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HRC rises to occasion at 2017 gala
by Matt Simonette

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Over 600 community members gathered at the Fairmont Chicago on Nov. 18 for Human Rights Campaign's 2017 Chicago Gala.

In the opening presentation, Gala Co-Chairs Penelope Garcia, Victor Lim and Bradley Backhaus explained the theme for the evening: "rise."

"HRC is deepening and expanding our toes to anyone who is feeling vulnerable," Garcia said. "… We will resist, and we will rise."

The early part of the program placed much focus on transgender rights. HRC Press Secretary Sarah McBride, who is transgender, spoke about the challenges the LGBT community faces in such dire political times, detailing how President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have governed with the same contempt for much of the populace that they demonstrated during their campaign.

Trump, McBride said, is "completely unfit to serve as president of the United States."

She further noted numerous challenges to the transgender community's safety, with 25 murders of transgender women, adding, "This is already the deadliest year on record for the transgender community."

But she expressed confidence that that the community could rise up to such challenges, and cited the recent Virginia elections, as well as the ousting of former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, "if anyone doubts our power."

Jennifer Slipakoff, an Atlanta-based activist for transgender rights, spoke about her transgender daughter, Allie, and what inspired her to become an advocate.

Her daughter had decided to mainly present herself as female at around the time she wanted to enroll in a ballet class. It was an auspicious moment: It was the first time Slipakoff would have to indicate whether Allie needed boys' or girls' uniforms and supplies.

"I knew I had to pull this off. I was going to give my child a soft place to land," Slipakoff said.

When someone at the school politely inquired how her daughter identified, as a matter of business, not fear or salacious curiosity, she and her daughter reached a turning point.

"It was that moment that gave new life to Allie," Slipakoff recalled.

Back Lot Bash founders Amie Klujian and Christina Roberts were presented with HRC's Community Leadership Award. In her remarks, Klujian discussed both the conception of Back Lot Bash and its Pride Family Fest event. The goal of Pride Famly Fest, she said, "is for these families, especially the children, to see how special they are."

Roberts added that she and Klujian wanted every Back Lot Bash attendee to leave "invigorated, confidant and inspired."

Barilla Pasta was presented with the organization's Corporate Equality Award, in recognition of intense diversity-, equality- and equity-awareness company officials and employees sought after an anti-LGBT remark a high-profile official in Italy flippantly made in 2013. Barilla has since achieved perfect "100" HRC corporate responsibility scores for four years in a row.

Jean-Pierre Comte, president of Barilla's American operations, said in his remarks, "If it wasn't for advocates like the ones in the audience tonight, we couldn't learn and grow."

HRC's Ally for Equality Award was presented to actor, director and producer Carrie Preston, who appeared on the television series The Good Wife, as well as the docudrama When We Rise and a number of LGBT-focused projects. She spoke about her commitment to LGBT-rights and admitted that for many it was difficult to speak publicly about issues from a place of relative privilege.

"Now is the time for all of us to speak out for each other—to risk saying the wrong thing in order to do the right thing," she added.

Preston said that, before she was married, "I kissed plenty of girls and I liked it." She also mentioned becoming ordained, and officiating at the wedding of her production partner and his now-husband. "You can call me Pastor Preston," she joked.

Comedian Dana Goldberg solicited donations for HRC's Super PAC, which raised just over $17,000. HRC National Board member Xavier Estes said, "It's time to get laser focused on the midterm;. … We need to build a war chest now to give as a good a fight as we can."

Political officials in attendance included state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss; state Rep. and candidate for lieutenant governor Juliana Stratton; and state Reps. Kelly Cassidy, Will Guzzardi, Christian Mitchell and Litesa Wallace. Singer Johnny Manuel performed at the end of the evening.

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