Equality Florida held its 2018 Miami gala Saturday, March 10, at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, honoring members and groups in South Florida who are making a difference in the LGBT community and beyond. Among the honorees were students, staff and faculty of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, whom received the Voice for Equality Award for their activism on gun control in the aftermath of a mass shooting Feb. 14 that left 17 dead at the school.
Diane Wolk-Rogers and Mario Caicedo, sponsors of the gay-straight alliance at Stoneman Douglas, accepted the award on behalf of the club and members of the Never Again movement, who are planning the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. March 24.
“Their determination and their resiliency is absolutely an inspiration to all of us,” Wolk-Rogers said.
Student and GSA president Emma Gonzalez spoke at the gala, starting her speech by asking attendees to observe a moment of silence for the victims of Stoneman Douglas and Pulse Orlando.
“Just over three weeks ago, we experienced a tragedy that has been described as many things but for right now I’m going to go with unnecessary,” Gonzalez said. “We lost 14 classmates, three faculty members, and there are plenty of individuals who are injured and are still in the hospital...It’s important to remember these individuals when we fight for gun safety and gun control, as well as all other individuals affected by gun violence in America.”
Gonzalez said she and her fellow GSA members were grateful and humbled to be honored by Equality Florida. She said many of the members of her GSA this year have “for the first time found a place where they can be themselves freely and can experiment with names and labels while learning about a culture that is widely ignored in text books and curriculum.”
“It is for us the combination of the oppression we face in the LGBT-plus community along with being students who are told to listen rather than to speak, the unsatisfyingly short period of times which we are allowed to be our true selves and a million other reasons that has contributed to us jamming our feet in the door of the media and refusing to stand back in this time of senseless tragedy,” Gonzalez said. “Now that we know that we have the power to call ‘BS,’ nothing can stand in our way of using it.”
Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said the organization wanted to recognize the “efforts in the community that are creating a better Florida for us all” and that includes the students from the Stoneman Douglas GSA.
“Somebody asked me do I think these students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas are our future leaders and I said no, I don’t think they are. I think they are our leaders right now,” Smith said. “[They] have been among the most prominent leaders to step forward demanding sensible gun reform in the wake of this terrible tragedy, and we wanted to honor them and their advisors for their heroism.”
Smith gave an update on equality in the state of Florida, noting more than 60 percent of the population live in places where sexual orientation and gender identity protections exist at the local level.
“I’m hopeful right now, in part, because I know our victories have not been built on something thin and flimsy,” Smith said. “It’s been built on us standing in those difficult places, being the first to run for office, being the ones who speak up not just in the progressive areas in our community but in the rural places like where I grew up, where it’s tough.”
Other groups whom were honored Saturday included SAVE, which received the Community Partner for Equality Award, and the Huizenga Family Foundation, which received the Service and Leadership Award for its sponsorship of Equality Florida’s Safe and Healthy Schools project. The foundation recently made a three-year commitment to help grow the program, which aims to protect and support LGBTQ students.
“From our very earliest days, making schools safe for our LGBTQ young people was a core program at Equality Florida,” said Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of the 21-year-old organization. “Our vision is not simply to help a single student or a single school but to shift forever the culture in our schools in support of LGBTQ young people...Today, every single high school in Miami-Dade and Broward has a GSA, and many of the middle schools have resources, as well. This is the environment we hope to create where our young people have the support and encouragement that they can rise up and become incredible leaders.”
Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE, accepted the Community Partner for Equality Award on behalf of SAVE, which for 25 years has done its part to protect LGBTQ people from harassment and discrimination. The organization has led efforts to pass and defend dozens of local ordinances and were plaintiffs in the federal case that brought marriage equality to Florida.
SAVE identified tens of thousands of pro-equality voters and was instrumental in LGBT candidate David Richardson's history-making run for the Florida House. More recently, the organization launched a project to ban conversion therapy that is gaining support statewide.
“This is SAVE’s 25th year in South Florida fighting for not only the rights of the LGBTQ community but for the rights of all of us that are marginalized,” Lima said. “LGBTQ means women, immigrants, people of color, people of faith, young people, basically everyone. We are the entire community and we will not stop until equality is a reality for us all, not only in the state of Florida but in our neighboring states and country as a whole.”
As the executive director of SAVE for the last five years, Lima says it’s been his “very great fortune to help bring this organization to a place where we are that much closer to enjoying full equality.”
“It is such an incredible time for us all,” Lima said. “It’s important for us to continue to work together. It’s important for us to continue to have partnerships, and it’s important that we continue fighting the fight.”