Last night in New York, Lambda Legal celebrated its 50th anniversary with the 2023 Liberty Awards National Dinner, where artist and advocate Billy Porter and the late activist Urvashi Vaid were both honored. The Liberty Awards National Dinner is Lambda Legal’s largest event of the year, bringing together supporters, advocates, and allies from across the country to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to the fight for justice and equality.
Porter was presented with the Lambda Legal Liberty Award for demonstrating an unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ+ community and those impacted by HIV/AIDS. An Emmy-winner for his indelible portrayal of Pray Tell in Pose, Porter lives as an openly HIV+ actor, singer, writer, and director, offering an authentic voice for those most impacted by the ongoing epidemic.
“It’s overwhelming and humbling to be recognized in this space”, Billy Porter told The Queer Review. “I came out in 1985 and we went straight to the frontlines to fight for our lives and now we’re fighting for our lives again. It’s cyclical. I’m old enough to have lived through this before, so I actually do have hope. It’s the circle of life. We were in a progressive period for a really long time, and now we’re not. What do we do when that happens? We reengage and we reconnect to justice and equality. Period. That’s what life is. I am grateful that I’m still alive to still be in the fight.”
“All of the things that we’re going through right now are rooted in the legal, the manipulation of the law”, Porter continued. “The reality is, winning in the law is about the one who can present the best case, which does not necessarily always mean the truth. To have this organization that specifically deals with the LGBTQ+ community and takes care of us is a necessity for growth, transformation and change for good.”
Urvashi Vaid posthumously received the Kevin Cathcart Movement Leader Award in recognition of her vision, compassion, and commitment to justice, which propelled the LGBTQ+ movement toward historic gains in the fight for equality. Urvashi’s life was dedicated to activism. She spoke at the 1993 March on Washington, served as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, co-founded the Creating Change conference, and played key roles with the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and with foundations that supported LGBTQ+ equality. The award was accepted by Urvashi’s partner of almost 35 years, comedian Kate Clinton.
“It’s a bittersweet pleasure to be here and I would really rather have had her accepting the award herself”, Kate Clinton told The Queer Review. “She was so driven right from a young age. When she was 11, she was marching in an anti-nuclear marches, so her activism was old. That speech that she gave at the March on Washington really transformed a lot of people’s lives. It shows the power of language and it shows the power of ideas. She was very radical, and yet somehow appealed to less radical people because she was a fabulous leader with great energy. A lot of people have great ideas and they can talk a great game, but she would also sit down and have a strategy and say, ‘this is how we’re going to do it’. She was incredible to work with on that level.”
Lambda Legal Vice-Chair Fred Smith Jr. shared his opinion on this year’s honorees with The Queer Review, commenting, “Both of them in different ways have contributed to our liberation, either through their thoughts and their ideas in their civil rights work, or through shaping the way that we are able to see ourselves through representation. It doesn’t get better than this.” Smith added, “In terms of Lambda’s work, we’re here today to celebrate 50 years of being on the frontlines of the battle for our liberation. We’re also here to recommit and recharge. This work has never been more vital.”
Last night’s event, held at The Glasshouse in Manhattan, marked half a century of Lambda Legal’s advocacy and legal victories on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community and everyone living with HIV. “We are thrilled to celebrate this momentous occasion alongside our national supporters and allies in New York, where Lambda Legal started 50 years ago,” commented Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal. “While we have made incredible strides in five decades, this anniversary comes at a time when that progress is under attack. More than 400 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, most targeting transgender youth, have been introduced by legislatures across the country. Through our history, Lambda Legal has been the leading force in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and we will continue to advocate for a world where we can live free from discrimination. Together, we are unstoppable.”
Also in attendance was Becky Pepper-Jackson, a 13-year-old transgender girl and member of her middle school’s track and field team for the past three seasons, who spoke about her fight against the state of West Virginia’s anti-trans sports ban. Lambda Legal and their partners, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of West Virginia, won an injunction blocking the state’s law. Determined to kick Becky off her team, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay – and lost.
Another plaintiff, Isaiah Wilkins, spoke about his dream to enlist in the armed forces and how Lambda Legal’s lawsuit won him that right. Military service runs in Isaiah’s family and, at the age of 17, he enrolled and excelled at Georgia Military College. He was soon accepted into West Point, which was a dream come true, until he tested positive for HIV and was unceremoniously discharged and banned from reenlisting in the military. Lambda Legal represents Isaiah on behalf of all HIV-positive civilians who seek to serve their country having already established this right for those currently enlisted. Lambda Legal’s case – Harrison v. Austin, decided in 2022 – was the most significant legal victory for those living with HIV in decades and represents a triumph of science over stigma against the world’s largest employer.
Following the awards ceremony, an after party was hosted by the queen of New York City nightlife, Susanne Bartsch, alongside trailblazing model and artist Amanda Lepore, with a DJ set by Amber Valentine. For three decades the parties that Bartsch has thrown have provided a venue for LGBTQ+ people to express themselves and come together in community. In 1989, devastated by the many friends she lost to AIDS, she created The Love Ball, an event that rallied the fashion community to raise awareness and funds that went directly to those affected by AIDS.
Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education, and policy work. Find our more and make a donation at www.lambdalegal.org.
Watch our interviews from the Lambda Legal National Liberty Awards blue carpet: