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All Toast, No Roast
By: WINNIE McCROY
More than 200 people gathered in the penthouse of the 1199 Conference Center on 42nd Street on October 10 to honor the 20 years of service executive director Katherine Acey has given to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Although the event was billed as a “toast and roast,” it was all cheer and no jeer for this icon of the social justice movement.
“I was almost at a loss for words; the whole evening kind of took my breath away,” Acey said in an interview the following day. “To see so many old friends, colleagues, people who have made such a tremendous difference in my life and work; it was so great to have my family there, and friends from the West Coast and Chicago.”
Among the many community leaders, activists, and artists who took to the podium to laud Acey was Dr. Marjorie Hill, CEO of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“Of the many accomplishments, the many lives, the many wonderful things Katherine has done to inspire not only those of us in this room, in this city, in this country, but in the world, the one thing I want to share is when Astraea came out,” said Hill of the move by Acey early in her tenure to openly identify Astraea in its name as a lesbian-focused organization.
“Now some of us remember what a traumatizing, agonizing, totally terrorizing event it was for those on the board, staff, and organization, but for those of us on the outside, it was pure heart. For all of us in that room, it was really Katherine’s tenacity, her absolute commitment to integrity, her absolute determination to be who she is, to celebrate whoever and however we wanted to be and to call it like she saw it.”
“My favorite quote of all time came from Martin Luther King. And Dr. King said, ‘We must constantly build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.’ You were just what Dr. King had in mind,” said Hill, to waves of applause.
Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, thanked Acey for the collegial and mutually enriching relationship they have had throughout the years. He was grateful for her single-mindedness of purpose.
“Katherine has brought so much to all of our collective work because of the politics she brings, the humanity she brings, her progressive politics, what she stands for, the stuff she keeps right up front and on the table so that no one else can avoid it, so it can’t get lost among all the busyness of fundraising and paying the rent and all the things that have to happen in our regular work,” said Cathcart. “I know I speak for a lot of people when I say… that I am a better person and a better leader for knowing and working with Katherine for all these years, and I hope there are more to come.”
It was no surprise that so many leaders in the LGBT community were among the crowd at last Wednesday’s event. Astraea has a long history of funding LGBT human rights organizations, and is the largest lesbian grant-making foundation in the world.
When Acey joined the organization, it was raising about $100,000 a year; this year alone, Astraea gave more than $1.9 million in grants to 181 organizations in 99 cities and 39 countries.
When Gay City News last spoke to Acey in 2005, she mentioned funding the group had given during the past year to the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights; the Audre Lorde Project, the community center serving queer people of color in Fort Greene, Brooklyn; and Patlatonalli, a Guadalajara-Mexico based advocacy group for lesbian families.
The group’s Web site includes profiles of a diverse group of grantees, including ASWAT, an organization in Haifa, Israel that provides a safe space and resources for lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and intersex Palestinian women; Mujeres al Borde (Women on the Edge), a social organizing and community-building group in Bogotá, Colombia; the Appalachian Women’s Alliance in Floyd, Virginia established in 1993 to combat the poverty, violence, and now homophobia as well that keeps isolated Appalachian women-many of them lesbians-without power or voice; the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York City collective that engages in impact litigation and public education on behalf of transgendered and intersex people; and J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, the only organization in that island nation challenging the violence and legal restrictions facing queer people.
Among the highlights for Acey in the past year was the group’s Dallas retreat, initiating a United States movement-building initiative, and experiencing growth among Astraea’s staff and board.
Acey said that the community in Dallas welcomed activists and donor activists from around the world to talk about “how to create movements, crossing the class divide, and what it means to be a progressive queer philanthropist.
One of Astraea’s anonymous donors made a multi-year pledge there for the next 12 years that will result in a couple of million dollars, said Acey.
Another highlight in Acey’s recent past was helping to build the political and organizational capacity of groups doing social change work in the LGBT community. Astraea gave seven groups $50,000 a year for three years to organize policy reform. They will help the groups shape their agenda, look at issues of capacity and build resources, both human and financial. These groups, many of which are working within communities of color and youth on issues of leadership development, will convene this week in New Jersey.
Acey is also pleased that Astraea’s staff and board are growing. Always quick to share the credit with her peers, she said, “I am delighted to be working with such a committed, talented, and gifted group of people.
They’ve helped me to grow and pushed me and the organization to new heights.”
The recent addition of an associate director of grant-making and a deputy director brings the Astraea staff to 17.
Acey had similar praise for all the speakers and attendees at the event, and expressed satisfaction that so many diverse people of all ages and sexual orientations were sipping her signature drink, “The Acey,” and building bridges.
“It was so great to see people having fun,” said Acey. “The energy in the room was great, people enjoyed seeing each other and coming together for celebration, not just of me but all of us together. That’s one of the beauties of Astraea, that we do cross so many communities. It is heartwarming to have all that love and give it right back.”
This reporter last took a look at Astraea in the May 25-31, 2005 issue of Gay City News, “Lesbian Powerhouse of Funding.” The online version can be viewed at http://188.8.131.52/gcn_421/lesbianpowerhouseof.html