Hundreds of supporters joined Georgia Equality on Saturday to honor the LGBT group's champions and remember the victims of the Orlando massacre.
The group's 12th Annual Evening for Equality came just a week after 49 people were gunned down inside a gay nightclub in Orlando. Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director, said the attack was a tragic reminder of the violence that LGBT people face.
"They were murdered in a gay nightclub, a place that so many of us have turned to over the years as a safe haven from the prejudice, hostility and discrimination that too many of us deal with in our day to day lives. It was our sanctuary," Graham said.
He said the victims died for "who they love."
"Part of what really has gotten to me this week are the photos, how young these people were. They died because of who they are and who they love. They were murdered during Pride month, a time each year when the LGBT community comes together to support each other and to celebrate the resilience and community we have built over the decades specifically when mainstream America chose to shun us," Graham said.
The Orlando attack showed that even with successes in the fight for equality, LGBT people still face hurdles.
"It has been, unfortunately, a stark reminder that there is too much hatred and prejudice against us," Graham said.
And he pointed to the heated anti-gay rhetoric that came in the legislative fight over "religious freedom" bills and other anti-gay measures earlier this year in Georgia – and in recent weeks from parents in Fannin County, U.S. Rick Allen and WSB pundit Erick Erickson – as signs that those hurdles still exist here.
"For the past several months here in Georgia, we have heard political and religious leaders denounce us as unfit, as predators, as threats to others," Graham said. "We have had the KKK flyer a suburban neighborhood attacking the transgender community over where they go the bathroom."
"That's the hatred that is out there, not just in Orlando, Florida but right at home here in Georgia," he added.
'We must dig our heels in'
But Graham (second photo) also struck an uplifting note and issued a challenge to the crowd of about 350 people at the event inside a ballroom of the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta.
"We as a people are better than this. If we are to avoid these tragedies in the future, we must join forces in unity and prove that we are better than this. If we are truly to live in a society without the violence of Orlando or the violence of a year ago in Charleston, we must dig our heels in and we must work harder than we have ever worked before to prove and be better than this," Graham said.
Georgia Equality also honored three people that helped the group beat back anti-gay legislation earlier this year – Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church & State, with the Allen Thornell Political Advancement Award; Bark Bark Owner Brian Tolleson with the Champion for Equality Award; and state Sen. Harold Jones with the Guiding Star Award.
Grady Health System CEO John Haupert was also honored with the Philip Rush Community Builder Award.
The crowd at Evening for Equality included DuPose Porter, a former lawmaker who has highlighted LGBT equality efforts as chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia; Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay general in the U.S. Army who was installed in November as commander of the 98th Training Division at Fort Benning in Columbus; and WNBA President Lisa Borders, who as Atlanta City Council president championed LGBT issues.
Also in the crowd was Rowan Feldhaus, a 24-year-old transgender Augusta man who is fighting a Superior Court judge who refused to issue his name change over fears it might offend the "sensibilities and mores" of Georgians.
"We are here to support you and back you here tonight," Graham told Feldhaus from the stage.
Evening for Equality was emceed by Chris Chandler, the gay news anchor for "Atlanta's Evening News" on WSB Radio.