Tears, cheers for McDonald at Milk club dinner
by David-Elijah Nahmod
The tears and cheers flowed as the glitterati of San Francisco progressive politics gathered for a joyous celebration of those who've made a difference. It not only highlighted personal and organizational achievement, but also how the local community has embraced the diverse rainbow it's become.
There was nary a dry eye in the house as CeCe McDonald took to the podium to receive the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club's Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award.
McDonald, 25, is an African American transwoman who, in 2012, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for fatally stabbing a man who had attacked her and her friends in Minneapolis the prior year. Her conviction sparked outrage, and was viewed by many as an act of transphobia and racism against a woman who defended herself.
When introducing McDonald, who was released in January after serving 19 months in prison, Milk Club Co-President Laura Thomas referred to her as a "political prisoner."
A beaming McDonald received a standing ovation. She addressed the crowd of about 200 in the outdoor courtyard of City College's Mission campus for the Milk club's annual dinner and gayla August 7.
"I want people to see me as a person, a regular person," McDonald said as she received her award. "It's important for me to have a voice. We're often overlooked, so I'm glad that people can come up to me and know who I am. I'm going to fight this fight to the end. It's about more than myself. There are many transwomen who go unnoticed, so I know that what I'm doing is significant. I will never sell myself."
As she spoke, McDonald smiled proudly, but also seemed to be fighting tears. Many of the audience members could be seen weeping with her.
McDonald's story is now being made into a documentary film, Free CeCe, which is being produced by Emmy-nominated transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black).
McDonald briefly spoke to the Bay Area Reporter after her remarks.
"I'm feeling really blessed," she said. "I'm happy to be here with such great honorees. Knowing that there are people working in my community fighting for equality and justice within the marginalized groups that are targeted in this society and knowing that there are people who are fighting with me and for me makes my activism work feel like its worth it."
As McDonald sat down to enjoy her dinner, other honorees took to the stage. The Hank Wilson Housing Activist Award was given to the Housing Rights Committee and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project for their work in drawing attention to, and helping stem, the escalating tide of Ellis Act evictions across the city.
"How special it is to be given this award by the Milk club," said Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee. "They've long been supportive of housing issues and of holding up the queer banner."
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who also works at the Housing Rights Committee, said the Milk club was one of the few LGBT organizations that sees the bigger picture.
"It's a great honor to receive this award from the Milk club, the queer community's progressive political club," said Avicolli Mecca. "Housing is a queer issue, but not many LGBT organizations get this. Milk does. I look forward to many more years of working with them on tenant's rights, affordable housing, and anti-displacement issues."
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), a personal friend of slain supervisor Harvey Milk, received the Harry Britt Lifetime Achievement Award. It was Ammiano's second Milk club award; he also received one a few years ago. Ammiano took the opportunity to announce that Britt, a minister and a former city supervisor, would be officiating at his upcoming wedding to his longtime partner, Carolis Deal.
Other honorees included Tita Aida, who received the Bill Kraus HIV/AIDS Activism Award; Juanita More, who received the Sylvester Pride in the Arts Award; Gabriel Haaland, who received the Howard Wallace Labor Leadership Award; and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who received the Community Ally Award.
Attendees enjoyed the event.
"This is my home, this is the place where we are all welcome," said Dan Choi, a former Army lieutenant whose 2009 coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show publicly challenged the military's discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that was repealed by Congress in 2010. Choi recently moved to San Francisco and is running for the City College board.
"It makes me want to serve when I see this family," he said.
Milk club Co-President Tom Temprano was pleased with how the evening turned out.
"Thanks to the hard work of our executive board and the generosity of our sponsors this year's dinner was the most successful the club has had in years," he said in a statement to the B.A.R. "Our lineup of awardees, like CeCe McDonald and Tom Ammiano, was comprised of inspiring queer leaders who stand up and fight for what they believe in. City College's Mission campus proved to be the perfect venue to showcase these folks and we were honored to be their guests and to lend our support to their ongoing fight."