No Unity Without Equality: A Diversity Dinner to Remember

At the True Diversity Dinner, the progressive community of Anchorage celebrated diversity and equality with a dynamic mix of Native Alaskan culture, democratic politics and gay civil rights.

When Mayor Sullivan vetoed the equal rights ordinance two weeks before the start of his Diversity Month and changed the name of the main event from the Diversity Dinner to the "Unity" Dinner, John and Heather Aronno (of Alaska Commons and the good version of SOS.Anchorage) and a few people they met during the ordinance hearings discussed an event to protest the mayor's lack of appreciation for diversity. After a few hectic weeks of planning, the result was the True Diversity Dinner, a celebration instead of a protest.

Here's a run-down of the evening's planned, unplanned and many inspiring moments:

The Native dance troupe Masingka set the tone of the evening with their stories and songs of life in Alaska, while the guests ate delicious food from the Snow Goose buffet tables.

Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson, looking regal and towering above the crowd in her heels, was the first to say the line that echoed throughout the evening: equality is for e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e (she spelled it out.)

Diane Benson gave an impassioned speech about stopping the abuse of women, children and Native Alaskans.

Steven Alvarez performed his rousing song "See What Love Can Do" with backup by the doo-wop girls, his daughter Sarah and friend Shelly.

Reverend Marquita Pierre, of the Alaska Center for Spiritual Living, kicked butt. (Can I say that about a preacher?) She spoke about being treated differently based on the color of her skin, and how we treat people as "other" based on many kinds of differences, including sexual orientation. She said, "There can be no unity without fairness; there can be no unity without equality" which is the quote I used for the title of this post. Then she called for us to move to a better place regarding diversity - not tolerance (we can tolerate bad things) or acceptance (things that are only OK) which value people despite our diversity, but we can learn appreciation, for the gifts we each offer our family and community, because of our diversity.

Keynote speaker Shannyn Moore was next, but Daphne Do'all LaChores, a local icon in full drag, got on stage with Shannyn and ranted about the mayor's veto. She dissed Shannyn's shoes, plugged the Diva Show at Mad Myrna's, and announced that she was heading down the street to crash the "unity" dinner. She ruffled a few feathers but added a good dose of humor and reality - many in the queer community are still angry about the veto and think it's odd to throw a party when we don't have any rights or protections to celebrate.

Then Shannyn spoke and disagreed with Daphne about the veto being a slap to the GLBT community, saying that it hurt everyone, including the straight allies who withstood the "summer of hate." Shannyn was the keynote for this Diversity Dinner, where most of the organizers, speakers, performers, and politicians were straight allies. Gay rights and gay people were visible and acknowledged (a rare thing at an Alaska political event), but the focus of the event was to recognize and thank the allies who continue to work for an equality that includes us, and to strengthen those alliances.

After the speakers and performers, the diversity awards were presented.

Excellence in Business - Cook Inlet Region, Inc (CIRI)
Eric Cordero, a Mat-Su school board member, noted the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and read a statement from CIRI accepting the Excellence in Business Award. CIRI is a Native Alaskan corporation that 'walked the talk' about equality this summer: they were the only large company (of the many that have protections against anti-gay discrimination) that wrote a public letter to the mayor in support of the equal rights ordinance (posted HERE.)

Excellence in Non-Profit - Identity, Inc.
Scott Turner and Steph Gingrich, two Identity board members, accepted the non-profit award from Heather. Identity runs the Gay & Lesbian Community Center, organizes PrideFest in June and the Pride Conference in Oct. (see HERE for the upcoming conference), supports the gay-straight alliances, sends the Advocacy Team to educate groups throughout the city, shares funds with other gay groups and publishes the NorthView.

Excellence in Print Media - Julia O'Malley
Bob Poe, candidate for governor, spoke about his essay (posted HERE) on how gay rights is not just the right thing to do but is also good for the economy, then announced the print media award. Julia was not able to attend, so her mother, Assembly member Sheila Selkregg, accepted it for her. She was proud of Julia and spoke about the women in her family and their commitment to civil rights. She reminded us that standing up for civil rights can have consequences, that some politicians (like her mother) lost their jobs standing up for civil rights, and that members of the Anchorage Assembly who voted for the ordinance may face tough re-election battles because of their support.

Excellence in Online Media - Mel Green of Henkimaa
Mel's blog Henkimaa mixes the personal and the political with in depth analysis and keen observation. She accepted the award in an orange sweatshirt, worried that she wouldn't be recognized without her blue-colored ordinance hearing clothes. She also spoke of the union picket line at the mayor's "unity" dinner down the street as an issue of diversity, equality and quality of life.

Excellent in Outreach - Tiffany McClain
Tiffany is the coordinator of Equality Works, the group that organized in support of the equal rights ordinance. She thanked everyone for our support this summer and pledged to continue working for equality in Anchorage. She encouraged each of us to write to our senators in support of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been introduced in both branches of Congress. ENDA only protects us from workplace discrimination (not in housing, education, finance or public accommodations, like the ordinance would have) but it is a step in the right direction and an important federal protection.

Lifetime Achievement Award - Vic Fischer and Jane Angvik
M.E. Rider, editor of the Grrlzlist and all-around community leader (grand marshal at PrideFest this year, and she has won just about every award the LGBT community gives to women) announced the winners of the lifetime achievement award. Neither Vic nor Jane could be present, but M.E. described their decades of work for Alaska and the diverse communities of Anchorage, starting before most of us were born.

The last official speaker was organizer John Aronno. The final award, the Epic Fail Joke Award, was won by Mayor Dan Sullivan for vetoing the ordinance. But in deference to the recent death of Dan's father, former mayor George Sullivan, the award was not given. Instead, John told a story comparing political involvement in Anchorage to politics in Lower 48 cities. Here you can meet your elected leaders at local events like the Diversity Dinner, and that makes all the difference.

There was an impressive showing of politicians at the Diversity Dinner. In addition to those already mentioned - Elvi, Diane, Eric (Cordero), Bob, and Shelia - I saw Les Gara, Patrick Flynn, Harriet Drummond, Eric Croft, Ethan Berkowitz... and then Senator Mark Begich came from his Health Care Town Hall and said a few words of support.

One of the goals of this event was to build the momentum from the ordinance battle to address future gay concerns. So what is next? For the GLBT community, October is Gay History Month, National Coming Out Day (Oct 11), the Anchorage Pride Conference (Oct 9-11), and supporting the National Equality March in DC on Oct 10-11.

I invite our friends and allies to join us in celebrating diversity and equality at GLBT events in October and throughout the year, and to continue learning about our community and working together to achieve, as Elvi said, "equality for e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e."

Thanks to John and Heather for organizing a True Diversity Dinner, and thanks to the speakers, performers, award presenters, helpers and guests for making the evening such a grand success!

- photo from Floridana Alaskiana, where Janson Jones has four posts of photos from the dinner.

1 comment:

RogerB said...

Hypocrisy in action!

Copyright © 2008 by Bent Alaska.