Amid the seriousness of the global pandemic and the Delta variant driving new surges in Florida, SAVE’s Champions of Equality Gala was the latest event affected by COVID-19, as the event went virtual on Sept. 23.

The nonprofit Safeguarding American Values for Everyone (SAVE) “made the tough decision to move the gala from in-person to virtual,” citing a strong feeling to do “the right thing for the safety of our community.”

“The crowd size and indoor component of the gala were the driving factors in our decision,” said Executive Director Orlando Gonzales. He added he was “confident our virtual gala will be a hit and build on the success of last year.”

SAVE established the Champions of Equality awards to honor individuals who have significantly advanced the cause of equality for the LGBT community. This year, the focus is on outstanding achievements in safeguarding democracy and providing critical support to South Florida residents in the face of unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was hosted by State Representative Brian Sims (D-PA), the first openly gay man elected to Pennsylvania’s legislature. Honorees were recognized in two categories: COVID-19 Relief Efforts and Safeguarding Democracy.

“Champions of Equality is our chance to recognize the hard work and efforts of people and organizations that work to make our world a better place,” Gonzales said. “They're especially important to us because they have a direct impact on the LGBTQ community.”

Safeguarding Democracy recipients were U.S. Congressman of Rhode Island David Cicilline, chair of the Congressional LGBTQ Caucus and lead sponsor of the Equality Act; Florida State Senator Shevrin Jones; Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins; and artist and illustrator Edel Rodriguez.

COVID-19 Relief Effort recipients were The Miami Foundation LGBTQ Community Fund and Our Fund Foundation, as well as Captain Kevin Cho Tipton, APRN, a South Florida critical care nurse practitioner and Florida Air National Guard Captain.

Tipton said he had the chance to share many stories with the Surgeon General earlier this year, “hoping to turn the heartbreak of our patients’ families into hope for others.” He thanked Jason Pizzo for the nomination, Edward Martí Kring for the encouragement and Gonzales for the honor.

“I am honored to be recognized by SAVE along with Our Fund Foundation, The Miami Foundation, David Cicilline, Shevrin Jones, Eileen Higgins and Edel Rodriguez. I’m so grateful to be in the company of these incredible organizations and individuals helping to make life better for everyone — regardless of who we love or where we’re from — as we fight to defeat COVID-19,” Tipton said. “To me, it truly takes all of us to overcome this crisis so that we can focus on building a fairer, just, equal and prosperous future for everyone.”

In addition to the honorees of the night, SAVE announced five recipients of the Freidin Brown PA and SAVE Social Justice Scholarship live during the program last night. The five students — Brittney Gonzalez, Melissa Handel, Abrianna Jean-Baptiste, Amelia Leon and Thuy-Thuong (Ti Ti) Nguyen — will each receive $5,000. Since 2019, Freidin Brown PA has donated to the scholarship program making their total investment in education for LGBT and allied scholars more than $75,000 to date.

“Our Freidin Brown and SAVE Social Justice Scholarship winners are so deserving of the applause and recognition,” Gonzales said. “The five scholarship recipients are the future of the LGBTQ community and we can't wait to see their success ascend.”

In addition to the awards ceremony, the evening included an online silent auction and a musical performance by Miami-bred singer and songwriter Robbie Elias, who premiered his new upcoming single, “Si Yo Fuera Tu Hombre.” He also performed his current hits, “Pandemic Love” and “Can I Be Me,” as well as a cover of the Dua Lipa hit single, “Levitating.”

Elias, who says he always likes to cover a female artist, said the Champions gala was a “connective and beautiful” event. He is nominated for Best Local Artist/Musician and Best Entertainer in South Florida Gay News’ Best of 2021 poll.