Holiday with Heart going strong after 35 yearsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the beginning — before it drew 300 people each year, before it became a 501(c)3 charitable organization and raised thousands of dollars for local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) causes, before it had an official name — the Holiday with Heart Charity Gayla was simply a small annual social gathering and gift exchange among friends.
Ed Hoffman, David Hindall and the late Dick Flock organized the first Christmas dinner dance in 1977, hand-writing invitations to about a dozen friends in the Toledo and Findlay areas. The event was held at the Columbian House in Waterville.
“Thirty-five years ago it really wasn’t what it is today,” Hindall said. “Originally it was just a gathering of friends. They would only let us have it on Sunday night (when the restaurant was closed) because they didn’t want it tied up for regular customers. It’s evolved over the years. As the numbers grew, we found we could donate money to worthy causes and it’s gotten to be a very nice charitable event.”
The group soon outgrew the Waterville venue and decided to move the event to Toledo, where they met at one restaurant for four or five years before moving to another, taking over the entire venue to ensure privacy, Hoffman said.
“At that time, more so than now, people were concerned about privacy and they would not go to a restaurant if it was having a big quote ‘gay’ party where others might be there to see them,” Hoffman said. “I guess that’s kind of a testament to how things have changed.”
From the beginning, the founders hoped the gathering would help bring the local LGBT community together.
“We always wanted to unify,” Hoffman said. “As you can imagine, when things were so clandestine, you had all these little segments.”
As the event grew, the group began to donate to local causes.
“There were many times I put a couple thousand dollars out of my own pocket to make sure the event took place and to make sure we had money,” Hoffman said. “Dick and I always wanted to make sure we had at least $1,000 to $1,500 to give out to the community in the name of our community.”
In 2007, as the event’s 30th anniversary approached, the founders decided it was time to pass the torch to a new generation.
“For the 30th anniversary, we took it to The Toledo Club as a celebration, but it was also our swan song,” Hoffman said. “I remained on the committee and Dick continued being supportive, but we put the word out that 30 years is our time span and if you would like to see it continue we need to have somebody else step up to the plate.”
In 2008, the new leadership made Holiday with Heart a 501(c)3 charity. Last year, in memory of Hoffman’s partner Flock, who died in 2011, the group established The Holiday with Heart Fund, administered through the Toledo Community Foundation. Once an initial $25,000 is raised, the fund will be used to support local LGBT causes year round. So far, more than $11,800 has been raised.
“It’s very, very nice to know that as one gets older you have a few of the guys in the younger community who are stepping up to the plate,” Hoffman said.
The Holiday with Heart Charity Gayla will celebrate its 35th anniversary this year. Taglined “the premier social event for the GLBT community and friends,” the event is set for 5:30 p.m. to midnight Dec. 1 at the Toledo Club, 235 14th St.
“I love the fact this is a formal affair and everyone is all decked out,” said board member Rick Cornett, who has attended the event since 1991. “The historic Toledo Club is a beautiful backdrop for a holiday event like this and the Christmas trees and decorations are breathtaking.”
Tickets are $70 and can be purchased through hwhcharitygayla.org. The reservation deadline is Nov. 26. Reserving tickets early is encouraged as the event typically sells out, Cornett said.
“We are very, very proud of the fact we have lasted three and a half decades,” Cornett said. “All of the other LGBT fundraisers and events have folded over the years.”
The Gayla is open to all, Cornett said.
“Even though this benefits gay causes, everyone is welcome,” Cornett said. “We draw a wide range of people both younger and older, lesbians and gays as well as our straight allies and supporters.”
The evening will include a three-course dinner, dancing, cash bar and entertainment from The Kelly Broadway Duo and DJ Martha Rappoport. Brooks Photography will take portraits for $20, with $10 to be donated back to Holiday with Heart.
New this year will be entertainment from Toledo Ballet, a photobooth from Grand Lubell Photography and an elaborate dessert station donated by Tim Schulien, Cornett said.
“We’re actually flipping the event because we have outgrown the main dining room upstairs,” Cornett said. “The dining portion of the evening will be downstairs covering the whole length of The Toledo Club.”
There won’t be a fashion show or drag performance this year, but drag queens Twila Starr and MaKayla Sinclaire Styles along with male models from Toledo-based Cityboyz Fashion Menswear will be selling 50-50 raffle tickets.
This year’s beneficiaries are The Toledo Pride Foundation, the Toledo office of AIDS Resource Center Ohio, The Gay and Lesbian Student Endowment Fund at the University of Toledo and The Holiday with Heart Fund. Last year’s Gayla raised $10,000. All funds stay local.
“There are many needs within the LGBT community of Northwest Ohio,” said board member Wayne North. “Attending and supporting Holiday with Heart helps the local community. The event also brings the community together socially and helps focus on the need to work together.”
The Founder’s Award, given annually to a person or organization that has made significant contributions to the Northwest Ohio LGBT community, will be presented to Toledo Free Press.
The Gayla is special because it’s a place where members of the LGBT community can relax among those who accept and support them, Hoffman said.
“Unless you are in our community, you really don’t have a clue,” Hoffman said, his voice breaking. “Things you take for granted. You and your boyfriend or husband or whomever, you can dance slow all you want, nice and close and warm. We can’t. Unless we’re among our own.
”You can feel comfortable there. You can hold hands together. You can kiss each other. You can dance. It’s wonderful to be able to dance with your partner, slowly, and not feel like who’s watching or feeling ill at ease,” Hoffman said. “You’re among your own. And for people who are not in our community who are there, they are there because they want to be, because they have family members, because they are open-minded or because they simply want to be supportive.”
Over the years, the Gayla has offered many people, such as wait staff and first-time guests, a new perspective on the LGBT community, Hoffman said.
“People have their preconceptions. More so in the past than now, but we’re not out of the woods. I have to tell the youngsters that. We really are not out of the woods in terms of prejudices and discrimination, but back then more so,” Hoffman said. “Having a lovely evening with well-behaved, well-dressed adults having a good time was something they had never seen and was contrary to anything they ever thought about who we were.”
Hindall also said he has seen a significant shift in society’s acceptance of the LGBT community during the past 35 years.
“Society has changed — for the better I think — from when I was 40 to 75,” Hindall said. “Thirty-five years ago people were still pretty conservative. A lot of professional people —doctors, lawyers, people who might not have wanted their preferences known — could relax [at the Gayla]. It was a closed event in the beginning. It is no longer that. There are still pockets of people who don’t approve, but society has changed.”
Hoffman said he’s not surprised by the growth of the event.
“That’s what we worked for every year,” Hoffman said. “This party was meant to be an all-inclusive party from day one. It was not meant to be for a small group of people. We welcomed everybody and that was the purpose of it.”
The event continues to help unify the LGBT community and its supporters, said board member Andrew Larsen.
“It really is one of those things that everybody who has attended in the past really cannot wait for the next year to happen,” Larsen said. “You have so many different splintered groups within the community and it’s so hard to organize them all around a single cause. I think our event really draws in all of those groups around a common goal and that is to support the community. It’s a one-of-a-kind event.”
Toledo Free Press is a media sponsor of the Gayla.
For more information, visit hwhcharitygayla.org.