When the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance celebrates a milestone, it's a bit like the tortoise making his victory lap to the hare's chagrin. Steadily, progressively -- and some might say ''wonkishly'' -- GLAA has improved the lot of the district's GLBT community for 35 years.
Since 1971, as ''the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization,'' the members of GLAA have helped draft legislation, lobbied, testified, protested and picketed on the community's behalf. When there are long, laborious hours to be spent rating mayoral candidates, for example, the devoted GLAA is there, doing the work that is not terribly sexy, but nonetheless integral to the GLBT community's quality of life and liberty in D.C. Wednesday, April 19, the group stopped to celebrate its anniversary, and to offer kudos to allies in the form of Distinguished Service Awards.
In a banquet room at the Washington Plaza Hotel, about 50 people gathered for the ceremony, an influential collection of City Council members, neighborhood commissioners, and leaders of the city's gay community.
Christopher Neff, current GLAA president, welcomed everyone with a fiery style, seeming to take his cue from the group's founder, Frank Kameny. Kameny, a pioneer of the modern gay movement who has always insisted on a well-groomed brand of civil disobedience, sat front and center.
Randy Shulman (left) and Bob Summersgill [see more photos]
''Some of you don't know what we do,'' Neff recognized, offering a list of GLAA highlights from 2006, which included supporting the ''We Are Family Unity Weekend,'' working with Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton to stop anti-gay legislative riders from making their way onto congressional appropriations bills, working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and supporting the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) of the Metropolitan Police Department. ''Our principle is simple: We stick to our guns and fight like hell.''
Neff closed his welcome by introducing Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At large), the first award recipient of the evening, singled out for his successful effort to expand the rights of the city's domestic partnerships.
''The resulting bill is absolutely amazing,'' offered Neff, pointing to domestic partners' new immunity from testifying against one another, power-of-attorney rights, standing to sue for a partner's negligent death, and more. ''[Mendelson's] first priority was the community, not the headlines.''
Mendelson acknowledged his gratitude for the award before turning to his legislation.
''I understand how important this bill -- now law -- is," he said. "It's a simple issue for me. It's a simple proposition as a matter of policy that we recognize domestic partnerships.''
Richard Rosendall, GLAA's vice president for political affairs, was up next to say a few words about honoree Art Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. Rosendall cited Spitzer's 26 years of civil-liberties work in the area, including a case last June in which the Library of Congress attempted to rescind an offer of employment to a terrorism analyst who was transitioning from male to female.
In the more distant past, Spitzer's work has touched the GLAA in a more direct way. ''No one in this room will remember, except Frank Kameny,'' Spitzer said with a laugh. ''You were my very first ACLU client.'' The case involved Kameny's attempt to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery in 1979. The Pentagon refused Kameny's request. Enter Spitzer and the ACLU.
''Looking at Kameny and his lawyers, [the military] immediately backed down,'' Spitzer said wryly, answered by laughs and applause from the audience. And by Kameny: ''We've done it every Memorial Day since!''
Randy Shulman, publisher of Metro Weekly, offered some of the evening's most emotional remarks after accepting his award from former GLAA president Bob Summersgill. While Summersgill noted the local magazine's 12-year history and awards, and joked that Metro Weekly is ''the place to see your friends without their shirts on,'' Shulman praised GLAA and the area's GLBT community.
''This great Washington LGBT community is my inspiration,'' said Shulman. ''I'm doing something that I love for a community that I love. … To be honored by a group like GLAA, that's the icing on the cake.''
The Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C., was also honored -- associate pastor Rev. Venson Mathews accepted for pastor Rev. Candace Shultis, who was recovering from emergency eye surgery.
''This is the only church announcement you'll get tonight, so listen closely,'' he teased.
Long-time freelance photographer Patsy Lynch was honored for her decades of documenting the history of the GLBT community. Her friend Mark Meinke, founder of the Rainbow History Project, accepted the award for Lynch, who was in Missouri documenting work by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
After the awards were presented, all that remained were a few closing words from Neff and the ''founder's toast'' from Kameny. Neff admitted that his closing remarks would precede Kameny's champagne toast, as he wisely refused to follow Kameny, adept at commanding attention.
Kameny took the audience back to the beginning, explaining how what was first called the Gay Activists Alliance evolved out of his unsuccessful run for Congress. From there he noted some of GLAA's battles and victories, comparing the context of the past to the city that exists today.
''We don't have hostile [City] Council members anymore, but we did then,'' he pointed out. He returned to the unsavory history between the city's police force and the gay community. ''We were sworn enemies,'' he said, offering the GLLU as a sign of the times. ''Things have progressed very, very nicely. ...
''We don't win 'em all in politics -- nobody does -- but we have a pretty good record,'' Kameny concluded. ''We are all better off for GLAA's presence.''
With shouts of ''Here! Here!'' and ''Cheers!'' the audience seemed to agree.