Karen Ocamb

LA Gay & Lesbian Center Gala Celebrates 40 Years of Activism

Filed By Karen Ocamb | November 14, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Chaz Bono, David Burtka, LA Gay & Lesbian Center, Neil Patrick Harris

Center founders Don Kilhefner, Jon Platania, Lee Sisson, Morris Kight, June Herrle and Winston Leyland (photo from A Gay Day in Court newspaper) and an illustration of the Center's first headquarters, a clapboard house on Wilshire. (Photo courtesy LA Gay & Lesbian Center)

Officially, Saturday night, Nov. 12, was devoted to honoring writer, dancer and transgender activist Chaz Bono (most recently of ABC's Dancing with the Stars) and actor/singer Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and his partner, actor and chef David Burtka. But for many, the spirit in the packed ballroom at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel was a kind of Whitman-esque "Song of Myself" celebrating the 40th anniversary of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center and the community it serves and that keeps it going. (See some highlights of the Center's history here.)

Center CEO Lorri Jean put it best:

Today we are living in an increasingly uncivil society. Gone are the optimistic aspirations for a New Frontier or a Great Society that would conquer the problems of ignorance and prejudice and eliminate injustice. These grand ideas have been replaced by the politics of division and rancor, by the promotion of bigotry, and by disdain for human compassion. Even our champions too often lack the courage to take principled stands.

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center stands in stark contrast to all of that. For 40 years we have maintained our ideals. For 40 years we have fought injustice. For 40 years we have provided a place for LGBT people and our allies of all kinds to find community. Even when we were faced with intense oppression or the huge losses of an epidemic that decimated our community, we always rose above to be an example of what it means to truly care about one another. To reach out and help. To try to make the world a kinder, better place. .....

Much more after the break.

Center CEO Lorri Jean speaking about the Center’s 40 years of activism (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

For 40 years the existence of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center has mattered. We matter to the individuals who count on us. Like Jesse who just tested positive but who has no health insurance; now he depends on the Center for his medical care. And 79 year old Marion, who no longer goes hungry when she runs out of money at the end of each month because she gets two bags of groceries from the Center's food bank. Or Cody, a teenager who lives in our youth residence--the only safe and loving home he has ever known.

Doing such personally impactful work would be plenty to celebrate. But the Center is so much more. We matter well beyond our own L.A. community and the people we've cared for. In 40 years we have influenced and made national policy, opened doors to funding ad helped sister organizations all over the country. Moreover, we have become a beacon of hope to LGBT people all over the world. We represent what any community of people can do when they set their minds to it. What was begun by a handful of volunteers with $35 bucks in the bank has become a life-changing, life-saving institution that is making a difference to thousands of people every week and inspiring many more around the globe."

The evening was punctuated by wonderful videos (which become available on Monday) about the Center's work and the honorees. Among those present was co-founder Jon Platania.

Jon Platania, co-founder of the LA Gay Community Services Center (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

But among the most poignant of moments was when four people who sought help, refuge and solace from the Center shared their stories: a gay Latino whose mother kicked him out of the house as a teenager 30 years ago when he came out to protect him from his abusive father- now he's a proud father of four adopted sons with his partner of 25 years. Also sharing were one-time lesbian attorney who became homeless but now has an apartment and participates in senior services; an HIV positive man who says the Center's Jeffrey Goodman Clinic saved his life; and a transgender female-to-male teen (with a broad and dazzling smile) who found help at the Center's Life Works program and a mentor in the Center's Jake Finney.

Peter Paige (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Adding several underscored lines of poignancy was actor/director and Center board member Peter Paige (Queer as Folk) who choked up when sharing the Center's "power" in "transforming one's life." As if reliving the trauma, Paige said that when he arrived in LA 15 years ago, he was "a scared and lost and lonely and broke young gay man." At someone's suggestion, he went to the Center and found help - including therapy for $10 a week. "It was all I could afford and it was all I needed," he said. "There is a direct line from that scared young man to the man that is standing before you and it goes right through The Center."

