This year’s fourth annual Florida Together Conference takes place in Miami on Saturday, Sept. 24 starting at 9 a.m. at the Kovens Conference Center, at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus.

“The conference is for activists, allies, and just people interested in becoming more involved,” said Executive Director Michael Kenny. “[Attendees] will get some concrete knowledge and takeaways.”

There will be 15 speakers from around the county. They include leaders from the world of activism, government, technology and the arts. There will also be a screening of “Saint of 9/11” which is about the tragic death of gay New York Fire Department chaplain Father Mychal Judge during the fall of the South Tower.

The past three conferences took place in Orlando and had usually about 4 presentations. Kenny wanted to reach out to the rest of the state by moving the conference to Miami this time. In addition he’s drastically expanded the scope of the conference as well.

SFGN decided to took a closer look at this year’s speakers, profiling nine of them including a state senator from Wyoming; the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans; a traveling photographer capturing everyday gay families; an African-American nurse turned author and activist; an openly gay actor fighting for equality in Hollywood; and a young straight man whose inspirational speech to Iowa’s House of Representatives went viral on YouTube.

Kenny hopes that these men and women, and the others slated to speak will inspire people to do their own great work.

“Some presenters will make people’s hearts soar,” he said. “I guarantee that people will leave with concrete knowledge they can use and will be inspired and motivated to pick their road to help in the battle for full equality for everyone.”

Florida Together is a federation of organizations dedicated to achieving equality and justice for LGBT Floridians. Registration is $50 and includes a continental breakfast in the morning as well as a full luncheon and two refreshment breaks. Visit FLtogether.org for more information.

Alix Smith: Photographer is literally putting a face on equality

By Lisa Lucas

New York photographer Alix Smith spent the last year with her wife, traveling the country taking pictures. Sounds like a fun way to see the sights but she is not your typical tourist -- she is on a mission called “States of Union.”

A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, Smith’s work has been exhibited in major galleries across the United States and Europe. Her work has been described as having a “theatrical and painter-like quality reminiscent of the masters” and her “iconic images defy cliché.” Now Smith is using this technique to put a face on a cause. Smith married her psychologist wife in Connecticut in 2009 and has been an outspoken activist for gay marriage and full equality.

“So many people have only been exposed to flamboyant photos of the gay community, like in gay Pride parades,” Smith says. “But it’s important to know that not all gay people wear feather boas and dress in drag. They look just like everyone else.” Smith’s pictures are raw, real portraits of gay families that she digitally transforms into “works of art” based on Classical paintings.

According to Smith’s mission statement, “States of Union” has a dual objective. First it acknowledges the gay community’s struggle with self-recognition as well as the struggle many Americans have with accepting gays as worthy of equality.  “The photographs give credence to the validity of family life among the gay community by universalizing the very idea of family.  In a country that does not yet fully recognize same sex families, the visual record provided by ‘States of Union’ may be one of the few formal acknowledgments of these relationships.”

“The goal is to show the gay community as real people and real families,” Smith says. “It’s important for people growing up gay to see that they are just like everyone else and to show the anti-gay voters who they are voting against.”

One look at her photographs does just that. Smith uses Photoshop to enrich and enhance the images and “to show these people in their best light and allow their personalities to come through.”

For now the only place to see the photographs is at Smith’s websites but she is excited that many will be shown at New York City’s Visual Arts Gallery in an exhibition called “Being American.”

“Hopefully the exhibit will help continue funding the project, “ Smith says. “I did get a small grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts because they are non-profit, but basically I’ve been putting everything on my credit card and it’s pretty much maxed out.”

In 2009 PBS did a segment on the project and, through word-of-mouth, word started spreading and emails from potential subjects came pouring in. “There are so many people I want to photograph it’s just really a matter of getting to them.”

Visit AlixSmith.com and StatesOfUnion.com to visit her work.

State Senator Cale Case: Unlikely Ally

By Donald Cavanaugh

“My girlfriend and I are going to have a good time in Florida and maybe get a look at South Beach culture,” chuckled State Senator Cale Case of Wyoming in a phone interview.

Case, a Republican from what Rachel Maddow calls “the most Republican state in the nation,” is slated to speak at the upcoming Florida Together Statewide Conference in North Miami and plans to take some time to check out the South Florida scene.

