Held in the same building as Rhode Island Pride’s new offices in Pawtucket, the R.I. Pride Honors was an emotional event ranging from mournful to ecstatic. The new annual event hosted an eclectic mix of advocates, activists, politicians and supporters who came together to honor five community members who have served as powerful examples of leadership in the Ocean State.
With attendees such as Providence Mayor Angel Tavares to the irreverent Ms. Kitty Litter, the room was filled with many prominent names in the community. Hanging toward the back of the room was Rex (who asked to only be identified by first name). Rex was at the R.I. Pride event for the first time. “It’s really great, but there’s just … so much!” said Rex.
Rex introduced me to a friend, who happened to be honoree Beth Milham. Beth said that she got involved in LGBTQ work through being a nurse. She was very clear that “HIV and being gay are two totally separate things, but I worked with folks with HIV/AIDS.” In the mid-’90s, Beth said she was “one of the first three straight people to join the Straight but Not Narrow Coalition,” and in 1995 worked toward civil-rights legislation in Rhode Island. She and her husband, Russ, a retired Navy officer, have been dedicated allies to LGBTQ rights for decades. They’ve work with the Names Project and the AIDS quilt, and, as Beth explained, Russ has fought homophobia in the Boy Scouts and up to the national level. Beth’s advice to other allies was “just keep speaking up! The fight is never over!” For their many years of dedication, the couple was presented with the Pyramid of Pride award, presented by Belle Pellegrino and Billy Mencer-Ackerly who were both attendees of the first R.I. Pride in 1976.
Two of the issues that were broadly acknowledged were gender-expression-hate-crimes legislation and marriage equality. A prime example of the difference between civil unions and marriage equality came in the first award. The Spirit Award went to Deb Tevyaw and (posthumously) to Pat Baker. Baker, who was a corrections officer for many years, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer last February, testified before state Senate Judiciary Committee when the marriage equality bill was on the docket. Aside from speaking publicly about her (not legally recognized) marriage to Tevyaw, Baker spent the last months of her life facing numerous obstacles trying to make sure that her loved one was going to be provided for after her death. Karen Loewy of GLAD and Tevyaw both spoke in tearful remembrance of Baker’s attempts to make sure her pension would go to Tevyaw, and Tevyaw’s current day-to-day struggle to navigate several parts of the state bureaucracy in order to do things like transfer the title to the car she drives every day, which was in Baker’s name, to her own name.
Tevyaw said that the couple had become “accidental advocates,” and though Loewy read much of what Tevyaw had written, Tevyaw’s voice rang through compellingly, particularly when speaking about Baker’s insistence that his partner “continue to send a message of equality” after her passing.
Beth and Russ Milham were honored next, as a married heterosexual couple of “nearly 47 years.” They won the Pyramid of Pride award for being longstanding advocates of LGBTQ rights. They accepted their award with Russ saying, “When you are all able to be married, it will strengthen our marriage.”
The night’s last honoree was Rodney P. Davis, leader of R.I. Pride, who was being presented with an award for his 20 years of service to the organization. In a wonderfully choreographed “dragstravaganza,” several drag queens and R.I. Pride volunteers and staff filled the room to Bette Midler’s “Friends.” After the number, Ms. Kitty Litter gave a warm introduction to Davis’ introduction, reminiscing about the 20 years in which they had known each other. Davis made a moving speech and even obliged audience members calling for him to sing. A champagne toast was raised to Davis for all the work he had done for the community.
The night ended in celebration and music, and the knowledge that the upcoming year would bring much more work to be done.