BY JAN STEVENSON
DETROIT – A sold out crowd was brought to their feet by an inspiring message of hope and perseverance from keynote speaker Cleve Jones at the annual Freedom House Dinner Oct. 26. “There were so many times in my life when I thought it was all over,” said the legendary gay rights activist, co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, founder of The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and union leader with UNITE HERE. “But I want you to know that I am 63 years old. I am healthy, I am happy and I am ready to keep on fighting for as long it takes! Bring it on, Trump! Bring it on!”
Jones chronicled a number of times in his life when he believed it was the end of everything, including the horrific moment he found the body of his boss and mentor, Harvey Milk, on Nov. 27, 1978 after he had been gunned down in his office by fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, Dan White. “All I could think to myself was it’s over now. It’s all over now. He was our leader, he was my friend. He was the first in our community to be elected in California. It was all over,” said Jones. “Then the sun went down. And people began to gather on Castro Street – gay and straight, black and brown and white, immigrants and native born and we lit our candles and we marched in silence – 50,000 of us down Market Street. I remember being there amidst all these weeping people standing there in the cold autumn night and knowing that I was wrong. It was not over! It was just beginning.”
A number of LGBT people attended the annual Freedom House dinner including (l to r) Biaohua Yu, Stephan Bobalik, Steve Quintart and Tom Wilczak
Howard Israel, Henry Grix, Suzanne Wait and Michelle Walters.
Marcus Thompson, Isaiah Forte, Lilianna Reyes and Ahya Simone. Simone, a harpist and singer, performed during the VIP reception.
Marcus Turner, Cleve Jones and TJ Rogers, program manager at Freedom House.
Jones said he was honored to support Freedom House Detroit because he knows what it means to not only survive but to thrive when it seems that all the cards are lined up against you.
Freedom House Detroit, a temporary home for survivors of persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States and Canada, provides critical legal and social services to people and families who have fled from political strife, war and brutal discrimination, including LGBT people who had to run for their lives from anti-LGBT death squads. Residents arrive at Freedom House with little more than the clothes on their backs. Freedom House staffers help them begin rebuilding their new lives in this land so unfamiliar to them.
There are now more displaced persons in the world than at any time since World War II, and the anti-immigrant political sentiment that’s swept across the U.S. and western Europe is exacerbating the suffering of refugees an asylum seekers.
“Do you remember America? We used to call it a nation of immigrants,” said Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and current University of Michigan law professor, as she accepted the Voice of Freedom Award. “In these dark days in America I thank God for organizations like Freedom House. It gives me hope that Freedom House can lead us out of the darkness and once again Lady Liberty will shine her light on the Golden Door.”
The Community Partner Award was presented to ProsperUs Detroit, an entrepreneurial training and small business lending program for Detroit residents designed to empower low and moderate income, immigrant and minority individuals and neighborhoods. Hector Hernandez, executive director of ProsperUs, received the award from Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba, a wife and husband team that came to Freedom House a few years ago after fleeing political persecution in Burundi. The ProsperUs program has helped them to realize their dream of opening Baobab Fare, an East African restaurant in Detroit. “People sometimes say that immigrants take American jobs,” said Mamba. “But we are creating new jobs here in Detroit.”