Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Grassroots power rallies Austin's Human Rights Campaign Gala with Hannah Gadsby

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Mela Sarajane Dailey and Nico Ramsey at Human Rights Campaign Gala in Austin. [Michael Barnes/American-Statesman]

“Grassroots power” was the consistent rallying cry at Austin’s Human Rights Campaign Gala, which included a pointed appearance by no-nonsense comedian Hannah Gadsby best known from Netflix’s “Nanette” and winner of the HRC Visibility Award.

“We did a lot of block walking, phone banking and getting out the vote for pro-equality candidates on the state and national level,” said Sam Slate, a transgender Austin man and Dell employee, who has risen in the ranks of the HRC’s national leadership. “The sheer level of grassroots efforts grew so much during the last election cycle.”

Indeed, the HRC, which has advocated for the LGBTQ community for four decades, was historically known as a highly effective fundraising and lobbying group. Just looking around the gala ballroom, however, one sensed that it also has become a younger and more inclusive organization in the past few years.

The grassroots role is new, too, as are amped-up global efforts in critical hotspots such as Angola and Chechnya, where LGBTQ people live on life’s edge and could never imagine a festively attired event like this one, sold out at more than 800 guests.

During the seven-hour event at the JW Marriott, we heard from HRC President Chad Griffin, a tremendous speaker, as well as local leaders such as Erin Gurak, Christina Hernandez and Trey Pike. In her annual role, Dana Goldberg combined sharp wit with superhuman auctioning powers to quickly raise tens of thousands of dollars on four packages.

The speakers seemed fairly optimistic about the future of a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, although the electoral gains during the recent midterms hardly guarantee that legal landmark. The HRC proclaims it has 3 million active followers reaching out to 52 million equality voters, including 7 million LGBTQ voters in the recent election.

Sylvia J. López, an HIV and AIDS worker since the 1980s, earned the Bettie Naylor Award, named for the unforgettable, departed Austin activist. She also gave a moving speech, summed up in the statement: “We are all here to help each other and, therefore, to take responsibility.”

At the podium, an inspired Slate talked about his transition after 20 years as a proud lesbian and he encouraged the crowd to give generously. Dr. Todd Canon — full disclosure, he’s our family physician — took home the HRC Legacy Award for his extensive volunteer work.

Given her groundbreaking and carefully calibrated Netflix routine, which flips audience expectations about a self-deprecating stance from a member of a marginalized population, Gadsby’s Austin appearance was fairly upbeat, although not without references to scars from the past.

“I didn’t know the damage it did to me,” Gadsby about the 10-year battle to decriminalize homosexuality in her native Tasmania, when the opposition routinely cried: “Think about the children!” Gadsby’s response: “Did they not know that we, too, were children? They taught me to hate myself, that we were less than human.”

The evening ended with a dance party, which delighted Lauren Worsley, a DJ manager and trained ballroom dancer, and D’Lanie Bockholt, a Dell engineer, the couple outfitted in matching royal blue apparel.

“It was our first date last year,” Bockholt said. “We closed the place down and tore up the floor!”