If I haven’t said so in specific terms before, you’ve likely gained the impression on here that it’s always a thrill for me to get dressed up and venture outside my house as Allison. And while I’m one who normally likes the intimacy of small groups, an awesome feeling always surfaces in me when en femme in a large congregation of people. Such was the case again last Friday evening:
OutReach, the LGBT+ support center here in Madison, staged its annual awards banquet last week. at the Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center. As the name implies, the event is a combination of a fine meal, friendly conversation, and awards to those who promote equality and quality of life for the LGBT+ community.
As I indicated when I wrote about attending last year’s event, the OutReach Awards Banquet is a black-tie affair, meaning that you’d look out of place in grubby jeans and an old shirt. Of course, I would never take that sartorial route for such a splendid soiree.
Yep, that’s yours truly posing for the camera early in the evening before enjoying dinner with the TG/CD support group, who covered the cost of a couple of tables for group members in the hall. (Yes, there was a fee to attend, as proceeds go to support some of OutReach’s programs. Groups such as my support group do purchase tables for their members.) Unlike the night last year when I first attended the OutReach Banquet, my day that preceded it didn’t find me going back and forth in and out of town. While I did have to work during the day, I got to skip the final half-hour to head home, change into feminine attire, put on makeup, and drive to Monona Terrace. No quick change at the event for me, this year at least.
Oh, my dress? Well, it’s a dress and coordinating jacket, and both are made of a lacy outer lining accented in gold beads and fabric. The lining is mocha in color, and it provides a nice contract that isn’t too dark and also doesn’t take away from the glimmer. I found this dress in the waning days of Boston Store’s “going out of business” sale back in August. I took one look at it on the rack and knew it would be perfect for the OutReach banquet. And, yes, I took advantage of the deep store-closing discount — from $119 to about $12, or so I want to recall.
Whatever the price, I looked like a million bucks. And, yes, I did get more than a few compliments. I wasn’t the only glamorous looking girl at our table, however. One of our group moderators wore a pair of just-past-the-knee boots that went perfectly with her outfit. And my friend, Jen, wore this absolutely stunning rose red gown.
But enough about who wore what at which table. Let’s give some props to some of the other people who attended the banquet. Let’s start with a gentleman who got on the elevator entrance to Monona Terrace with me. He was just a fellow attendee, but he did something rather sweet — not for me but for his partner, who forgot his phone at home. He went back home, braving evening rush hour traffic and probably sacrificing a primo parking spot they just grabbed, all for the sake of retrieving something of some significant importance for his significant other. How sweet and unselfless is that? If that doesn’t merit some sort of an award, at least his partner’s gratitude would suffice.
Then there were those who came up to the dais and the podium, including OutReach’s executive director and board president. Both gentlemen naturally mentioned OutReach’s highlights during the past year, but they didn’t shy away from talking about controversy, namely the brouhaha that surrounded this year’s OutReach Pride Parade & Rally back in August. Yes, it went off without a hitch, but not without more than a few people in the community raising a ruckus beforehand. But their comments that night reinforced OutReach’s commitment to listen to and respect those of color in the LGBT community and their concerns about standing up for their safety.
One tidbit from the opening remarks was significant on the monetary front: A longtime volunteer at and donor to OutReach passed away last June. His name was Bill Wartmann, and he did everything from facilitating a support group to arranging events to helping pony up money to help with moving expenses and create a gender-neutral client restroom when OutReach moved to its present offices in 2016. Bill Wartmann left behind a monetary endowment through the Madison Community Foundation that would support OutReach and its programs and advance their mission after his death. The size of the endowment: $1 million, which will be spread out over multiple years ($40,000 a year for 25 years or something like that). The words “one million dollars” almost took my breath away upon hearing them, and they will mean so much to OutReach in the long run.
Mixed in with the speechifying was some hardware. In last year’s post about the banquet, I didn’t get the chance to celebrate those who earned awards. Let’s correct that this year by highlighting the honorees. I mean, it can’t be the OutReach Awards Banquet without awards, right? The image you see above is when James Van Abel was awarded the OutReach Volunteer of the Year. James has fulfilled several volunteer roles with OutReach in the two short years since he returned to Madison, including front desk work, volunteer training, and deliveries. Speaking as someone who’s been honored for their own volunteer work, it’s always good to see a great volunteer recognized for their good deeds.
