Trump announced via tweet.

“This is an extraordinary time, ” Ellis said. “A single tweet can change the trajectory of an entire community. We can tweet back, flood the media with our truths. We will come out of this better than we think.”

Closing her remarks on a triumphant note she added, “Our fight is not Democrats versus Republicans, or North versus South; it’s about right versus wrong. This is a war on humanity. GLAAD is ready and willing to fight every single day.”

The night, sponsored by presenting partners Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Turner and Ketel One Vodka, wasn’t consumed with political talk, though. During the cocktail hour preceding the program, guests enjoyed signature Ketel One cocktails presented in a most fetching fashion – a rustic bar on wheels featuring fresh ingredients such as cucumber slices, fruit and a variety of herbs.

Each cocktail was a unique, handcrafted masterpiece.

Once the capacity crowd moved into the Overlook Ballroom, guests enjoyed tunes from DJ Yvonne Monet, then thrilled to a powerful performance by singer Billy Gilman, a past contestant on “The Voice.”

And the room was charmed by an appearance by “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast members Porsha Williams, Sheree Whitfield and Cynthia Bailey.

“We’re always at events, pretty much all the time, but this one is very, very special to us, ” Williams said.
“Offering love and acceptance is something that is important to all of us, ” Bailey continued.
“Even through all the drama and shade, ” Whitfield quipped, “it is good to know we are part of a sisterhood.”

Highlights of the night included a rousing oration by spoken-word artist and Paideia School student Royce Mann, inspiring words from Morehouse College GLAAD campus ambassador Kylan Kester and “Survivor” alum Zeke Smith.

“Survivor empowered me,” Smith said. “I was just this kid who got wrapped up in running around in his underwear on the beach. Nine months after it was filmed, the  episode aired that would change my life.”

In that episode, viewers learned Smith is transgender. It was a powerful moment: “I became the first transgender man to appear in most American living rooms. Together, we created a cultural moment that changed people’s perceptions about what it meant to be transgender.”

Emcee Cody Alan made a surprise announcement: he and Trea Smith are newly engaged.

“I met my man right here in Atlanta at a Carrie Underwood concert, ” the CMT and iHeartRadio host said. “We consider Carrie to be our Cupid!”

Athens native Tituss Burgess, a Broadway star known for his role on the Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” was honored with the Local Hero Award.

“The future of America actually is in good hands,” he said, saluting the performers and presenters who took the stage throughout the evening.

Although he began his remarks with a quip, thanking his costar Mike Carlsen “for that beautiful and completely deserved introduction,” he sounded humble at being labeled a hero.

“For me growing up there were many local heroes right here in Georgia. They taught me to be myself. They also taught me to be more than myself,” he said. “If we lose our humanity, we lose everything. If we don’t use our voice, we forfeit everything.”

Titus Burgess was honored during the GLAAD gala. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Atlanta native Tommy Dorfman, who plays Ryan Shaver on the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why, ” received the Rising Star Award.

“As a kid, I really struggled with being public as an actor because I was so gay. I thought it would hinder me, ” he said. “It is a gift that I don’t take for granted to have parents who accept me and love me.”
Still, he said, there were some topics that as an adolescent he didn’t feel comfortable discussing at home and is grateful for the kindness he encountered throughout his city: “Everyone comes to Atlanta because Atlanta is welcoming and accepting.”

He urged the crowd to support GLAAD’s efforts.

“We are under attack in ways I gratefully have had the privilege of not having to fight. Now is the time to fight and to be visible,” he said, noting GLAAD’s impact on him personally: “Without the work that you do I really don’t know if I would have a job today.”

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