On behalf of our Dinner Chair, Joshua O’Connell, and our Executive Director, Patrick Dunn, we are proud to announce our 17th Annual Dorothy Award honorees:
- Suzanne Kachmar, Greater Bridgeport Pride founder and artist
- Ricky Mestre, multimedia artist and founder of Greater Bridgeport Pride
- Nadine Ruff, MSW, transgender rights and HIV/AIDS advocate
- Gretchen Raffa, reproductive justice advocate and Director Public Policy at Planned Parenthood
- OutCT, LGBTQ+ nonprofit focusing on visibility and human rights in New London
- Mel Cordner, educator and advocate for queer youth – Rising Star Award
- Joe Grabarz, pioneering gay elected official, LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS advocate – A Special Lifetime Award
See our list of past honorees below the bios for this years’ honorees.
Meet Our Honorees
As a young student artist, Suzanne (she/her) studied, lived and worked abroad in Italy. She received her MFA at the New York Academy of Art. She was a founder of City Lights & Company and for 11 years, she has been the executive director and curator of this community based, nonprofit arts organization that “serves the community through art.” One of her initiatives is the annual Bridgeport Art Trail. A weekend long open-studio arts celebration that attracts visitors to tour Bridgeport to “view art, talk art, buy art.” She believes in the power of the arts to nurture, heal and inspire and that art needs to be accessible to all, and connected to everyday life. When describing the community-based City Lights & Company non-profit she says, “The City Lights are a reflection of all of us.” Suzanne, City Lights staff, board members, artists and volunteers willingly established the Greater Bridgeport Pride celebration which started with the SAMESEX exhibit. All are grateful to Ricky Mestre for proposing this very important project to City Lights. “Thank you to all who have supported it over the years. This event has helped to link our Bridgeport and New Haven communities, we look forward to many more years of collaboration and mutual support.”
Ricky (he/him) is a multimedia artist from the Fairfield County area of Connecticut. Throughout the years he has exhibited his artwork in various events, galleries and museums across the state and in New York City. His influences come from his Puerto Rican culture and urban environment. Many of his pieces also contain LGBTQ+ themes and issues since he is heavily involved in fighting causes and charities in that community. Ricky received his Bachelor’s degree in Illustration from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Aside from being the chairman for City Lights Gallery’s annual SameSex exhibit and Bridgeport Pride festivities in Bridgeport, he also works in programming at Sound View Community Media Inc. where he has also produced his own television show and many other community projects. Ricky also enjoys theater and has been cast in several locally staged musicals including “The Rocky Horror Show”, “Matilda the Musical”, “Little Shop of Horrors”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Xanadu”. Ricky can also be seen on stage in various variety shows doing his “Live Art Performance Piece” where he creates artwork in front of an audience to the length of a song or in front of a video he edited himself. To view more of his work visit: rickymestre.com . You could also follow Ricky Mestre on facebook, instagram, twitter and youtube.
Nadine Ruff, MSW
Nadine Ruff (she/her), MSW, is an LGBT activist and the founder of Divinely You, a support group for transgender people based in New Haven, CT. Nadine has been living with HIV for 32 years. She works for APNH, a non-profit organization in New Haven, as the Program Coordinator of Aging Positively, an evidence-based intervention for people living with HIV who are age 50 and older. As a social worker, Nadine uses her clinical and community organizing to strengthen vulnerable communities. Nadine’s education background includes an AA in Human Services, from Gateway Community College (New Haven, CT) and a BSW (2017) and a MSW (2019) from Southern Connecticut State University (New Haven, CT). As an undergraduate student, Nadine earned Honors’ Distinction, graduating Cum Laude, and was awarded the 2017 Social Justice Award by the Department of Social Work, the 2014 Outstanding Scholastic Performance in Human Services Fieldwork, and the 2013 Frank Adams Jurczyk Scholarship Award. Nadine is the fourth Transgender woman of color in the nation with her Masters Degree Nadine received the 2020 Leading Women’s Society Award, one of the 20 women from around the country who have been living with HIV for 20 years or more. Nadine has also been induced into a sisterhood society called SisterLove Sorority.
