ABOVE: Terrence McNally (R) and his husband Tom Kirdahy. Screenshot via Equality Florida/YouTube.
ST. PETERSBURG | Equality Florida held its St. Petersburg gala May 8, honoring area advocates in a virtual fundraiser that raised a record amount in Pinellas County.
The gathering was Equality Florida’s first St. Petersburg gala since 2019. Traditionally held in person, it was postponed last year and into an online event honoring the five communities where fundraisers were cancelled in response to COVID-19.
More than 70 people watched the 2021 St. Petersburg gala live, which was hosted by Tampa Bay entertainer Matthew McGee. Supporters helped Equality Florida exceed its fundraising goal to bring in $425,013.
“Our award winners, presenters, entertainers, staff, volunteers and guests came together to create a special evening that many of us will never forget,” Equality Florida Pinellas Development Director Todd Richardson says. “When our community comes together to share our personal stories of how our lives have been affected by hate and discrimination, the power of those stories help people connect why the work we do in Florida is so important.”
The evening began with a tribute from Broadway legend Audra McDonald, a personal friend of the late Terrence McNally and his husband Tom Kirdahy. The two were honored with the Edie Windsor Lifetime Achievement Award that evening for their commitment to the LGBTQ community.
McNally, a St. Petersburg native, died in Sarasota from complications of COVID-19 in 2020. He is credited with writing more than 40 plays and books for musicals.
“Tom’s acceptance speech had many of us in tears,” Richardson explains. “He spoke of the great love he shared with Terrence and the overwhelming loss of losing him to COVID [and] of Terrence’s award-winning plays that helped to create dialogues that strengthened our message in our fight for full equality.”
McNally and Kirdahy were also honored by Broadway star Anais Mitchell, who created the musical “Hadestown,” as well as opera star Joyce DiDonato. Each performer reflected on the couple’s advocacy.
“Entertainers who use their celebrity status to further equal rights for all hold a special place in our hearts,” Richardson notes.
St. Petersburg City Councilmember Darden Rice, who Equality Florida’s political action committee has endorsed as the next St. Petersburg mayor, also presented Smith & Associates Realtor Connie Lancaster with the Equality Means Business Award. She received for being “a role model to all by demonstrating how you can lead a successful business and not compromise who you are,” Equality Florida noted.
Rounding out the evening’s awards was St. Petersburg Police Lt. Markus Hughes, the city’s LGBTQ liaison. The officer of more than 20 years received the Voice for Equality Award, presented by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin and Police Chief Anthony Holloway.
“Lt. Hughes shared his personal coming out story and people were incredibly touched by his words,” Richardson reflects. “He talked about the importance on finding your identity and sharing your story so that you can also become a ‘liaison’ to help educate people on the importance of acceptance, inclusion and diversity in our communities.”
Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith also gave her annual State of the State address, reflecting on the work the organization does in and around St. Petersburg. She used the opportunity to honor Kriseman, who is term-limited, for his years-long commitment to the city’s LGBTQ community.
Smith called him “an absolute stellar champion for equality, adding that he “has continuously raised the bar on what it means to be an ally.”
Kriseman subsequently called it an honor, noting he hopes “we’ve created policies … that will be impossible for whoever comes after me to undo.”
The organization’s executive director noted that they will hold his successor “that high standard,” something Equality Florida does statewide.
Those efforts are bolstered by Equality Florida’s galas, Richardson says. He calls this year’s gala “a smashing success … thank you everyone who contributed!”
To learn more about Equality Florida, visit EQFL.org. Watch this year’s St. Petersburg gala in full below: