Dr. Henry Messer Youth Activist Award winner Tiff Thompson (center) with Skillman and Affirmations CEO Leslie Thompson.

Still burning

At State Dinner, new Triangle team promises to 'carry the torch' for LGBT equality in Michigan

by Jessica Carreras

DEARBORN - The Triangle Foundation's 2009 State Dinner Event - dubbed Carrying the Torch - was held on Oct. 3 in Dearborn to a crowd that included local activists, members of LGBT organizations and numerous politicians and dignitaries.

The night of fundraising for the foundation, honoring of important LGBT advocates and celebration of equality to come was marked by attendance of such politicians as state Reps. Ellen Cogen Lipton and Vicki Barnett, as well as several Detroit and Royal Oak City Council hopefuls.

Several Catalyst Awards were presented by Triangle Foundation Executive Director Alicia Skillman and Affirmations CEO Leslie Thompson, who honored the winners in matching outfits - a testament to their friendship and working relationship.

The Dr. Henry Messer Youth Activist Award went to Tiff Thompson, an Ohio native who has worked to vamp up LGBT programs and trainings at Wayne State University, where she plans to graduate with degrees in biology and chemistry with a minor in psychology.

The Heather MacCalister Award was presented to Helen Hicks in honor of the Michigan AIDS Coalition, where she is executive director. MAC is a collaborative effort created in early 2009 by the merger of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project and the Michigan AIDS Fund, two of the state's larger HIV/AIDS prevention, education and treatment organizations.

A catalyst award was also given to tireless ally attorney Daniel Levy, chief legal officer with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Levy has worked in several roles to help recognize, count and help LGBT victims of hate crimes.

A whole new Triangle

The biggest focus of the night, however, was to recognize the new staff of the Triangle Foundation, which has had a complete turnover in leadership within the past year.

"Tonight is a very important night for the Triangle Foundation as the transition of the Triangle Foundation continues," said event chairman Brian Wolfe, vice president of Comerica Bank. "The foundation has accomplished many milestones since 1991. The new leadership of the foundation will continue to achieve great success in the GLBT community as they carry the torch into the future."

Skillman and Board of Trustees Chair Denise Brogan-Kator spoke further about the organization's efforts to end their transitional period, which began with the departure of previous executive director Jeff Montgomery two years ago.

"Alicia Skillman is an amazing woman with an amazing history and track record in the LGBT community," Brogan-Kator said, introducing Skillman. "She brings many things to Triangle. ... She has extraordinary passion for this work. She is committed to equality. She is committed to ending the violence and discrimination that our community still suffers so egregiously in our state. She brings experience and she brings leadership."

Skillman took on the task of introducing the rest of her staff, most of which have been brought in within the past month or so after Triangle was bestowed with a $500,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation. The new staff includes Director of Policy Bernadette Brown, Director of Victim Services Dr. Selma Massey, Victim Services Advocate Joshua Moore, Director of Operations Robert D. Thomas and Fund Development and Communications Director Heidi Lovy.

"This year's theme is Carrying the Torch, and we believe it is fitting because working in this movement can be very hot, very challenging and from where I stand, it's like that often," Skillman said of her team at Triangle. "I promise you we will carry it high and keep it lit. The torch represents a legacy that Triangle has - an exceptional legacy."

"You're going to see us reaching out and doing all kinds of work in the state of Michigan and we're going to get equality for you."

On the front line

The night was capped off by speech given by Evan Wolfson, founder of the national LGBT marriage rights organization Freedom to Marry.

Wolfson, often thought of as the father of the same-sex marriage movement, spoke to attendees of the Triangle State Dinner about his hope for equality in Michigan in the area of marriage and beyond. He stated that the state was "on the front line" of the battle for equality.

But more than just marriage, Wolfson spoke about the great inequality suffered in all areas of life by Michigan LGBTs. "In this state, there is not a single statewide protection at any level, in any area of life for these families," Wolfson stated emphatically. "You indeed labor and suffer and deal under a constitutional amendment that reinforces and cements the second-class citizenship that already existed for these families in Michigan. This is intolerable."

He added: "I trust that I can take the honorary opportunity and speak for Triangle in saying that this massive injustice must change."

Wolfson spoke specifically about the need to support anti-discrimination efforts in such places as Kalamazoo, where a recent ordinance to protect the city's LGBT citizens is up for vote next month. "If we let them take away the steps we make, the road becomes that much longer," he explained. "Every one of us has a stake in making cities, counties, states and our country and indeed the global community ready to treat human beings as they should be treated."

Wolfson's message on the fight for marriage equality focused on visibility. He stated that the primary way to win hearts and votes is by showing LGBT relationships and families to neighbors, family, coworkers and friends.

"We begin by telling our stories, personally and collectively, making sure that our neighbors right here in Michigan know that when they exclude us from legal protections - whether it be the freedom to marry or the ability to hold a job without discrimination - that they're not just getting some freebie swipe at the gays who live in New York or San Francisco," he said. "They are harming their neighbors and families right here in this state and in your communities."

Wolfson spoke with hope about the ability of Michigan LGBT activists and organizations like Triangle to make equality happen in the state with collaborative efforts in the years to come. "In Michigan, as I don't have to come here to tell you, there is tremendous need and tremendous opportunity," he said. "As you've seen with the new team Triangle has built and your energy and commitment, this is the moment that we're going to make Michigan ready to do what needs to be done."

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