Though the lighting in this photo may not be the greatest (and, thanks to being way in the back, the focus isn’t all that hot either), it still shouldn’t take away from the accomplishments of Charles Wetzel, who was bestowed the LGBTQ Advocate of the Year award. Charles has been volunteering in politics, organized a Madison Public Library photo exhibit of LGBT+ leaders, and helped organize a parade & rally in June 2017 that not only commemorated the anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub tragedy but also highlighted issues facing the LGBT+ community. And, oh, Charles is 17 years old and in his final year of high school education. Charles alluded to their youth status in their speech, stating that “My generation is the future.” And what a future they will have with passionate people such as Charles. Way to go!
The Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce also earned recognition as Organization of the Year. Perhaps you saw me talk up a couple of their honorees in this post from last month. But at the banquet, the Chamber earned honors of their own for its work throughout the state in “promoting economic growth and opportunities” for professionals and organizations who are openly LGBT+ or allies.
A “Special Recognition Award” was given to The Clarenbach House Project. The name Clarenbach is recognizable to Wisconsin’s LGBT+ community, as it was David Clarenbach who spearheaded historic legislation in the early 1980s that prohibited discrimination in housing and employment based on one’s sexual orientation. But David Clarenbach was far from the only prominent LGBT figure to have lived or worked at 123 W Gilman St. here in Madison. That addressed housed, between 1973 and 1987, several progressive candidates (future Senator Tammy Baldwin for one) and organizations that promoted or developed protections for the LGBT+ community. The Clarenbach House Project is devoted to preserving the histories and memories of those prominent figures who lived there, going so far as to seek local landmark status for the house. It may look nondescript on the outside, but it keeps so much history on the inside.
The last award and last speech of the evening was for the Courage Award recipient, Sheri Swokowski. Or should I say US Army Colonel (Retired) Sheri Swokowski. Col. Swokowski is the first senior-level openly transgender veteran of the United States Armed Forces. She served as a career infantry officer and was deployed into fighting service twice. After retiring from service in 2004, Col. Swokowski served as an Army instructor until being abruptly fired when she began to transition gender. After that, she served as a senior analyst at the Pentagon, a human resource director for the US Forest Service, and became a renowned advocate for trans rights and trans military service. Col. Sworkowski is a Wisconsin native, having grown up in mostly-conservative Manitowoc and currently living here in the Madison area. In addition to her advocacy efforts and work with both Fair Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin, Col. Swokowski worked with the aforementioned Senator Tammy Baldwin on proposed legislation that would have barred discrimination based on sexual or gender orientation.
Col. Swokowski was absolutely spellbinding in her speech. It felt as if the audience was in rapt attention of her words. She had a steel-strong presence, likely a byproduct of her military years, as well as moving words about serving with pride and encouragement to stay strong in the face of organized discrimination against trans people by the current administration. It certainly moved my friend, Jen, who introduced herself to Col. Swokowski after the ceremony let out and told her of her admiration of her and her advocacy. I was glad to take a picture of the two of them for Jen’s album.
(Oh, side note: The only hiccup of the evening was the slide on the screen unfortunately misspelling Col. Swokowski’s name. That’s okay, not every big evening can go 100% perfectly.)
In between the awards were a couple of drag performances, a lovely performance by the Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus, and keynote speeches by Madison’s member of Congress, Mark Pocan, and Davette Baker of the Human Rights Campaign. Their speeches added to the air of advocacy and urgency in the room…
The OutReach banquet took place 17 days before a very important mid-term election, and came two days before the ugly news that the current administration is seeking to eliminate recognition of trans citizens’ status (i.e. erase from existence). More than once during the banquet, and not just form the keynoters and award recipients, there were reminders of how much voting matters. And while there wasn’t any explicit endorsement of one candidate over another, there was no mistaking who would be on The LGBT+ community’s side in the long run. Voting for those who will fiercely advocate for our community and serve as a check against You Know Who, his cronies, and their delusions of grandeur feels like the most important thing right now, no doubt.
Here’s hoping the good vibes at Monona Terrace last week will last into Election Day and all the way through to next year’s OutReach Awards Banquet.