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The HRC North Carolina Gala gives staff, volunteers a chance to reflect on progress, raise funds and party 

A night in the spotlight

The LGBT community has witnessed a lot of progress in recent years, and organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have been at the forefront of making that progress a reality.

This weekend, HRC will have a chance to celebrate that progress while raising money to ensure LGBT people continue to see change in unfair policy on a local and national level.

The annual HRC North Carolina Gala has become one of the largest fundraisers for an equality-driven movement in the country, and Saturday, Feb. 20, will mark the 21st HRC North Carolina Gala, taking place just days before the Charlotte City Council will begin discussing and possibly vote on a proposed non-discrimination ordinance that has brought the debate about treatment of transgender people into the local spotlight.

Creative Loafing caught up with Crystal Richardson, serving her first year as co-chair of the HRC North Carolina Gala, to talk about what the experience has been like, diversifying HRC and what the gala means for the community as a whole.

Creative Loafing: What is the HRC NC Gala all about?

Crystal Richardson: The HRC NC Gala is the third largest gala outside of the national HRC Gala and the Atlanta gala. We're really proud of that and the past co-chairs have put a lot of work into holding up this legacy. I'm really excited to be a co-chair this year. The gala is a time to celebrate the successes in North Carolina and nationally; the things that HRC is doing and how that impacts us here in North Carolina, and really to show some love to our volunteers and highlight some of the work that we've done all year.

It's a whole weekend and, what that brings to Charlotte, we need something like that, especially at this time when we have this critical ordinance that's on the table. We get a lot of outspoken folks in opposition and on city council saying, "These discrimination protections aren't needed, who are these people?" They don't see us. They have one idea of what the LGBT community looks like but when you bring so many people to an event like the HRC Gala you see how diverse the community is and you really can't pigeonhole these people. Anyone can be discriminated on in the LGBT community no matter what race you are. There's this misconception of what an LGBT person looks like and who we're actually protecting. That's why this gala is a great thing to have a couple days before the city council vote.

What are some of the major successes you mentioned earlier?

Definitely marriage equality was the huge thing. I know a lot of people for decades have been fighting for this. Last year, we were excited that North Carolina got marriage equality and that was a big deal. A lot of businesses have now implemented protections and benefits for same sex partners and expanded that. That's a big deal for a lot of people. We're seeing that be a gateway for something broader; to have basic rights in employment and public accommodations and housing. We're fighting for it on a local level but if we were to accomplish that nationally everyone would be protected. I see us making a lot of strides in that. HRC does a lot of lobbying and legislative work. A lot of work we do locally contributes to the broader scheme of things.

When did you begin working with HRC?

Three years ago, I started just as a volunteer on the steering committee. I really wanted to get involved in the community after I graduated law school. I started with HRC and MeckPAC and really loved it. This past year, I worked with Emerging Leaders. I still have a great deal to do with the political work and the gala co-chair role. There's a lot on my plate with HRC but it's been an amazing journey. Even through my role with Equality NC, I'm able to work with HRC nationally. We've been doing the TurnOUT Charlotte coalition and some other things. I've been able to do a lot of volunteer leadership institutes in D.C. and get some life-changing training in personal and professional work, so it's really been a joy.

What has been your experience as first-time co-chair?

It's been a really challenging experience. You've got three dynamic leaders coming together for months and all the volunteers that put so much work into this and you think you know what you're getting into but it's a lot, I'm so excited to see the end result. It's going to make the past several months of working on this gala worth it and I'm really proud of that.

In what ways has this gala grown since you've started being involved?

The diversity. In the past, people thought it wasn't an event for them; particularly people of color. Now people realize that, while it is a fundraiser, we want it to be inclusive. I see more people exploring the fellowships and volunteering. There are more women involved and even more straight people are getting involved as allies, so that's been great to see.

There has been criticism of HRC for being too white or non-inclusive on other levels. You are someone who in has spoken about the personal importance of seeing more diversity in the spaces you work in. Have you seen any change in HRC's diversity over the last year?

On our board, we've hired 2 or 3 more people of color. HRC is open to doing more training in our monthly meetings. We've explored bringing outside people in, or how we can include (diversity training) at our board retreat.

We have a Diversity Inclusion Committee that's always challenging the board and the national representative for North Carolina to really think about how to diversify their board and leadership. There's a lot of moving pieces on that front that are starting to gain some momentum.

They've also tried to diversify with the trans(gender) community. I've seen more training on Trans Day of Remembrance, more Trans 101 type of stuff. It's been informative and that's really been helpful.

What will be new at the gala this year?

I don't want to give it away. People just need to come to see. Some of the production pieces will be really nice. I'm trying not to give too much away, but we have some different leadership on those committees so they have great ideas about adding more cultural things to the entertainment. The fact that we have Tracy (Sanchez) and I as co-chairs (along with Jason Boone); even that balance of having two women and a guy is a little different for HRC and we're excited for what we bring to the table.

What does this gala mean to the LGBT community and for Charlotte as a whole?

It gives us an opportunity to be visible to business leaders in the community. We're really making strides with some great companies sponsoring us and the welcome letters we've received from the city council members and the CRVA; all these different entities that make Charlotte special and lead Charlotte in this effort to be a world-class city.

We're a big part of that and they recognize us for that. Just being able to be in a space where we can be seen on an elevated level is really powerful.

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