OpEd: Diversity Honors at Hard Rock Rises Above Petty Controversy

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This past month, the South Florida LGBT community came together at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to celebrate the memory of Harvey Milk at its annual Diversity Honors dinner.

It’s a special event that has grown in stature and size each year, largely due to the generous and continuing support of the good people at the Hard Rock. It’s demonstrative evidence that we are a part of the larger community we live in, not apart from it.

The Diversity Honors is the one event that unites leaders of Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach with our clothes on, celebrating distinguished leaders like the retiring Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, or a youthful transgender star like Jazz Jennings.

Our newspaper celebrated this event with three different covers, showcasing the diversity of those recognized, including Tiffany Arieagus of Broward, and Tony Plakas of Palm Beach.

This evening in May has each year brought recognition to credible stars of our rainbow in each of the South Florida communities. But so many prominent people come to the dinner, running and managing the program has become a task in and of itself.

This year, to speed things up, organizers determined there would be fewer speakers. They also determined that no one would stand on the dais and recognize table by table, every celebrity or elected official who appeared.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. One of the moderators, Nancy Brinker, went off script. On an evening when no one was being singled out, she chose to celebrate the attendance of a former congressman, Mark Foley. It was not the best choice.  Ms. Brinker made news where there had been none.

You see, while Foley has done much to reclaim his reputation, and has appeared now at many LGBT functions, he was disgraced as a congressman a decade ago for a scandal involving teenage pages. He was not the smartest person to introduce at a dinner honoring an international human rights icon.  Apparently, Foley was there as Nancy Brinker’s guest, who gave him an inappropriate, off-script, shout out.

Though she is on the board of the Harvey Milk Foundation, Brinker herself is controversial, for positions she previously supported with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. When this introduction led to a Facebook brouhaha, generating over 100 comments from many community leaders, this controversy was justly given life in the two-page spread SFGN did on the dinner.

Lee Rubin, who has played a leadership role in the South Florida LGBT community, was one of the voices who protested the introduction. But he was not alone. When you get posts as well from Cleve Jones, the man who created the AIDS quilt, you have a legitimate debate and an honest news story to cover. Our reporter, Tucker Berardi, did just that. He did his job well.

The irony is that instead of focusing our article on the dinner which was so grand, our newspaper had to focus at least in part on what happened because of this gaff. If you are a journalist, and a plane crashes, you don’t write about the 99 that landed.

Nancy Brinker should never have been the issue of our news story on Diversity Honors, but her introduction of Mark Foley created the distraction that made it news, not us. People wound up debating her career, which has not been nearly as bad as some have suggested.

Nancy Brinker has raised billions for breast cancer. She has been a United States ambassador to Hungary. She continues to raise fortunes for Lambda Legal. She has been given the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Years ago, she created a stir by getting in the center of a debate about reversing the funding of Planned Parenthood. But let’s not eat our own. She has done some good.

Mark Foley is a man who used to win awards from the LGBT community. He served in Congress from 1995 until 2006, representing the 16th District of Florida as a member of the Republican Party, before resigning due to an underage sexting scandal. He sent sexually explicit emails to teenage boys who had formerly served and were at that time serving as Congressional pages. FBI and FDLE investigations ended with no criminal findings.

Foley entered the real estate business in Palm Beach and came out publicly, revealing he had a long-time relationship with a Palm Beach dermatologist, Layne Nisenbaum, until Nisenbaum's death in 2012.

After several years removed from the public eye, Foley resurfaced as a supporter of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, appearing behind him in a crowd at one of his rallies. It raised a few eyebrows, like when Bill Maher hosted Foley as a guest on his HBO show.

There, now you know why Nancy Brinker and Mark Foley were on the cover of SFGN two weeks ago.  When our reporter arrived at the Hard Rock for Diversity Honors, our Executive Editor had no intention whatsoever of having either sidelights featured as the main attraction on SFGN’s front page four days later.

They did that on their own.

The front page of SFGN was shaped by the events they created. We just did our job as a newspaper. We can’t just celebrate the glossy; we must print the gory. We report the wins, the warts, and the wounds. So, it goes. That is the role of a NEWS-paper.

Having said all this, let me go back to the first paragraph of this story. Diversity Honors is a spectacular event, generously supported by the grace and generosity of the Hard Rock Casino & Hotel. Don’t get distracted. It honors and celebrates genuinely good and great people who do so much to enrich our lives. Let’s not eat our own.

The funds raised at the event support not only the global human rights efforts of the Harvey Milk Foundation, but the amazing outreach of the Pride Center at Equality Park.  Both groups are led by wonderful men, Robert Boo and Stuart Milk, who each day work so hard at advancing the dignity and honor of our community. Gentleman like this define our community.

Thank you again for attending and supporting the event. Thank you to the Hard Rock for underwriting it. Thank you, Lee Rubin, for pointing out the flaws, and thank you Mark Foley, for being there. Gay rights are human rights, and they don’t belong to liberals or conservatives alone. They belong to us all.