By DALE MADISON
Although much of gay life revolves around the appreciation of—some might call it a Cult of—youth and beauty, at least one LGBT community organization believes that “maturity matters,” and they put their money where their mouths are, to back that up. A Celebration of Friends (ACOF), founded in 2001, has raised over $144,000, and they have donated it back to the LGBT community: that speaks volumes about the organization. “Our funds have been distributed to Tuesday’s Angels, the Pride Center at Equality Park, and Buzzy’s Boys,” says Tom Spence, the ex-Marine Founder and President of ACOF. “Being a 501(c) 4 organization, we always donate a percentage of our funds back into the community,” adds Spence, who sports the sobriquet, and is known to friends as “Tomcat.”
In 2002, Spence and a few dedicated friends held the first ACOF “Celebration” in New Orleans, where 100 supporters turned out, and raised over $1,000 to support Buzzy’s Boys, a non-profit that assists children who are hospitalized from complications of HIV/AIDS. In 2003, ACOF held its annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale, where it’s been held—with the exception of one year, during which it was held in Miami—ever since. “A Celebration of Friends 2012” will be held June 21 to 24, at the Fort Lauderdale Airport Hilton, during the weekend of the Stonewall Street Festival and Parade.XXX As the organization moves into its second decade, Spence & Co. have big plans for its members, as well as for the organization’s posterity. “We are currently working on Habitat of Friends,” says Spence. “Our good friend, Chuck Nichols [of Tuesday’s Angels] has been working with us to establish this retirement community for seniors. It is something that has long been needed,” he adds.
Spence grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi—“not an environment that is easy to grow up in,” he admits. “I was one of the ones who started Prime Timers, and Sage,” remembers Spence. “When I say ‘seniors,’ I don’t mean that all of the members are senior citizens. We have a number of members who just prefer the company of gentlemen who are a little more mature. Being a former Marine, along with [late partner, Bill Elder] the Colonel, I founded A Celebration of Friends. As you know, the older you get, you get farther from the mainstream, and it’s more difficult to ‘fit in’,” he explains.
“We have now expanded into Europe, with chapters in France, and other locations with lots of new members. We look at it as all one family,” says Spence, who adds that ACOF has a special place in its organizational heart for Greater Fort Lauderdale, which the group refers to as the “Palm Springs of the East Coast.”
Spence and his fellow board members feel a sense of duty to their organization’s past, as well as to the future of the LGBT community. They are especially grateful to those who have stepped up in support of their aims through the years. “This is our eleventh year, and we are still going strong,” Spence notes with optimism. “Tony Dee and Charlie Mielke of Tropics restaurant have been such strong supporters and sponsors of the event over the years—even going back to Chardee’s days.” Among the building blocks for a stronger organization, Spence and ACOF have added free HIV testing as an additional service to members. Kicking off their second decade, the future looks bright for these mature gay activists, and the men who admire them.
For more information, visit www.celebrationoffriends.org.