Amidst the usual fundraising and celebration were on the table, Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) Chicago's Oct. 27 gala at the Marriott Downtown perhaps had a more somber tone than usual. Speakers often referenced the day's earlier news of the mass shooting incident at the Tree of Life synagogue in their remarks as a reminder of why activism like theirs was important to support.
The hundreds of well-dressed guests adorned their faces with masquerade masks, in keeping with the pre-Halloween theme of "Equality Unmasked." After a pre-dinner reception and perusal of the many silent-auction items donated by Chicago-area businesses, organizations and artists, the crowd filed into the ballroom for the main program.
Gala co-chairs Penelope Garcia and Tory Mitchell opened the evening by highlighting HRC's work throughout the year, including video headlines of some of the Trump administration's actions against LGBTQ equality.
Deena Fidas, director of workplace equality for the national HRC, talked about the organization's grassroots campaign to turn out voters for the Nov. 6 midterm election, which she called the largest in the organization's history.
"These are the most critical votes America will cast in decades," she said, and referred to the record number of LGBTQ candidates as "not just a blue wave, but a rainbow wave."
According to Fidas, 30,000 voters have been registered by HRC volunteers, but she still encouraged the room to "bring out the vote and take people with you."
She also mentioned that a history-making 609 businesses received a score of 100 percent on the Corporate Equality Index, which is in its 16th year.
Federal Club Xavier Esters shared his personal story about his and his trans aunt's coming out as an example of the kind of people HRC's work helps protect. After dinner, lesbian comedienne Dana Goldberg ran a spirited live auction peppered with political humor. And American Idol finalist Kimberly Locke closed the evening with a selection of her songs, crediting the LGBTQ community with making her a success.
Indivisible Aurora, who brought the state's second-largest city its first-ever Pride Parade, received a Community Leadership Award. The organization's LGBTQ director, Gwyn Ciesla, recalled her surprise when she learned the city where she'd lived for 11 years hosted no formal Pride events. "I assumed, as an introvert, I missed it," Ciesla joked.
Despite some initial opposition, Ciesla called the inaugural parade a success. With 3,000 marchers, she said the group had to turn people away. The group is planning a two-day event with speakers and a 5k run for next year. In addition, Ciesla highlighted the need of suburban Pride events for those who can't make it to Chicago.
"It's important to see events like this in your hometown," she said, and left the stage to a standing ovation.
Currently starring as TV's first trans superhero, Dreamer, on the CW show Supergirl, actress Nicole Maines was once part of the first lawsuit to ensure proper trans bathroom usage in schools. Maines, who received an HRC Visibility Award at the gala, called being the first trans superhero on TV "very scary," as she's terrified of letting down young fans who might see themselves in her character.
Yet she was moved by the outpouring of love and support fans showed her as she assumed the role. Admitting to rage and despair when she read the recent New York Times article about the Trump administration's attempts to redefine her identity, she thanked her mother and her family for helping keep her grounded throughout the years. While she called the progress her community has made "fragile," Maines also sounded notes of defiance and hope.
"We cannot be erased by policy," she said to cheers. "We cannot be torn down by rhetoric. When faced with adversity, a person goes into fight or flight mode. The Trump administration assumed we would choose flight, and they were wrong. The LGBTQ community is one of fighters ... and we will be here long after he's gone."
More than $30,000 were raised for the organization's super PAC ( political action committee ).