Turning 40 Never Felt So Good... Or Did So Much Good!

11/19/2011 07:11 am 07:11:04 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's 40th Anniversary Gala & Auction, a star-studded celebration hosted by Leslie Jordan at the Westin Bonaventure on November 12, helped raise more than $680,000 for our many services to build the health, advocate for the rights and enrich the lives of LGBT people. Surrounded by more than 1,200 donors and supporters -- and even one of the pioneers who helped found the center -- I was awed by this incredible community and everything we have accomplished together.

Our theme for this year's gala was "40 Years of Family." There are a lot of ways to define family, but one of my favorites is this: people with common goals and values who share a lifelong commitment to one another. That certainly describes the center, just as it does this year's honorees and those who presented the awards to them:

* Proud fathers of adorable twins Harper and Gideon, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka have put a new public face on families with same-sex parents. They have given generously to support our LifeWorks program, to which so many young LGBT people turn for support. We were proud to have Jane Lynch honor the handsome and talented couple with our Rand Schrader Distinguished Achievement Award. I was touched by Neil's observation that the center is helping to create a world where, for same-sex couples, "being married and being a parent doesn't have to be about making a statement, and it can be just about living our lives."

* Chaz Bono has been a dedicated activist in our community since his "first coming out" in the '90s. Since his more recent coming out as a transgender man, he has become an even greater trailblazer. By bravely and publicly sharing the journey of his transition, and his family's journey, he has set a courageous example that is helping transgender youth and their families around the world. David Arquette, who reflected upon the struggles his transgender sister, Alexis, faced in order to feel "comfortable in her own skin," was proud to present Chaz with our Board of Directors Award. (Chaz visited the center for a tour he week before the event; I was proud to share with him how much the center has expanded our services for the transgender community since he last walked through the doors.)

* We're grateful to count Jane and her wife, Dr. Lara Embry, as part of the center family. Jane did the California AIDS Ride (a precursor to our present-day AIDS/LifeCycle) back in the '90s, and Lara rode with us from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the first time this year. Though Jane's star has risen stratospherically (and deservedly!), she hasn't forgotten us; she continues to serve on our board of directors and to be there when we need her.

The evening included many poignant moments: Surprising our longest-tenured woman board member, LuAnn Boylan with an award honoring her astounding 19 years of service to the center; board member Peter Paige's heartfelt remembrances of turning to the center as a youth in need of support; Clinton Leupp recalling the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the anger that led him to create his alter ego, the drag star Miss Coco Peru, followed by a powerful rendition of "Those Were the Days"; and so many others. Plus, Leslie Jordan provided countless laughs as the emcee of the evening -- perhaps most memorably in his Madonna-esque cone breasts.

It was a night that made me exceptionally proud, not only of what the center is today but also that we are part of such an incredible tradition of activism. We've been calling it "40 Years of Family" because the center formally incorporated in 1971 -- but in fact our roots reach all the way back to 1969. Our co-founders took action within months of the Stonewall riots; first was Morris Kight providing information and referrals and then Don Kilhefner creating a "Gay Survival Committee" for those in desperate need.

Another co-founder, Jon Platania, opened several "Liberation Houses" to provide housing and employment services for homeless LGBT youth and adults -- the first such residential programs in the world. And social worker June Herrle became the architect of the center's focus on social services. And always, fighting for our rights as a key part of the center's mission.

Over the decades, we have held true to their vision of building a stronger and healthier LGBT community, taking care of our own and fighting for the equal place in society that we deserve.
Now a resident of Berkeley, Jon recently came down to visit; he toured all of our facilities to see first-hand how the founders' vision has been realized and built-upon. How very appropriate that on this special anniversary, Jon could reconnect with the center and even join us to celebrate our family at the gala. We stand proudly on his and all of our founders' shoulders.
Thanks to Jon and the other founders, the cnter has mattered to people who count on us. For more than 40 years, the center has been like family to countless members of our community.

We have been there for people at their times of greatest sadness and happiness, in their times of greatest need and generosity -- just like a family is supposed to be. I can't even count the numbers of people who have told me that they found their "family of choice" through their involvement with the center.

Moreover, the center has become a beacon of hope to LGBT people all over the world. We represent what any community of people can do when they set their minds to it. What was begun by a handful of volunteers with $35 in the bank has become a life-changing, life-saving institution that is making a difference to thousands of people every week and inspiring many more around the globe.

I wish, after 40 years, we could say our work is done. But we know that isn't true. We still don't have equality under the law. All too often the rights we do have, and sometimes our very humanity, are under attack.

So, as long as we are treated as second-class citizens, as long as HIV and AIDS continue to be on the rise in our community, as long as LGBT seniors needing outside care feel forced back into the closet, as long as misguided parents kick their LGBT kids out, as long as any LGBT person feels ashamed simply because of their gender identity or who they love, the center will be here. We must be here. And when you think about what we've accomplished in the first 40 years ... just imagine the progress that the next 40 will bring.

The L.A. Gay And Lesbian Center's 40th Anniversary Gala