The annual Human Rights Campaign Austin Gala Dinner is like no other event in town.
First, it’s large. This year, it took up one of the biggest ballrooms at the super-sized JW Marriott. And the benefit supports a far-ranging national group. The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the LGBT community, counts 1.5 million members and a budget of around $50 million, last I checked. Last year, it shared in a huge legal victory when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage equality. It is now pushing for, among other things, a federal anti-discrimination law that would include sexual orientation and gender identity.
While it doesn’t attract the marquee celebrities of the HRC events in Los Angeles, New York or Washington, D.C., the Austin dinner brings in the big guns in the local LGBT community, along with its allies. We were welcomed, for instance, by the eloquent duo of Suzanne Bryant and Sarah Goodfriend, the first legally married gay couple in Texas. Giving the big address was Chad Griffin, president of the HRC, who counted the group’s wins and losses, then repeated its full-voiced endorsement of Hillary Clinton for U.S. President.
The highlights, however, of every dinner are the two Visibility Awards, which honor those who have employed the community’s most effective tool for change: Coming and staying out. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo movingly presented the local Bettie Naylor honor to peace officer Gregory Abbink, who came out as transgender in April 2014. The more national award was given to actor Guillermo Diaz, perhaps best known for his recurring role as Huck on “Scandal.”
That’s not all. The organizers wisely chose buoyant comic Dana Goldberg to lead the short live auction. Austin Mayor Steve Adler rose to give a resounding speech — especially for such a normally reserved guy — thanking his sometime speechwriter Steven Tomlinson and one of the architects of his campaign, Eugene Sepulveda. Those two happened to be married to each other. I got to spend time at their table with one of my all-time favorite actors, Beth Broderick, with hard-working eatery owner, Cameron Lockley, and with the mayor’s best ambassador, his accomplished wife, Diane Land.
Benefits for explicitly national rather than local causes are still not a commonplace in Austin. The HRC Dinner is an exception.