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Teen Who Wore Tux Welcomed at NCLR Gala

by Danielle Parenteau
Sunday May 25, 2014
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NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, left, turns the stage over to Sacred Heart Preparatory Academy senior Jessica Urbina and her girlfriend, Katie Emanuel, at the organization’s gala dinner May 17
NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, left, turns the stage over to Sacred Heart Preparatory Academy senior Jessica Urbina and her girlfriend, Katie Emanuel, at the organization’s gala dinner May 17  (Source:Steven Underhill)

Jessica Urbina, the high school senior whose graduation photo was reportedly not included in Sacred Heart Preparatory Academy’s yearbook because she wore a tuxedo, was given a rousing ovation by hundreds of people when she and her girlfriend were the surprise guests at the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ San Francisco gala last weekend.

Students at the San Francisco Catholic high school rallied around Urbina last week when news of the omission spread. By last Friday, hundreds of her fellow students wore ties to school in a show of support. The high school also released a statement saying that the campus-wide dialogue sparked by the school’s action "will result in a revision of policy."

This week, school officials said Urbina’s photo would be included. It was not immediately clear if the yearbooks would be reprinted or if the school would affix the photo in another way.

A beaming Urbina was joined on stage in a ballroom at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in downtown San Francisco May 17 by her girlfriend, Katie Emanuel, and NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell.

"I love tuxedos!" said Urbina.

The evening’s award recipients included actress Meredith Baxter, who came out as lesbian in 2009, and reparative therapy survivors Sam Brinton and Ryan Kendall.

Each honoree was given a standing ovation, but the loudest cheers of the night were reserved for Urbina, who was given two.

"I’ve experienced some things in the past four years that had me [thinking] ... I don’t want to be here, but I found solace in theater - that’s where I met Katie," she said. Urbina also said that the picture of her wearing a tux "is who I am."

Brinton and Kendall received NCLR’s Courage Award. Both survived reparative therapy, also known as conversion therapy, whose aim is to change people’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Such therapies are widely discredited in the medical and scientific communities, saying that they are potentially harmful. California has enacted a state law prohibiting the practice on minors by state-licensed mental health providers.

"I didn’t fail at changing. I succeeded at being myself," said Brinton. "You can’t change what we never chose."

Tamika Butler, a co-chair of NCLR’s board of directors, presented the Courage Award.

"When NCLR was founded 37 years ago, conversion therapy was one of the socially acceptable ways our society inflicted violence on the LGBT community," she said. "Sam and Ryan ... are survivors in the truest sense. They didn’t just live through something - they’re living for something."

Brinton and Kendall have both attained remarkable academic achievements despite what they endured. Brinton is working toward a dual graduate degree in nuclear engineering and technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kendall is studying law at Columbia University.

Kendall had nearly committed suicide, according to Butler.

"The 16-year-old Ryan fought to keep me here," Kendall said. If he could go back and talk to his younger self, he would say, "It will be a long, hard journey, but you will win."

He finished with a message of triumph: "History will not just record our struggle ... history will record our victory."

Loving yourself for who you are was a theme throughout the night. The dinner also celebrated the accomplishments of the LGBT community and the strides made toward acceptance in mainstream society while remembering more still needs to be done.

Baxter was honored with the Voice and Visibility Award, which recognizes someone who has brought those things to the LGBT community.

Baxter started her speech on a light note. She talked about coming out on the Today show and in People magazine.

"You know, the way you all came out," she quipped.

She then went on to talk about her struggle with coming out. She had told her partner, Nancy Locke, "I don’t want to do this." She said that Locke told her it really would have helped her when she was growing up to see someone as visible as her living openly. That made Baxter realize the significance of coming out.

"Coming out is a political action," she said. She also talked about how coming out helped her. "I felt unburdened," Baxter said. "I can see clearly now, I am who I wanted to be."

After the awards, Kendell addressed the crowd and welcomed the recipients.

"We would all like [Baxter] to be in our family, and now she is," she said. "Sam and Ryan, I know your families of origin betrayed you ... We are your family now, and we love you" for who you are.

Kendell went on to talk about the many recent legal successes that have been made regarding marriage equality.

"It is no longer the case that if we get a ... liberal judge, we would win and if we get a conservative judge, we would lose," she said. "Now, all we need is a fair hearing, and we win every time."

NCLR has won its last 11 marriage cases. Kendell said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling throwing out Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act "ushered in" change in such states as Utah, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Virginia, and Idaho.

She also spoke about the victory in the Golden State, which also occurred last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the proponents of Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban, lacked legal standing, which upheld a lower court’s finding that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

"We have marriage in California, and no one can ever take that away," Kendell said.

Karen Dixon, who is on Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s board of directors, was "so inspired" by the speakers that she offered to contribute $25,000 if $100,000 was raised and $50,000 if $200,000 was raised. Several tens of thousands of dollars were raised during the auction alone. Many of the estimated 1,000 people in attendance made donations. All of the proceeds will go directly to support NCLR’s work because of corporate underwriting.

Kendell returned to the stage to talk about NCLR’s mission. "We want to stop bad things from happening to members of our community," she said. "It’s about creating a sense of celebration" of who we are. She went on to say that even "when we win marriage, our work will not be done."

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com

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