Rachel Maddow featured Case on a segment of her March 4, 2011 show for his contribution to the effort of preventing passage of an anti-gay marriage bill in Wyoming. He is what Maddow calls “a small-C conservative, a small government Republican.”

The “Defense of Marriage” legislation in question, House Bill 74, would have stopped Wyoming’s current recognition of out-of state same-sex marriages and other legal partnerships.

The impact of the new legislation would have been enormous, stripping hospitalization visitation, property rights, life and death decision making etc. from same sex couples which would have affected not only residents but also visitors.

A Baby Boomer, Case was born in 1958.   He attended high school with Matthew Shepard’s father, Dennis who he says is “less militant than [Matthew’s mother] Judy.” Case has a PhD in economics, was first elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1993 and to the Senate in 1999.

When asked if there was any discussion about amending Wyoming’s current gender restrictions, Case cautioned against trying to do too much too fast.  “Let’s let this settle in a bit before taking on the next issue,” he said.

Case believes there may be a backlash to House Bill 74, but it will probably have to wait because the next session of the legislature is a budget session that requires 2/3 vote to get legislation introduced.

Becky Vandenberghe of WyWatch Family Action, a Wyoming-based family-values group, thinks otherwise, however, and has already promised to get a vote on the bill even under the budget session rules.

Case is not a supporter of hate crimes legislation.  Wyoming is one of five states that doesn’t recognize hate crimes against any groups or individuals.  The other four are Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina.

He noted that Judy Shepard was particularly pleased when the federal law passed, “But I’m not sure, myself,” he said.  “We have good laws.  Judges can increase or decrease penalties for a variety of issues. There’s no need to force them to apply legislated penalties.”

In addition to getting acquainted with the Sunshine State, Case is looking forward to speaking to Florida’s gay activists.  “It’s really a civil rights issue,” he said. “No one can make someone else second class whether you’re in Wyoming or Florida or anywhere.”

Clarke Cooper: War Vet, Republican and…gay

J.W. Arnold

Photo: Log Cabin Republicans

R. Clarke Cooper is an Eagle Scout, Army combat veteran in Iraq, former diplomat and Bush Administration appointee….and he’s gay. The Florida native is conservative and believes it’s not incongruous to be Republican and homosexual.

Last year, as the battle to repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers was being waged in the halls of Congress, Cooper assumed the leadership of Log Cabin Republicans, the advocacy group for gay conservatives.

Cooper recalls telling his deputy executive director, “We need to do a full court press. Let’s hit the armed services committees first and then every other Republican possible.”

While other gay activists had written off support from Republicans—other than the more moderate senators from New England—Cooper was surprised by the reception he and his organization received from other lawmakers.

“No one denied us a meeting,” he says. “Even those who probably wouldn’t vote for repeal. In Republican offices, some felt it incumbent to meet with us, as Republicans also, to do due diligence on the issue at least.”

What he found was that until his visit, no organizations had reached out to many of the Republican offices at all, assuming they would not even consider the issue. Many of the staffers and Members of Congress he met with had no military experience and little knowledge of LGBT issues.

“In the end, we were all conservatives, we talk the talk, walk the walk, and we made the case why repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a conservative vote,” Cooper says. His experience on the battlefield didn’t hurt, either, as he explained how the policy was weakening the military at a time when the forces are stretched with two wars.

Ultimately, the DADT repeal was a bi-partisan decision, one not accomplished by the Democratic supermajority before the 2010 elections.

With a DADT victory under their belts, Cooper and his gay Republicans are turning their attention to the Defense of Marriage Act, which for federal purposes defines marriages as between one man and one woman.

“That one, again, is another example of where there is a lot of basic education that needs to take place,” Cooper explains. “DOMA is anti-conservative, government encroachment and there are all kinds of reasons to [repeal it] in addition to it’s the right thing to do.”

Again, Cooper is optimistic that bipartisan support can again be raised, especially with a Republican House of Representatives.

He says many conservatives can back the domestic tax parity issue and Republican co-sponsors already support repeal, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, one of Cooper’s former bosses.

As Republicans seek to govern again, he warns the party must support a more diverse base.

“We’re a dying breed if we don’t fix the platform and take a broader stance,” Cooper says. He goes further to encourage the LGBT community to embrace gay conservatives, too. “We can’t immediately be dismissive of people with different views, especially when we cherish the same goals.”