Hosted by comedic actor Leslie Jordan (Will and Grace) with Glee star and Center board member Jane Lynch presenting the award to Harris and Burtka and Dancing with the Stars and Scream star David Arquette presenting to Bono - Arquette has a famous transgender sister, Alexis Arquette - the night was filled with entertainment and poignancy.

David Arquette (photo by Karen Ocamb)

In an interview before the event, Bono told me he hopes the next big political push by the LGBT community will be for the inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). But in accepting his award he noted that the LGBT community needs to learn about what transgender people experience. Bono said:

"We say LGBT and it kind of roles off our tongue but the B and the T are kind of like the stepkids at another table. I'd like to challenge everybody here tonight to really take the time to learn a little bit more about what it means to be transgender, how it's different from sexual orientation and some of the struggles that we go through."

Chaz Bono (photo by Karen Ocamb)

Please visit my friend Greg Hernandez's blog Greg In Hollywood for more quotes and photos from the event. Video should be available Monday and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here's the transcript of Lorri Jean's speech, as prepared for delivery:

Happy 40th Anniversary! I can't think of anyone I'd rather be with to celebrate this milestone than all of you. Center friends and supporters, Center staff, board members and clients and even one of our amazing founders!

We now know that the Center founders began providing services to our community long before our first headquarters was opened in October of 1971. In fact, it was late in 1969, within months of the Stonewall riots, when one of our founders, the late Morris Kight, began providing information and referral to LGBT people. In 1970 the man who would become our founding Executive Director, Don Kilhefner, helped create a "Gay Survival Committee" for people in desperate need of help. Also involved from the very beginning was the late June Herrle, the social worker who became the architect of the Center's focus on social services. It wasn't until late 1971, inspired by the needs they were seeing in our community, that our founders opened the first Center Headquarters and prepared our incorporation papers.

Clearly, this group didn't wait for formal recognition or permission to act. When they saw a need, they responded, laying the foundation for what the Center has become today. Even before the Center's first headquarters, one of our founders opened several "Liberation Houses," to provide housing and employment services for homeless LGBT youth and adults--the first such residential programs in the world.

It was this co-founder--a former L.A. City planner–who stayed up all night before opening day, painting the Center's first headquarters. I am enormously proud that he is with us here tonight. Please help me thank the remarkable Jon Platania! It was Jon's vision that launched the Center--Jon's and that of his 6 co-founders--Morris, Don, June, Jim Kepner, Martin Field and Lee Hansen Sisson. Over the decades we've held true to their vision of building a stronger and healthier LGBT community; taking care of our own and fighting for the equal place in society that we deserve.

But it has rarely been easy. Today we are living in an increasingly uncivil society. Gone are the optimistic aspirations for a New Frontier or a Great Society that would conquer the problems of ignorance and prejudice and eliminate injustice. These grand ideas have been replaced by the politics of division and rancor, by the promotion of bigotry, and by disdain for human compassion. Even our champions too often lack the courage to take principled stands.

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center stands in stark contrast to all of that. For 40 years we have maintained our ideals. For 40 years we have fought injustice. For 40 years we have provided a place for LGBT people and our allies of all kinds to find community. Even when we were faced with intense oppression or the huge losses of an epidemic that decimated our community, we always rose above to be an example of what it means to truly care about one another. To reach out and help. To try to make the world a kinder, better place.

Our history is full of examples of the Center rising to the occasion. But we've never done so alone. We've persevered thanks to the help and support of people like all of you. For some, your Center connection is just beginning. For others it has lasted for decades. Like with Bill Shaw. In 1971, Bill was on a bus commuting home to his now legal husband, Dennis Lynch. On the way, he spotted a building that had the words "Gay Community Services Center" on the front for all to see. Needless to say, he'd never seen anything like that before. In those pre-cell phone days, he could hardly wait to get home and tell Dennis. They became Center supporters. Twenty-nine years later, Bill joined our board and spent more than a decade helping to make the Center stronger.

