Bruce Vilanch Emcees Equality Palm Springs
By Barry Dayton, Special to The Desert Sun
Oct. 25, 2019
It was an evening of intergenerational celebration at The Riviera Palm Springs when the Palm Springs Equality Awards recognized not only decades of support for LGBTQ causes offered by a gay-friendly philanthropist but also a young leader whose work is inspirational to her generation and those yet to come.
Palm Springs is the final stop on the annual five-city tour of the Equality Awards — also including Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles — that support Equality California’s first-in-the-nation work to create a world that is healthy, just and fully equal for all LGBTQ people. Reminding the 600 attendees that we all need to find the humor in life while fighting for social justice was gay icon and funny man Bruce Vilanch as the evening’s special guest emcee. Wearing one of his trademark T-shirts — this one featuring Endora from the classic sitcom “Bewitched” — Vilanch joked about the current political challenges that make the work of Equality California (EQCA) so essential.
Throughout the evening, video messages from 2020 Democratic presidential primary hopefuls former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg encouraged the continuing fight for human rights. Elected officials in attendance at the Palm Springs Equality Awards included Rep. Raul Ruiz, Assemblymember Chad Mayes and Palm Springs City Council members Geoff Kors, Lisa Middleton, Christy Holstege, and JR Roberts.
Palm Springs City Councilmember Christy Holstege, Community Leadership Award recipient Alexis Ortega and Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur arrive at Equality California’s 2019 Palm Springs Equality Awards. (Photo: Andrea Schmitt | Chris Schmitt Photography for Equality California)
Grace Garner, Palm Springs City Council candidate for District 1, introduced the winner of the Community Leadership Award, Alexis Ortega, whom she has known since childhood as both grew up in Palm Springs. Garner applauded Ortega’s commitment to social justice and for helping to bring attention to the issues of the eastern Coachella Valley by helping “lift up the work that’s already there.” Ortega recently began the Encore Public Voices fellowship, which seeks to accelerate the impact of thought leaders to increase intergenerational connection and social justice.
Garner’s District 1 opponent Les Young and District 2 candidate Dennis Woods were also in attendance.
EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur reminded the crowd of the work of Barbara Keller who “took EQCA into her heart” along with so many other Coachella Valley causes with her activism and philanthropy until her death in April. Jerry Keller told the crowd his late wife thought “no one should walk alone,” while event co-chairs Kors and Middleton remembered Barbara Keller as “warm, generous and loving.”
Former Sen. Barbara Boxer also spoke warmly of her late friend when presenting the 2019 Lifetime Ally Award to Harold Matzner. Although working closely with Keller on a variety of causes over many years and while calling Boxer a “super patriot,” Matzner admitted he didn’t always share political views with either Keller or Boxer.
But Matzner spoke of his awakening in 1969 that not everyone enjoyed the same rights when he was with gay friends in a New Jersey bar during one of the raids that regularly occurred in those days. Reading from Keller’s acceptance speech when she received the 2014 EQCA Lifetime Ally Award, Matzner remembered how he and Keller joined forces to help elect Middleton to the Palm Springs City Council as the first transgender person elected to a non-judicial office in California. Matzner said it was an obvious decision because Middleton was, simply, the best person for the job.
Auctioneer Gabriel Butu encouraged the crowd to raise $100,000 in 10 minutes. The challenge was soon taken up by attendees such as Sue Burnside, who pledged $20,000 and AT&T Western Region President Ken McNeely, who announced a $50,000 donation from the company — raising an additional nearly $150,000 to continue EQCA’s work. The crowd responded enthusiastically to the performances of opera soprano Breanna Sinclairé, who was the first transgender woman to sing the U.S. national anthem at a professional sporting event in June 2015 before a crowd of 30,000 at the Oakland Athletics Stadium.
Greg Rodriguez was unable to join his fellow event co-chair Jackie Thomas onstage to thank statewide sponsors AT&T, Edison International, Farmers Insurance, Gilead, Kaiser Permanente, La Crema Wines, Lyft, Sempra Energy, Southwest Airlines, Sutter Health, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Uber Eats, and Weedmaps. Thomas went on to thank Premier Presenting Sponsor Eisenhower Health, as well as sponsors including Desert Care Network, Geoff Kors and James Williamson, Antoinette DeVargas and Susan McCabe, Grace Helen Spearman Charitable Foundation, Jeffrey Towns, Contour Dermatology, Barry Manilow and Garry Kief, Desert AIDS Project, HCR Wealth Advisors, Doug Moreland, Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler, Gay Desert Guide and KGAY 106.5 for their contributions.
Grammy- and Tony Award-winning Broadway legend Jennifer Holliday performs at Equality California’s 2019 Palm Springs Equality Awards. (Photo: Andrea Schmitt | Chris Schmitt Photography for Equality California)
Jennifer Holliday, a regular favorite in Palm Springs, performed a mini-concert of four songs at the event, which happened to be her 59th birthday. The two-time Grammy Award winner and Tony Award-winning Broadway star of “Dreamgirls” closed the evening with an a capella version of her iconic “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” which seemed to put an exclamation point on the fact that, in its 20th year, Equality California isn’t going anywhere either, as long as there are equal rights to be unquestionably secured for so many.
In the words of Zbur, “Simply put, EQCA won’t rest until we have achieved full and lasting equality with acceptance and social justice for the health and well-being of all people in our diverse LGBT communities, inside and outside of California.”
As Director of Marketing for Desert Oasis Healthcare, Barry Dayton appreciates working for a company that understands “corporate citizenship” by providing significant financial support to the communities where its thousands of patients live and work. He believes that each of us should make contributions of “time, talent and treasure” wherever we can.