Deon Davis: Nurse turned activist and author

By Denise Royal

Oprah Winfrey often says that being a mother is the hardest job in the world but as Deon Davis points out her job as a mother is also the most rewarding and challenging.  She shared her story in a book titled, I'll Find a Way: A Mother's Journey of Love and Acceptance for her Gay Son.

Davis did not set out to be an author.  She’s a nurse by trade and a single mother raising two boys and a girl.  Like most moms, she worried about her children’s safety, their health and overall well-being. She hoped they would all grow up to be successful, productive adults.

“I was determined not to let my children fall into the stereotypes of the black single parent family, especially with two young males but I was not prepared for the coming out of Rashad,” she said.

That coming out first happened to a therapist that Davis contacted because her son was depressed and suicidal. Bullying at school led him to harm himself by cutting his arms.  But hearing him say the words “I’m gay” was not enough to convince Davis that her son was a homosexual.  “My initial reaction was he's too young to know what he wants and he is just going through a phase.”

But when it became clear that it was not a phase Davis was able to get through the confusing time by focusing on one thing: being a mother.

“This new circumstance took parenting to a new level. I knew that at that moment of discovery that I had a new role, not only as his mother; but now I need to become his protector, his voice, and also his friend. Growing up in an African American home I was taught that being gay was not accepted especially in our Christian community, but as a parent I knew that I loved my son and God loves him also. So I pulled out the boxing gloves and prepared myself for the fight that I had in front of me. I vowed to my son and the GLBTQ community that I will fight for equality forever,” Davis said.

Fighting that battle together has brought mother and son closer. Rashad was able to turn his life around thanks to his mom's support.  He eventually transferred to a more accepting high school and now attends college.

“Rashad is now exceeding in everything he does, with parental support the sky is the limit,” Davis said.

As for the responses she’s gotten from other parents, Davis says they’ve been mixed, but mostly those of praise and admiration. She offers this advice to other parents: "Do not allow his/her sexual orientation change the relationship between you and your child. The same love that you endured from birth, continue that love into every situation that life brings before you.”

James Duke Mason: Young gay actor playing his part in the politics of Hollywood

By Lisa Lucas

Actor and gay rights activist James Duke Mason prefers to be called just “Duke.” An appropriate moniker considering his lineage is that of Hollywood royalty. The grandson of British actor James Mason and son of actor/producer Morgan Mason and singer Belinda Carlisle, Duke was named one of the most influential young LGBT Americans in the Advocate’s "Forty Under 40" issue. In addition he was voted into AfterElton.com's list of the top 50 gay/bisexual male celebrities in the world.

Now he is trying to change history with his newly launched “Trailblazer Campaign” for out LGBT entertainers.

“This campaign is an unprecedented and important effort to derail the conspiracy that exists in the entertainment industry,” Mason says. “Conspiracy may sound harsh, but there is definitely an effort of the establishment [studios, agents, producers] to silence actors and encourage them not to come out.”

Mason was born in Los Angeles and moved with his parents to the South of France when he was four. After graduating from Mougins School in France, Mason returned to the United States and back to the kingdom of his roots. However, acting is not the only career he has set his sights on.

He spent a year studying Political Science at California Lutheran University, worked as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and was appointed to serve as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s also now actively involved in President Obama’s LGBT Leadership Campaign.

“I came out when I was 14 and I was always passionate about both acting and politics,” Mason says. “I had to decide how I was going to combine the two and use the acting as a platform to run for office and let my voice be heard.”

He has started doing just that with the launch of his “Trailblazer Campaign.” Although he admits that the entertainment industry has made great strides in the last decade he’s still not satisfied.

“Studios are still afraid to cast an openly gay actor in a leading role.” Mason says. “Studios have to give it a chance. If someone is a good enough actor – like Neil Patrick Harris for example – you can play any role and you shouldn’t be discriminated against because of your sexual preference.”

“Basically, “Trailblazer’s” goal is to help pave the way for openly gay movie stars, like Sidney Poitier did for African Americans. It’s going to be difficult but I have a feeling that in the next few years there will be a tidal wave in the industry and someone, maybe even me, will do it and the naysayers will say “They were right.”

Follow Mason @ttcampaign on Twitter to learn more about his campaign.

Alex Lucchesi: Changing the world by Speaking OUT
By Denise Royal

The bible says the truth shall set you free.  SpeakOUT hopes the truth will change the world, or at least rid it of homophobia.  The organization is the nation’s first LGBT speaker’s bureau.  The Boston-based group works to create a world free of LGBT homophobia and other forms of prejudice by telling the truths of people’s lives.