Gretchen (she/her), MSW is Director of Public Policy, Advocacy & Strategic Engagement for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England (PPSNE) and Planned Parenthood Votes! Connecticut. She leads the effort to increase and deepen relationships with existing statewide and national coalition partners and develop new strategic relationships with groups and individuals on behalf of PPSNE. She oversees the development of the yearly policy and organizing plan for the Public Policy & Advocacy department and is responsible for the supervision of the organizing staff leading the agency’s constituency organizing and community engagement. She serves as chair for the CT Coalition for Choice and represents Planned Parenthood on a number of coalitions focused on health care, workers’ rights, LGBTQ+ rights and immigrant rights and at the state Capitol. Gretchen has dedicated her professional career to advocating for reproductive, health, rights and justice. Her passion and energy stems from the stories of women she counseled in Planned Parenthood health centers and the activists she works with everyday. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies from the University of Connecticut (1997) and her MSW with a concentration in Policy Practice at University of Connecticut School of Social Work in 2012. She is an adjunct professor at Southern CT State University in the Department of Social Work, BSW program and MSW program.
OutCT is a 501c3 non-profit organization established in 2013 by a diverse group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queers, and their allies in Southeastern Connecticut to plan a New London Pride Festival. They quickly realized they had enough interest and energy to do more. In addition to a pride festival, OutCT has planned an art exhibit, film series, educational forums, drag shows, and a youth program.
Building a community through educational, cultural, and social programming that promotes acceptance, tolerance and understanding of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Celebrating a community that honors and recognizes the diverse spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations.
Mel Cordner – Rising Star Award
Mel Cordner (they/them) is an educator, advocate, writer, and all-around loudmouth genderqueer whose mission is to shake things up and leave a place more colorful than they found it. So far, this has been a great hit with students, activists, and artists… and less than popular with landlords. Mel’s humor, candor, and unique perspective make their trainings on gender, neurodiversity, consent, and youth culture and leadership development popular with adults and teens alike. They have presented these trainings at many schools across Connecticut as well as at conferences that center on social justice, kink, education, social work, and queer advocacy. These trainings range from full day professional development trainings to 30-minute ‘crash courses,’ and each one is a little different because they are all tailored to the unique needs of the group requesting the workshop!
As the Youth Activities and GSA Coordinator of True Colors, Mel supervises the True Colors Youth Team, facilitates Friday Night Activities, manages the organization’s social media, and visits over thirty school seach school year. Mel started their work with queer teens and young adults as a teen; after cofounding their high school GSA, they went on to serve as leadership for their college GSA for five years. Mel was also a founding member of One in Ten, a student group at CCSU that spent countless hours advocating for—and securing—the LGBT Center on campus, as well as gender neutral bathrooms and housing, a name change policy, and more. In 2018, Mel received the CCSU Rainbow Award on behalf of the One in Ten group.
Mel is also the founding leader of Q+, a Connecticut queer youth organization dedicated to addressing the needs queer student leaders identify. Q+ is entirely youth-led and has no paid staff; everything is volunteer run and maintained. Q+ programs support two main goals: to provide queer-focused social performance space that is safe for and focused on people under 21 years old, and to connect teens with resources and information that they aren’t finding through public education. Q+ has hosted queer youth open mics in Wallingford, Hartford, and New Haven, and is currently planning multiple youth resource fairs that will focus on sexual and reproductive health, self care and healthy relationships, and activism and advocacy for teens.
When Mel isn’t challenging systems or encouraging young people to do the same, you can catch them front and center at local drag shows, taking videos and photos of performers to post to their CT Drag Fans Facebook page (and for performers to use in their own promotional material). If you’re REALLY lucky, you might even catch Mel onstage!
