This weekend's Harvey Milk Festival raises awareness for LGBT rights

The festival honors the late Harvey Milk, one of the nation's first openly gay politicians and an equal rights activist who was assassinated in 1978. "He was a pioneer," said festival founder, Shannon Fortner, who also serves as vocalist for MeteorEYES and happens to share the same birthday as Milk. "He set the wheels turning for everyone to keep moving forward and to keep working for equality."

A vibrant three-day artistic and advocacy endeavor, the event comes from humble beginnings. It started out just three years ago as a quickly hashed together equal rights rally, essentially a political platform with a handful of speakers and local bands getting together to raise awareness of LGBT issues.

One issue, in particular, was very close to Fortner's heart and a major impetus for her to organize the festival. Fortner's partner is British, and because the United States doesn't offer green cards to spouses of gay and lesbian Americans — something that will hopefully soon change — the two are forced to spend the majority of each year apart. "I was focused on raising awareness of this issue," she said. "There are about 40,000 binational [same-sex] couples [in the U.S.] affected by these unfair and discriminatory immigration laws."

From this first rally, the event quickly evolved into a full-fledged music festival, with Ha Ha Tonka as last year's headliner, using the arts to raise awareness of the discrimination the LGBT community faces on a regular basis. And this year saw the organization became recognized as a non-profit, recently earning its 501(c)(3) status.

For more information on the festival, go here.

After kicking off last night with a screening of music documentary Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel, Sarasota's third annual Harvey Milk Festival continues its celebration with free events through tomorrow evening.

Tonight's art event, "The Silent T" opening, will be held at the Ivory Lounge. It will feature artwork by national and local artists, all focused on transgender themes and the idea of equality, as well as music from local favorites Sons of Hippies and DJ Ansidis.

Tomorrow's music segment of the three-day festival is the highlight of the event, featuring a bevy of local and national acts who all embrace and advocate equality and LGBT rights. The music fest, which takes place at Selby Five Points Park, gets started in the afternoon, at 4 p.m., with the opening ceremony, where San Francisco-based artist John Baden will present the festival with an original work of art. The last band, headliners Breton, hailing from the UK, take the stage at 10:45 p.m. Other acts include Claps, Cassolette, MeteorEYES and The Pauses. The official after party will then move on over to THROB nightclub around midnight, with some of the proceeds at the door benefiting the Harvey Milk Festival.


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