Equality Utah’s annual Allies Dinner has been raising money for the campaigns of fair minded Utah politicians and honoring the allies – gay and straight – of the state’s queer community since the beginning of the new millennium.
And nobody knows more about its work than Michael Mitchell, the grass roots gay rights group’s first executive director who founded the first dinner in 2001.
“[At the time] there were other events that were aimed at the gay community, like Oscar night and the ACLU dinner, but never one for specifically for the gay community – working for our rights. So we wanted to do something like that,” he said. And despite some people’s fears that such an evening wouldn’t draw good attendance or would take money away from other events, Mitchell and his staff decided to “just give it a go and see what happens.” Even in the face of criticism that gays “wouldn’t show up to see non-gay people” if straight allies were involved.
“We said we can’t get our work done unless we have allies,” Mitchell said. And so began the dinner’s Allies Awards, which honor Utahns who fight for gay rights regardless of their sexual orientations. Mitchell credited the dinner’s goal of inclusion with its success.
“It’s a great place to bring your mom and dad, and they won’t be offended, and they’ll meet wonderful and beautiful people and see how great the community is,” he said.
“The challenge of setting up a new event is like setting up any new thing – you have to convince people that this is the place to be and to do that, you have to find the right people to tell their friends,” said Mitchell, who had created special events in New York but had never before launched one in Utah. To spread the word about the dinner he approached people with “big circles of friends” and asked them to serve as table captains “which is something every dinner does and that’s how you get every table filled.”
Equality Utah’s board members were also key to making the first dinner a success. Many of them, Mitchell said, had experience in planning such dinners and were willing to help with tasks like mailing out invitations – which Mitchell himself designed for “the first couple of years.” At the 2001 dinner, Equality Utah (which had only recently changed its name from Unity Utah) honored local philanthropist Bruce Bastian and then Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. Andrew Tobias, who under the name John Reid authored the 1973 gay memoir The Best Little Boy in the World, was also the inaugural keynote speaker.
“That of course brought out a lot of people,” Mitchell remembered.
Much to Mitchell’s surprise the dinner made money during its first year – a rarity, he said, for first-time events. During his term at Equality Utah’s helm, which lasted until the spring of 2005, Mitchell planned three more dinners all of which grew in creativity. In 2002 an Equality Utah board member began the tradition of auctioning off each table’s unique centerpiece. And during the height of the Don’t Amend Campaign, Equality Utah’s 2004 campaign to keep an amendment banning gay marriage out of Utah’s constitution, so many people wanted to come that they had to turn people away.
“We kept adding so many more tables that I think we exasperated the folks at the Hilton that year. We ran out of centerpieces and everything,” Mitchell laughed. “But they wanted to be there and pay money, and they didn’t care.”
Mitchell was in the middle of planning for 2005’s dinner when the American Civil Liberties Union offered him a job at their national headquarters in New York City — a job he accepted. Today he works for the Equality Federation, a national group that assists gay rights groups in every state. He has since returned to Utah to attend the 2005 and 2006 Allies Dinners and has been impressed with their growth.
“It was so much bigger,” he said. “There were 1000 people there [in 2006], which was amazing. The production values were things I could only dream about that first year [when it] was a dinner in a small Utah hotel ballroom. Now it’s a huge dinner that is the envy of a lot of organizations around the country.”
“It’s important to note that this event with Equality Utah PAC has become one of the most effective statewide LGBT PACs in the country,” Mitchell added.
Although Mitchell won’t be able to attend this year’s dinner, he said his heart is always “in Utah when they’re doing the event.”
“There are always people in the room that it’s their first big gay event and it means so much to them,” he said. “To see the looks on their faces when they’re in this beautiful and empowering space, to see people being inclusive … that’s life changing for gay people and non-gay people.”