Joe Grabarz – Lifetime Award
Joe (he/him) left one passion to pursue another. As a computer systems analyst and programmer, Joe worked on the first ever online patient care system and other ground breaking health systems all the while increasing his involvement in civic affairs. He served as Chief of Staff for the City of Bridgeport under Mayor Tom Bucci from 1985 to 1988 and then as a State Representative from Bridgeport from 1988-1992 where he was one of the first openly gay State elected officials in the country and the first in Connecticut. As a legislator on the Public Health Committee, member of Act Up and other organizations Joe was instrumental in the fight against HIV pioneering legislation on needle exchange and HIV insurance coverage. He has participated in several world conferences advocating for HIV treatment and a cure. He was appointed to the first Housing Committee of the legislature and was a strong advocate for better state housing policies including for people with AIDS. As a lifelong feminist, Joe was a lead legislative sponsor or the first codification of Roe v. Wade in the nation.
He lobbied numerous city and state legislatures across the country and the US Congress and the Federal Executive branch as Legislative and Policy Director for the Human Rights Campaign Fund and was the first person officially invited to the White House as an openly gay person in the history of the country. He was the Field Director of the national Health Care Reform Project and other reform entities in Washington DC, working very closely with US Senate leaders and the White House during the push for the first paid family medical leave and comprehensive health reform during the Clinton Administration.
Joe led numerous LGBTQI+ and other civil rights efforts and lobbied the CT General Assembly as the Executive Director of Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (CCLU). During his tenure the CCLU won significant lawsuits on behalf of people with AIDS and transsexuals. As the Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda Joe led the effort to pass a gay civil rights bill in New York State and establish the country’s first ever LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network there. He worked with advocates in towns across New York State to establish hundreds of laws to protect and support the LGBTQI+ community. He operated a successful small business evaluating the finances of housing cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
He joined Gallo & Robinson, LLC (formerly Betty Gallo & Co.) as a lobbyist for the 2007 Legislative Session. During his time with the firm he has successfully lobbied for many laws and policies benefitting the LGBTQ+ and HIV communities. In addition to advocating before numerous state legislatures for a variety of civil rights and health issues he has worked on several film and art projects including “Everything Relative” a film referred to as “The Lesbian Big Chill.” He was a key to the success of Dancers Responding to AIDS Fire Island Dance Festival during its formative years, raising millions of dollars for Broadway Cares and receiving the Bess Shenton Memorial Award for his services. He has also received numerous awards and recognition from other organizations including; The CT Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, The National Organization for Women (NOW), The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-violence Project, The CT Psychological Association, CT Coalition for Choice, CT Athletic Trainers Association, CT Optometric Society, The Congress of CT Community Colleges, CT AIDS Consortium. AIDS Ministries of CT, United Way of CT, The Human Rights Campaign Fund, The Community Justice Coalition, Win-PAC, Northeast Citizen Action Center, The Hartford Courant Tapestry Award, The Bridgeport Community Justice Coalition, WIN-PAC, CT NARAL, CT Coalition for Children, CT Civil Liberties Union, Connecticut Magazine, CT Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. Joe is a beekeeper who is very concerned about pollinator health and is an advocate for urban beekeeping. He is a glassblower certified by one of the oldest glassblowing furnaces of Murano, Venice Italy.
Bernard Lanche & David Kleman
Dr. A.C. Demidont
State Senator Beth Bye
State Representative Jeff Currey
Paul Kuehn & George Appleby
Triangle Community Center
Dolores Dégagé Hopkins & Sassie Saltimboca*
CT Trans Advocacy Coalition
Trevor Reynolds & Michael Morgan
APNH: A Place to Nourish Your Health (formerly AIDS Project New Haven)
Carolyn & Leslie Gabel-Brett
Mayor Pedro Segarra
Out Film CT
Rev. Marilyn Bowens
Imperial Sovereign Court of All Connecticut
Rev. John MacIver Gage
Fran Rzeznik & Zinka Benton
Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus
Vincent Farricelli & Robert Modena
Curtis Miller & Peter Goodman
Bobbi Blake & Cyd Slotorhoff
Robin Passariello McHaelan
Joseph Goodwin & George Coyle
* Indicates past honorees who are no longer with us.
Past Rising Star Honorees
The Rising Star Award was created to recognize folks within the community who are the new generation of activists and leaders who will lead the community for the next pink wave of policy changes, community building, and advocacy.
2019 : Roslyn Cecilia Sotero
2018 : Elizabeth Larkin
2017 : Calliope Wong
2016 : Seth Wallace