Benjamin Dixon, Co-Chair of Hetrick-Martin Institute's 'Schools Out' Gala in East Hampton
It’s easy to take the East End for granted — the beauty of its beaches, the special light, the rolling farms, the gorgeous homes.
For Benjamin Dixon, a real estate broker at Douglas Elliman whose team (Mackay-Dixon) often sells those gorgeous homes both out east and in the city, the fact that a disproportionate number of LGBTQIA+ youth can’t even count on a home, with all of its comforts, is not lost on him.
On July 9, Dixon will be gathering with hundreds of supporters, friends, his boyfriend (event producer) Bernard Teller, and his co-chairs Rod Grozier and Shelly Brown, to fundraise on behalf of LGBTQIA+ youth when Hetrick-Martin Institute’s (HMI) School’s Out gala returns to the Hamptons, this year at a stunning new property, known as The Arc House in East Hampton.
“I was so fortunate to grow up in a household where both of my parents supported me. I had some fear and trepidation coming out, but I really knew I was going to be safe — (I knew) it might be difficult, but I knew I would be safe. And from the kids that we support, that is often not the case, that is why I do this work,” says Dixon, who serves on HMI’s Board of Directors.
According to HMI, “the oldest and largest organization helping gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth to reach their full potential,” over 80% of the over 3,000 youth (ages 13–24) it serves in a year are living below the poverty level and over 50% are experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
Headquartered in downtown Manhattan on Astor Place, adjacent to the Harvey Milk School, HMI has provided a wealth of outreach and services for LGBTQIA+ for over 40 years, including after school programs for youth.
Last year HMI says it conducted 4,500-plus mental health counseling sessions (doubled vs. pre-pandemic), 1,700-plus pantry services (clothing, toiletries, laundry, showers) and 1,500-plus street outreach interactions.
“HMI really jumps in and is a family to kids whose families have either kicked them out or where the kids cannot be themselves at home out of fear of violence or retribution. We serve youth in over a hundred zip codes,” says Dixon, who grew up mid-island, then lived in California for many years before heading back east, switching careers and buying his first home in Sag Harbor in 2016. He now splits his time equally between homes in Sag Harbor and Manhattan and sells real estate in NYC and out east with his real estate partner Matthew Mackay, who Dixon met in 2005 and says “helped me get my first apartment in the city.” The Mackay-Dixon Douglas Elliman team totals seven.
Dixon’s involvement with HMI goes back a dozen years, when he was working in finance and focusing on supporting an organization called Freedom to Marry — a national campaign to win marriage equality. With Dixon’s background in finance, HMI members approached him and asked if he would join the board.
“I told them I would love to do that as soon as we finish the work at Freedom to Marry,” says Dixon, adding, “Freedom to Marry really hit my heart because my mom is actually a lesbian, my father is straight, after they broke up …” reflects Dixon. (Dixon’s mother is currently married to her wife and lives in Santa Cruz; his father died 10 years ago).
After marriage equality was achieved in this country and after 10 years of attending HMI events and bringing friends to be supportive, Dixon joined the board at HMI and co-chaired his first School’s Out event in 2017 — the year HMI added a dinner to the cocktail party adding significantly to the fundraising pot. (Martha Stewart made paella that year at School’s Out at Lisa and James Cohen’s oceanfront home in East Hampton.)
The School’s Out annual event is always the highlight of the summer LGBTQIA+ season. After scaling back to a smaller event last summer at Dixon’s home, Dixon says School’s Out is “back to the big format” this year.
We caught up with Benjamin Dixon to talk about HMI and find out what’s in store for this summer’s School’s Out gala in East Hampton.
Benjamin Dixon on HMI and School’s Out 2022 Gala
How has HMI grown?
We do the Emory Awards in Manhattan and we do School’s Out in the Hamptons — School’s Out started just over 20 years ago and it was started because HMI at the time shut down in the summer, not enough funding, so it really started as a true cash flow raising to keep services open for the summer when often the youth need those services the most because there is not school to go to during the day.
