Hundreds of guests filled one of MGM Grand Detroit’s largest ballrooms Saturday to commemorate the Affirmations Spring Bash. As planned, the annual event served as a spotlight for the LGBTQ community center’s achievements and as a key fundraiser. However, 2019’s event is unique for the organization in several ways. First, Affirmations officially announced that the search for its executive director was over with the reappointment of Dave Garcia after a five-year hiatus, it earned statewide recognition from the governor and other politicians for its advocacy work and it celebrated its 30th birthday after an uncertain previous fiscal year.
The evening began with an announcement from Mike Flores.
“Last year I introduced myself as the interim president, this year I am honored to introduce myself as the president of the board. I serve at the will and pleasure of the community. I am leading the board with your permission. Because of that, we are able to accomplish many things at Affirmations, the largest LGBTQ community center in the state of Michigan,” he said. “Truly, the evening is about you, you and you; the community that made Affirmations a reality 30 years ago, the community that supports Affirmations today and the community that will make sure that we are successful in the future.”
That message was reiterated by Affirmations’ founding executive director and Between The Lines Co-Publisher Jan Stevenson, along with a reminder why the center plays a vital role within the community in a video message to attendees.
“What Affirmations is and why it’s important is that it’s the community’s home,” Stevenson said. “For 30 years it’s provided that space. There’s a tendency to think that everything’s OK and we’re not going to need a safe space, but if anything has taught us that that’s not true it’s been our experience fighting HIV/AIDS.”
Stevenson underlined the important role the center originally played for those in the thick of that fight and how the advocacy within it would allow for Affirmations’ current 30-year legacy to unfold.
Among some of the evening’s most noteworthy guests were both statewide and local politicians who made clear that LGBTQ support and advocacy was a priority in the state of Michigan and in their roles. Of the politicians in attendance, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson addressed the crowd first, emphasizing the importance of LGBTQ visibility.
“I just want to thank you for all the work you’re doing, for all the support that you give so many who feel they don’t have a voice, so many who are afraid, so many who, as you all know, worry as the hate crimes rise that they will be affected because they see people who look like them who are being treated as victims,” Benson said. “We are not victims. We are empowered, we have a voice. You have a voice that matters, that will be heard, that needs to be heard and I’m proud to be a secretary of state that’s going to march right alongside you to ensure that’s a reality.”
Sen. Jeremy Moss echoed those sentiments when he took the stage to receive Affirmations’ Community Hero Award. The openly gay politician added that as honored as he was to accept recognition for his work in supporting the LGBTQ community, he considered community organizers like those who keep Affirmations running to be truly deserving of recognition.
“I represent a community of heroes,” Moss said. “I represent people in this room, I represent a vibrant LGBT community not only in Ferndale and in Pleasant Ridge which have the highest LGBT population in the state of Michigan. I represent people all throughout this state. You’re my heroes, the activists of the ‘60s, ‘70s and the ‘80s who certainly helped to form Affirmations are my heroes. The people who are still marginalized within our community today who don’t have the same advantages that even I have, especially trans women of color are my heroes. The 300 married couples who just celebrated their five-year anniversary are my heroes. Matthew Shepard is my hero and his father who is here today, my parents who are here today.”
Moss pointed out in his address that the 2018 midterm elections brought with them “a new day” to the Lansing legislature, leveling the playing field for those in the minority party. He underlined that point with a dedicated gift to Affirmations.
“Today we actually have the ability to present a tribute from the state legislature to Affirmations on behalf of their 30th anniversary, not only signed by me but by state Rep. Robert Wittenberg who represents Ferndale but signed by the governor of the state of Michigan and the lieutenant governor,” Moss said. “That’s not enough. … As we know we are pushing hard to expand our civil rights in the state of Michigan to make sure that nobody is fired or denied housing due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’re going to be rolling out that legislation at the end of May.”
In addition to the announcement of pro-LGBTQ equality legislation, Moss announced an upcoming pride month town hall to be held at Affirmations featuring Gov. Whitmer.
“It’s a new day in Lansing where we have so many people that are allies advocating for us and it’s a totally different experience especially being a gay person in this culture,” he said.