SpeakOUT trains volunteers to use their personal stories to spread understanding about issues of gender and sexuality. Their clients include high schools, colleges/universities, churches, civic organization and corporations.  By speaking directly to these types of groups the organization hopes to increase understanding.

Alex Lucchesi is Co-Chair of SpeakOUT.  He started as a speaker with the organization nearly three years ago, then joined the board of directors in the summer of 2009 as director of training and later became co-chair of the board in January 2010.

“I joined SpeakOUT because I wanted to make the world a safer, friendlier place for kids and adults dealing with issues of gender and sexuality. I became passionate about SpeakOUT quickly because of the connection I was able to make with the audience and the difference that could be made in their lives,” Lucchesi said.

SpeakOUT believes that sharing personal stories and experiences publicly can educate and inform communities about issues that divide them. Usually speakers appear in pairs and talk for a few minutes about their own lives.  They share their experiences of prejudice, as well as how they have evolved to take pride in their sexual or gender identities.

Speakers also discuss the details of how they’ve come out to their families, friends and co-workers, and how they’ve faced discrimination and hardships. Most importantly though how they’ve fallen in love and raised families.

“People can argue with statistics, but they can't deny or negate your personal story. In sharing your experience with others you give hope to those that struggle, understanding to those that are unsure and enlightenment to those who have been misled,” Lucchesi says.

SpeakOUT encourages audiences to ask questions. Lucchesi says he’s often asked for blunt facts.

“Often high school students want to know about the mechanics of gay/lesbian sex. My answer is always the same: ‘Gay or straight there are as many different ways to make love as there are couples on earth.’" I also get lots of religion questions, ‘How does it feel to know you are going to hell when you die?’ The trick in answering is to avoid being shocked or laughing, just answer honestly, respectfully and keep the questioner's level experience and age in mind.”

Visit SpeakOutBoston.org for more information.

Malcolm Lazin: A renaissance man bringing gay rights into the 21st century with Equalityforum.com

By Lisa Lucas

Malcolm Lazin has worn so many hats in the past twenty years that his collection could rival that of a London haberdashery. But the one he now covets and wears the most, is the Executive Director of Equality Forum, a national and international LGBT civil rights organization with an educational focus.

A prominent Philadelphia attorney, Lazin, who didn’t come out until after law school, is actively involved in civil rights, LGBT rights, historical preservation, community leadership and is now making his foray into show business.

His resume is so long and diverse it’s hard to imagine that he has achieved so much and made such an impact on the community. Lazin was a federal prosecutor who lead successful investigations into public corruption, a litigator in a private firm, commissioner of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, and was awarded the U.S. Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award -- the Department of Justice’s highest honor.

But the tentacles of his ambition didn’t stop reaching there. He chaired the Philadelphia Waterfront Development Council, which not only instigated infrastructure improvements but Lazin conceived the idea to light the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and helped raised $1.7 million to fund the project. In addition, Lazin is the chair of the Washington Square Committee which secured the largest Revolutionary War burial site in Independence National Historical Park.

And now Lazin is able to wear the moniker of “executive producer.” Having produced three award winning gay-topic documentaries including “Saint of 911,” about the tragic death of gay New York Fire Department chaplain Father Mychal Judge during the fall of the Twin Towers.

This October, however, Lazin will relish in his most enthusiastic accomplishment. October is LGBT History Month and Equalityforum.com proudly joins the celebration by honoring 30 gay icons (one per day) with a short film on their website.

The icons are LGBT people that have distinguished themselves by making a significant impact on LGBT rights.

“Gay history is the only part of society that is not taught history at home, school or religious institutions,” Lazin says. “It’s no wonder that homophobia exists. Without life-empowering resources we are diminished. Resources help empower people and the community and we must take responsibility to teach history.”

Visit LGBTHistorymonth.com or Equalityforum.com to check out the iconic films starting in October.

Patty Buckley: Educating straight people about gay rights

By Lisa Lucas

Before becoming the Chief Operating Officer of Friendfactor, a non-profit organization that makes it easy for straight friends to join the gay rights movement, Patty Buckley had already established herself as a born leader.

