Equality NC will hold its annual gala on Saturday, August 27 in downtown Durham. It will be the first time in three years that the organization has held an in-person event of this size due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the organization’s executive director, Kendra R. Johnson, the event offers North Carolinians an opportunity to pause and reflect on all that has been accomplished for LGBTQ people, the allies that stand alongside us and the work that lies ahead. With an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation across the country, that road ahead may be more than a bit bumpy. 

Kendra R. Johnson has led the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality NC, since 2018. Qnotes file photo. 

“After almost three long years of a pandemic that has ravaged our community, and attacks that have threatened our democracy and our way of life, the Gala offers our community a moment to be together in celebration and build resources for our fight,” says Johnson. 

Equality NC is the state’s largest LGBTQ rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization. Founded in 1979 as the North Carolina Human Rights Fund, it was originally started to provide legal services to those who were fighting prosecution under the North Carolina Crimes Against Nature Law. Separately, a political action committee called NC Pride PAC formed in 1990 in the wake of the Jesse Helms / Harvey Gantt Senate race. According to Equality NC’s website, the two joined together in 2002 to form what we know today, linking the PAC and foundation to manage the ongoing need for lobbying and advocacy work. It is the oldest statewide LGBTQ equality organization in the United States.

The 43rd anniversary gala is titled Beautiful Resilience and includes keynote speaker Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, with special guests Minnesota City Council President Andrea Jenkins and Activist Charlotte Clymer. It is black-tie optional, and guests are encouraged to “be your fabulous self.” 

When asked about the theme, Johnson says that “Beautiful Resilience is a nod to what we know to be true about our community – in the face of all odds, even as we are attacked and demonized, we survive, we create, we celebrate, and we do so with this incredible grace and beauty. We cannot lose sight of that.” 

That level of distinction can easily be seen in the lineup of speakers and honorees. “Andrea [Jenkins], Charlotte [Clymer] and Nadine [Smith] speak truth to power,” says Johnson. “All three represent more of what we need to see in leadership in this country.”

Smith was named to Time Magazine’s annual list of 100 most influential people in the world earlier this year. She comes from a long line of activists and barrier breakers. Her grandparents helped form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union to fight for the rights of sharecroppers. While in college, Smith co-founded IGLYO, the world’s largest LGBTQ youth and student organization. She was also one of the co-chairs of the 1993 March on Washington that drew a million marchers and was part of the first Oval Office meeting between a sitting President and LGBTQ leaders. Following the Pulse Nightclub massacre, she and Equality Florida gained national attention after leading a rapid response and call-to-action that provided direct resources to survivors and the families of those killed. 

Florida has also taken center stage more recently in the attacks on LGBTQ people that dominate current politics, especially those on youth and the transgender community. Governor Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill has already shown to create tremendous harm for LGBTQ young people and has encouraged other right-wing politicians to try and follow suit. 

“So many of the political and electoral fights that impact our daily lives are happening in state legislatures, especially across the South,” said Smith in a recent phone interview.  

She pointed out that state organization leaders like herself and Johnson make a point of supporting each other, sharing ideas, learning from successes and mistakes. The close relationship helps them do this important work “better every day.” 

“Equality North Carolina has always been a generous teammate and we know their success and ours are tied together,” continued Smith. “I’m eager to be part of an evening celebrating the work and encouraging people to lean in and defend progress and build grassroots power.” 

According to Johnson, the gala promises to be equal parts inspiring and fun. Other highlights of the evening include a musical performance by local indie-jazz group Tea Cup Gin and a silent auction. Tickets are $250 each or $450 per couple. 

Tea Cup Gin will perform at the Beautiful Resilience Gala on August 27 in downtown Durham. Photo courtesy of Tea Cup Gin. 

She recognizes that the event is cost-prohibitive for many in the community but notes it is just one of many ways people can come together to support Equality NC. 

“We will have many opportunities throughout the remainder of the year to socialize, to gain political education, to get pro-equality candidates elected and to build a North Carolina where we can all thrive.” 

For more information about the Gala and to purchase tickets, visit https://one.bidpal.net/encgala2022, and follow Equality NC on social media to keep up to date with the organization’s news and events. 

Editor’s note: Chris Rudisill previously served on the board of directors at Equality Florida.