Beyond political guests, highlighted during the evening were local volunteers and community organizers who aided Affirmations in all aspects, and who kept it afloat during the past several months.
Highlighted as the Karen Dorgan Volunteer of the Year, Elizabeth Arnott said that it was the Affirmations staff that made volunteering a possibility.
“It’s an honor to be up here and to be recognized, but for me, supporting the community and also the staff was so important,” Arnott said. “I want to give it back to the staff because if it wasn’t for them, I would not be a volunteer, I would not be up here. So, thank you.”
Volunteer Rosemary Ruppert received the Jan Stevenson award. It was accepted on her behalf by Marjo Rogers.
“Think how many lives have been changed for the better because this organization exists. I also would like to thank Affirmations for creating the Senior Coffee Klatch discussions group,” Rogers said. “Each week this group offers our generation a place to meet and an opportunity to meet new friends and share our stores together. We are a family of friends and we are holding a place for all of you at our table. On behalf of Rosemary and myself, thank you, Affirmations.”
Megan Fuciarelli received the Lorna Utley Outstanding Ally Award, making sure to mention in her address volunteer Dani Som who died by suicide only weeks before.
“When I was first introduced to Affirmations I had no idea what impact this would have on me, but isn’t that how all volunteer opportunities start?” Fuciarelli said. “I had the distinct pleasure of working with Dani who we all saw on the video and we lost Dani recently and I just would like to take a moment to remember that that’s one of the reasons why we’re here is to provide an opportunity for everyone to be able to be safe and be heard and listened to and that’s what I hope I was able to provide.”
The evening’s final award was the Charles Moyer Philanthropy Award that was given to MGM Grand Detroit for going above and beyond in supporting Affirmations and in hosting the Spring Bash.
Keynote Speakers and Key Messages
When Dave Garcia took the stage, he outlined some of his incoming goals for Affirmations and reiterated the value of a center designed by and for the community, drawing parallels between his former role as the political director for the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
“When you’ve been the political director at the largest LGBT organization in the world and been to every board meeting and been to every senior director meeting and every special event and every fundraiser you learn a few things,” he said. “And I’m not here so that we can pretend we can have a $121 million annual budget — yet. Or have 700 employees — yet. But there are things that we can do that aren’t going to cost a lot of money.”
He gave an example of the Out for Safe Schools Badge program that provides badges for those school employees who want to be known as a safe resource for LGBTQ youth. He said that after only a five-year span, the program is present across the country in states like New York and Texas.
Garcia left the stage with a final message for both the audience and Dennis Shepard who was present that evening. He is the father of Matthew Shepard who was infamously murdered in 1998 for being an openly gay man whose landmark case helped secure more rights to the LGBTQ community across the U.S.
“I want to thank you for the tremendous class that you have shown to this community and really to the world and I want to thank you for being here tonight to celebrate with us and I want to thank your son because there are so many people that, like me, wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for your son, Matthew,” Garcia said. “So, thank you very much. We all appreciate it and for all of you, thank you for welcoming me home and I’m going to do my best to make you proud.”
Flores hosted a live Q&A session with Shepard in which he first asked if he believed the Matthew Shepard Foundation was a continuation of the work that Matthew would have done had he still be on Earth.
“Yes, I believe so. His dream was to work overseas for the state department as a diplomat, possibly an ambassador. He spoke English, German, Italian, Arabic and Japanese and was taking French when he died. He wanted to bring the same rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities to other countries that he thought as an American citizen he had here,” Dennis Shepard said. “So, the foundation is based on his dreams and goals and vision of what he wanted to do to make the world a better, safer place.”
Covering topics that ranged from being a better ally to advocacy work within the LGBTQ community, perhaps Shepard’s overall message was best summed up when he elaborated on what the LGBTQ community should do to continue his son’s message and goals.
“Support them, encourage them, protect them, educate them so they can educate us,” he said. “Our young people are our greatest national treasure, if we lose our young people to hate, to suicide, to just giving up hope, we become a third-rate country in no time.”
Find out more information about Affirmations and the Spring Bash by visiting goaffirmations.org.