Or, Jane Lynch. Jane first did the Center's AIDS Ride in the 90's. She has been a generous Center supporter ever since. Coming to events, lending a hand--long before she became the star that she is today. And, even after her much deserved and stratospheric rise, she hasn't forgotten us. She continues to serve on our board and be there for us when we need her. And, this year her lovely wife, Dr. Lara Embry, did the AIDS/LifeCycle for the first time.

Or the many loyal friends who stick with us year after year. Like our Young Professionals Council, or Arthur MacBeth, a total sweetheart who has occasionally shown up unsolicited at the end of the year with a very generous check. We've been dancing up and down the halls on more than one December 31st thanks to him.

Plus I have such gratitude and admiration for the extraordinary people who've already hit the million dollar mark in lifetime giving and are still going, like the incomparable Fred Paul & his husband, our longest tenured board member ever, Eric Shore. And two men I adore with great senses of humor, Dan Renberg & Gene Kapalosky. And the most generous woman donor in our history whose commitment to the youth of our community is unwavering, my friend Anita May Rosenstein.

Then there are community stars like John Duran, now the openly gay, openly HIV+ singing Mayor of the City of West Hollywood. John has been a long time member of the Center family. But in June he became a first time AIDS rider, and one of the top fundraisers! And he's riding again this year!

Or Mike Fitzgerald, who has been supporting the Center since 1994. Recently he was appointed by President Obama to become one of the nation's few openly gay judges on the United States District Court. 9 days ago the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved his recommendation. Now all we need is a vote. You're making us proud, Mike!

Or Dr. Maddie Deutch, the nationally-renowned transgender physician who is so committed to our transgender medical clinic that she not only helped us get it off the ground, she flies in from San Francisco every other week to help us keep it going.

Plus, what about the most famous lesbian butchers in town, Amelia and Erika of Lindy & Grundy. They're still building their business, but that doesn't stop them from volunteering and supporting the Center in whatever ways they can.

And these are just a few examples of the people in this room who have been a part of our success.

Of course, I can't forget my truly phenomenal staff, many of whom are here. If you dedicate your professional life to working at the Center, please stand and let all of us say thank you!

For 40 years the existence of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center has mattered. We matter to the individuals who count on us. Like Jesse who just tested positive but who has no health insurance; now he depends on the Center for his medical care. And 79 year old Marion, who no longer goes hungry when she runs out of money at the end of each month because she gets two bags of groceries from the Center's food bank. Or Cody, a teenager who lives in our youth residence--the only safe and loving home he has ever known

Doing such personally impactful work would be plenty to celebrate. But the Center is so much more. We matter well beyond our own L.A. community and the people we've cared for. In 40 years we have influenced and made national policy, opened doors to funding ad helped sister organizations all over the country. Moreover, we have become a beacon of hope to LGBT people all over the world. We represent what any community of people can do when they set their minds to it. What was begun by a handful of volunteers with $35 bucks in the bank has become a life-changing, life-saving institution that is making a difference to thousands of people every week and inspiring many more around the globe.

What Jon Platania helped to create, you have built and strengthened. For 40 years we've served generations of LGBT people and our friends and families. For 40 years we have refused to buckle to any of the forces aligned against us. And for 40 years we have persevered--striving to set the example for the kind of change we yearn to see in the world.

I wish, after 40 years, we could say our work is done. But we know that isn't true. We still don't have equality under the law. All too often the rights we do have, and sometimes our very humanity, are under attack. And the bullies we face aren't just on the schoolyards; sometimes they're on stage at Presidential candidate debates. And still, 365 days a year, our community turns to the Center for help. So, as long as we are treated as 2nd class citizens, as long as HIV and AIDS continue to be on the rise in our community, as long as LGBT seniors needing outside care feel forced back into the closet, as long as misguided parents kick their LGBT kids out, as long as any LGBT person feels ashamed simply because of their gender identity or who they love, the Center will be here. We must be here. And when you think about what we've accomplished in the FIRST 40 years...just imagine the progress that the next 40 will bring. With your help we will continue in the Center's proud tradition. We will never give up and we will never give in until full and complete equality is ours.

Thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do keep the Center and our community strong. Happy Anniversary!

(Crossposted at LGBTPOV)


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