Wednesday night at the Atlanta History Center, GLAAD held its annual Atlanta gala fundraiser to raise money for LGBTQ services in the South. The gala also honored two Georgia-born actors who both star in hit Netflix shows. Athens native Tituss Burgess, who plays Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, received the Hometown Hero award; and Paideia School grad Tommy Dorfman, who plays Ryan Shaver on 13 Reasons Why, received the Rising Star award.
“It’s really meaningful—I’m kind of overwhelmed right now,” Dorfman, 25, said of being honored by GLAAD in his home state. “I think the South gets ignored a lot, and the LGBTQ community is so present and strong [here]. Thirty-five percent of queer people live in the South, so for GLAAD to take the time and effort to throw a gala here is a great sign, especially given the political climate.”
While GLAAD has thrown galas in Atlanta previously, Wednesday night’s was the largest yet. It was the first time GLAAD included a sit-down dinner as part of the gala, which also featured both silent and live auctions and performances from Billy Gilman of The Voice and local teen poet Royce Mann. CMT host Cody Alan, who hosted the event, happily announced his engagement to boyfriend Trea Smith, noting that the two actually met in Atlanta at a Carrie Underwood concert and asked the audience for advice on which finger he should wear his ring. Other guests included Real Housewives Cynthia Bailey, Shereé Whitfield, and Porsha Williams; Survivor castmember Zeke Smith; Star actress Amiyah Scott; GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis; and Morehouse College student Kylan Kester, who previously received a Rising Star Grant from GLAAD.
Hollywood veteran Dennis O’Hare, Dorfman’s favorite actor, presented his award, and Dorman praised his hometown during his acceptance speech.
“I love this city,” he laughed, “I grew up in Midtown; someone told me it’s no surprise I’m gay.” He gave shout-outs to local Midtown bars Joe’s on Juniper and Blake’s. (“I always sneak back into Blake’s when I’m home,” he told us before the ceremony.)
Dorfman emphasized the importance of recognizing and not being complacent about issues facing LGBTQ Southerners, including a higher HIV infection and death rate. Beyond the issues at home, he also stressed the importance of recognizing global LGBTQ issues. He recently launched a fundraising T-shirt to raise awareness about gay conversion therapy practices in Brazil.
“Now is not the time for us to shy away from our queerness,” he said, “Those are the beautiful parts of us that make us all unique. Now is the time to thrive as LGBTQ people and speak out louder than ever.”
He also stressed the importance of media representation. “I see messages from queer people around the world [about] my character [on 13 Reasons Why]. And I’m not like the big character on the show. But just having one very out, proud gay person on this show has made people able to come out to their parents, feel less homophobic, come to terms with their own sexuality. Imagine if every show had that inclusion?”
Actor Mike Carlson, who played Titus Andromedon’s boyfriend on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, presented Burgess’s Hometown Hero award. “In the hustle and bustle of [Hollywood], it’s easy to sometimes forget what I stand for in other people’s eyes. I’m black, cisgendered, gay, Southern, Christian, and a thrice-Emmy-nominated actor who’s at my goal weight as of this morning,” he said proudly, playfully mugging for the camera, “But I’ve never considered myself a hero.”
Burgess then described heroes as not only being superheroes, first responders, ER doctors, and the military, but also “trans people living their truth. People of color who refuse to be silent no matter what we do. Women. When I think of a hero, I think of someone who is doing what others won’t, a walking example of humanity who won’t shut up.”
He ended his speech, “If we lose our humanity, we lose everything. If we don’t use our voice, we forfeit everything. What makes heroes are people who say the hard things. That’s a hero. So I encourage you to . . . ” stepping off the stage, he sang Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” while walking into the crowd, “Say what you want to say and let the words come out. Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”
The final number is still being tallied, but the event raised at least $250,000 for GLAAD outreach in the South, all of which was matched by longtime GLAAD partner Ketel One Vodka. Burgess and Dorfman both donated to GLAAD during the live auction—Burgess alone contributed $10,000.