She graduated from Northwestern with a B.A. in Political Science and Hispanic Studies and immediately got a job at Google. Buckley launched Google's first offices in South America, oversaw AdWords Online Sales and Operations across Latin America. Under her direction the monthly revenue increased 242 percent and the advertiser base increased 191 percent in the Spanish-speaking Latin America region and led the company's US-based AdWords teams for Eastern Europe, Korea and China.

During graduate school, she interned at Cell-Life, a South African non-profit that develops mobile apps for HIV workers. She was inspired by her teammates, who worked very hard for little pay and even less recognition, and who chose to devote their lives and talents to the benefit of others.

As if that wasn’t enough, Buckley received a Master’s in Business Administration from Stanford in 2009 during which time she started a company that builds low-cost solar panels for entrepreneurs earning under $1 per day. The next year she got a Master’s of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she met Brian Elliot, the founder of Friendfactor.

“Brian told me his vision which I thought was a great model for change in this movement,” Buckley says. “I thought this would be an opportunity to accelerate change in the LGBT community by making it personal for their straight friends, introducing them to the human side of the gay rights movement.”

She joined the organization in July 2010, and has since launched its web platform, and now oversees its programs. Since that time, Buckley has overseen internal operations and programs, including the launch of educational and advocacy tools. On the advocacy side, the “Friend-setter” tool generated more than 8,000 calls to state-legislators during the New York marriage campaign and was featured on the front page of the New York Times.

“Usually a non-profit campaigns for money, not advocacy, which is where Friendfactor stands out,” Buckley says. “My family and friends were always very supportive of me but didn’t know what or how they could help.

They’re not activists and have never called a legislator or taken any action for gay rights but once they made the calls they felt like they were part of something, that their voice was heard, and what they felt actually mattered.”

Buckley believes with the right mix of brightly colored post-it notes, pretzel M&M’s, washable markers, and a little help from friends anything is possible. And based on what she has already accomplished, it seems she is right.

Visit Friendfactor.org for more information.

Zach Wahls: Overnight gay-rights activist and viral sensation

By Lisa Lucas

To look at this handsome, strapping, engineering student from Iowa, who was an exemplary Boy Scout, no one would guess his secret. Actually, he has two secrets. One, he is straight. The other: he was raised by lesbians. And he never thought that talking about it would propel him into the Cyber Hall of Fame.

It started in 2009, when he was 17-years-old and the Iowa House of Representatives was slated to pass a constitutional amendment that would to define marriage as between one man and one woman and in so doing reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Wahls decided to write a letter to the Des Moines Register about his take on the proposed amendment from the perspective of the son of a lesbian couple.

Soon after, his phone rang. It was a representative from “One Iowa,” a LGBT advocacy group, asking him to testify in front of the House Joint Resolution 6 Committee at a public hearing.

He agreed, never expecting that when he shared his impassioned and honest story about why he believed same-gender marriage should be constitutionally protected, that his life would change…and so would the lives of many that heard him speak.

It was a Monday night, when he spoke in front of the House and 500 spectators. By Friday night, his testimony had gotten over a million hits on YouTube.

“I had no idea this was going to happen,” Wahls said. “The Democrats uploaded my testimony without even asking or telling me and within days it went viral. It’s not like I planned it. I mean, I had written about the subject but I wasn’t an activist. I was just a kid in high school trying to speak out to defend my family.”

Originally from Wisconsin, Wahls’ biological mother, Terry, is a doctor of internal medicine who decided to use donor insemination to have Zach and his sister. When she moved to Iowa she met and married Jackie Reger. Five years later his mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Confined to a wheelchair by 2007, Reger assumed a big part in Wahls’ parenting, even acting as a den mother for his Boy Scout troop, as well as caring for Terry. In 2007, Terry, unwilling to accept her fate, designed a series of cutting edge diets and interventions and has since made an extraordinary recovery.

“My mothers are amazing women and I am so lucky to have been raised by them,” Wahls said. “People have been single parents for centuries. I had two moms to love me.”

Wahls, who is straight as is his sister, said he never longed for a father and had many male role models in his life, including football player Brett Favre and his Boy Scout leaders.

As a result of his testimony he has been inundated with speaking and writing gigs and has temporarily withdrawn from school.

“I think this is a pivotal time for gay rights because there are so many conservative Republicans. If we can just make it to 2013 without the bill passing, I think we’ll be okay. I’m going to do all I can to make that happen.”


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