The event grew and was always in the Hamptons — in East Hampton … and has become a major part of our funding.
Up until 2016 it had grown to about $200,000, just the cocktail party. My first year as a co-chair in 2017 and we added a dinner. The cocktail ticket today is $400 the dinner ticket is $1,500. And adding that dinner put us up into raising over $300,000 each year.
What’s the goal this year for School’s Out?
Our goal is to be truly back and to have 100 people for dinner and over 400 people for cocktails — I hope that’s where we end up. (In terms of) ticket sales, some people start early but many of the people procrastinate and we see the majority of ticket sales the last two weeks. Time will tell.
Okay, spill the beans — what is planned for this summer’s School’s Out event?
We have a really amazing event planned. The house is really cool this year — it’s a new house. … It had been at Jimmy and Lisa Cohen’s home for five years — a beautiful home. Part of the excitement of the event is getting to see a new home, getting behind the hedges, if you will. And this is a really exciting home … The Arc House is owned by Lou Levy of the Levy Group — he’s an ally and he is good friends with (co-chairs) Rod Grozier and Shelly Brown. Amazing.
Joe Kressley our CEO will speak, keep it pretty tight, standing outside. I usually get up and beg for money. … There’s a live auction, I believe we have five lots including a weekend at the new Pridwin on Shelter Island, a home in France with two first-class tickets — it’s in the South of France — another one of our supporters donating his home.
We do a silent auction and a paddle raise and a short speech. Thom Filicia is going to do the auction and paddle raise again.
Sounds great. And what about the food and drink?
We have really great sponsors this year. All of the liquor has been donated, all of the wine, all of the food for dinner has been donated. We have really amazing gift bags that go out that have been donated — a really high net contribution, so when somebody buys a ticket, a very large amount of that goes to the bottom line to help our youth.
Carissa’s bakery is doing the bread basket, Duryea’s is doing lobster cobb salad, STK is doing fillets, Almond in Bridgehampton is doing all the sides, Kerber’s Farm up the island is doing desserts. It’s kind of a best of the Hamptons — a new idea we came up with this year and I’m super excited about that.
What’s your role in the event?
To get people to donate in-kind gifts so we see the money going to youth instead of going to buy tequila. (laughs) It’s a lot of pulling on our networks to get a lot of donations to make it an exciting event, working with homeowners. The biggest thing is securing the location — we’re asking someone to allow 500 people on their lawn.
What would you say is the greatest challenge our LGBTQIA+ youth faces?
Look at the picture of our youth: More than 90% are people of color, more than 80% are living below the poverty line, and over half have experienced homelessness and housing instability or a safe home they can go back to — so take your pick, which is the greatest challenge there …
How can people help?
Activism. Change helps a lot of people and funding to help get them out of poverty and challenges with housing and help get them on a solid path.
What is the most gratifying thing about working with HMI?
The most gratifying thing is talking to the youth or talking to someone like a Elisa Crespo who was/is an HMI alumna … I’m getting chills right now thinking about her story and what HMI was to her, and how it allowed her to reach her potential.
Essentially her mother was in an abusive relationship, Lisa wanted to transition. She, like a lot of transgender women do, resorted to sex work to support her mother … to get her mother out of that relationship. She really grew up essentially in poverty in New York and was in a lot of dangerous situations and then ended up coming to HMI, eventually going to school and then running for public office in the city and now is the Executive Director of a nonprofit company New Pride Agenda — giving back.
If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak it’s quite amazing, she spoke about three weeks ago at our Women Speak event … everybody immediately quieted and listened to her entire discussion just because she was so moving and has such a great story.
And that’s what does it — when you see somebody’s life completely change for the better by an organization. That’s the reason to do it.
Hetrick-Martin Institute’s School’s Out gala is Saturday, July 9 at the Arc House in East Hampton. Cocktails 5:30–7:30 p.m. and dinner 7:30–9:30 p.m. For information and tickets, visit hmi.org/so-dans.
For info about Benjamin Dixon, visit mackaydixon.com.