PHOTOS: Equality Florida’s St. Pete Gala raises over $880K

Equality Florida St. Pete Gala attendees and honoree Michele Rayner (C). Photo by Dylan Todd.

ST. PETERSBURG | Equality Florida’s St. Pete Gala returned May 13, welcoming nearly 700 supporters to The Mahaffey Theater and raising at least $883,113.

The nonprofit’s galas are designed to detail Equality Florida’s work as the state’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization. Equality Florida Pinellas Development Director Todd Richardson says the event’s total, which is still rising, set a 27-year fundraising record.

“The community gave $95,000 inside of the theater,” he says, noting attendees pledged additional financial support after the evening’s speeches. “People were so inspired from learning more about what Equality Florida is doing.

“Our volunteers work all year to put on this event and they spend so much of their own time putting in the effort for our organization,” Richardson continues. “I’m so overwhelmed by their generosity and kindness, and by all of our donors. The evening was about love, connection and community.”

The gala’s program officially began with a sponsors’ reception ahead of live entertainment from performer Alex Harris.

Returning emcee Chuck Diaz-Henson subsequently welcomed presenters to detail the evening’s honorees, two leaders who have worked to advance LGBTQ+ equality.

Openly LGBTQ+ State Rep. Michele Rayner was the first. She received the 2023 Voice for Equality Award, which recognizes individuals who move the community closer to full equality through courage, passion and unwavering commitment.

Dr. David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, detailed Rayner’s work for the crowd. He advised she “understands the importance of speaking truth to power, especially when it shakes your soul” and said her “unwavering commitment to not only talking to talk … but also walking the walk … is why we are here honoring her tonight.”

Rayner thanked him for his friendship and advocacy before accepting the award and addressing the crowd. She reflected on this year’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislative session and more.

“I understand that it is seemingly dark in Florida,” she said. “I talked about this on the House floor. I understand that it feels like it’s midnight … but I want to just leave you with this little bit of hope.

“The beautiful part about midnight is that it means a new day is coming,” Rayner noted. “Be very clear that while we’re at midnight, a new day is coming. That day is liberation for all of us.”

Marjorie Sherwin was honored next, accepting the 2023 Edie Windsor Lifetime Achievement Award from her niece. Her LGBTQ+ activism extends decades.

“What an honor to receive this award from my friends and my community,” Sherwin said. “It’s truly unbelievable and I thank you.”

A longtime Equality Florida volunteer herself, she took the time to recognize this year’s gala organizers and called on others in the room to give back as well.

“I would like each of us here tonight to make a pledge to do at least one action — whether it be voter registration, call or write your legislator, go to Tallahassee when it’s appropriate, donate money — make an action plan and carry it out.”

Equality Florida Co-Founder Executive Director Nadine Smith spoke next, detailing the “relentless attack on LGBTQ+ rights” in Florida and beyond.

“The very fact that we are experiencing such a ferocious backlash here in Florida has everything to do with the progress that we have made over the last 25+ years,” she said, calling on the crowd not to lose hope.

“Hold on to the reality that hope is based in what we have seen time and time again,” she stressed. “Hold on to the understanding that when you see any part of the community attacked, those people are sharpening their sword to come for you and that we must sleep your arms in these dangerous times. When I see this room filled with so many people — who when we say the frontline is Florida, all of you said we are soldiers reporting for duty – and I appreciate and love you for that.”

Equality Florida Co-Founder and Deputy Director Stratton Pollitzer closed out the evening, soliciting donations and detailing the organization’s work they would go on to fuel. The evening closed with dinner, drinks and dancing.

“In a time where so much hatred is being directed toward the LGBTQ+ community, it was wonderful to see everyone coming together, standing with us and celebrating who we are,” Richardson reflects. He also challenges donors throughout Florida “to step up like the Pinellas County community has to support our work during such a difficult time in our state.”

Watermark was on hand to help celebrate Equality Florida’s St. Pete Gala. View our photos below.

Photos by Dylan Todd, Ryan Williams-Jent.

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