Special Guests

SPECIAL GUEST: Alexandra Billings

Alexandra Billings is an actress, singer, author, teacher and activist.

Alexandra stars as “Davina” in Amazon’s multi-award winning television series, “Transparent.” The series has won awards from AFI, American Cinema Editors, Critics Choice, DGA, GLAAD, Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, Golden Globe, Satellite Awards, and WGA.

On television, Ms. Billings played “Donna” in the ABC film “Romy and Michelle: A New Beginning,” one of the first times a transgender actress played a transgender character in the history of television. She has guest starred on “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “E.R.”, and the pilot “Nurses” opposite Lynn Redgrave. She stars in the upcoming feature film “Valley of the Bones” opposite Autumn Reeser and Rhys Corio.

Ms. Billings’ activism stretches across the continent. She has moderated a panel during Transgender Awareness Month at the White House. She has won the TPA Award, the Rainbow Spirit Award, and was inducted into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in Chicago. Living with AIDS since the mid-eighties, Alexandra chronicles her life’s journey in her blog “Stilettos and Sneakers,” and is a regular contributor to the Huntington Post. Her life story “From Schoolboy to Showgirl: the Alexandra Billings Story” for PBS television was nominated for an Emmy for Best Documentary.

Alexandra married her high school sweetheart Chrisanne Blankenship-Billings in 1996 in a ceremony held at the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago. The couple was legally married in 2009.


In 2008, Syesha Mercado audition for the 7th season of American Idol, Fox’s phenomenally popular show and one of the top-rated programs in the country. That season saw a record turn out of over 100,000 hopefuls, but Mercado breezed through the audition process, nailing Aretha Franklin’s “Think” with the confidence and poise of a skilled veteran. Ultimately, Syesha ended the season as second runner-up (and the last female standing), creating many memorable moments, like her stirring rendition of the classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Syesha’s success on American Idol landed her a lead role in the national touring production of “Dreamgirls.” Mercado has been touring the US and Japan in the role of Deena Jones since the newly conceived production of the stage musical opened at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in November 2009.

In 2013, Syesha was cast to star in the role of “Nabulungi” in the smash hit musical “Book of Mormon.” Whether it is modeling, acting, recording, live performances, or charitable work, Syesha Mercado approaches each new endeavor with grace, humility, enormous talent, and a work ethic that is rare for a young performer.

Syesha lives in New York.


EQUALITY AWARD: Columbus City Council President Shannon G. Hardin

(c) Ray LaVoie

The HRC Equality Award is given to an individual who embodies the passion and dedication of advancing LGBTQ equality that is central to HRC’s mission. It is the most prestigious award given by HRC Columbus. Council President Hardin, who so admirably lives his truth day in and day out as a strong, gay, black man openly and proudly, gives voice to Columbus’s diverse and growing community. He utilizes his platform of public service to create opportunity and equality for other members of the LGBTQ community. While young black people are still acquiring HIV and AIDS and facing homelessness at rates far exceeding the rest of the community, Council President Hardin works to address the stigma of being gay in the black community. In addition to creating a more queer-inclusive city, Council President Hardin has also developed specific programs around violence intervention (APPS), African-American wellness (AAMI), and anti-recidivism (Restoration Academy).  Finally, Council President Hardin provided a strong voice for the community to raise Columbus’s Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index from 82% to 100%.







As National Field Director, Marty Rouse is tasked with mobilizing the Human Rights Campaign’s more than one and a half million members and supporters to effect change at the federal, state and local level.

Over the past several years, Marty and his team of field organizers have been on the ground mobilizing support for marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections. Across the country, from Maine to Hawaii, the HRC field team helped make history by building and implementing strategic campaigns. In recent years, the anti-marriage backlash has manifested itself with over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills popping up in 29 states. The HRC field team has been on-the-ground working to beat back attempts to pass these harmful bills in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah.

Before joining HRC in 2006, Rouse led MassEquality, the statewide group in Massachusetts that successfully defended marriage equality, making Massachusetts the first marriage equality state in the country. Under Rouse’s leadership, MassEquality became a national advocacy model that combined grassroots organizing with strategic electoral focus.

Rouse, a Maryland resident, is the proud parent of two sons who are growing too fast, Sasha and David.