My first GLAAD Media Awards ceremony was an awful experience.
I certainly appreciated being invited, and there was a part of me that was excited to be part of something that seemed so glamorous. But my midway through the evening I was on the phone with a friend in the lobby crying about how I didn’t belong there, and I swore I wouldn’t return.
A lot has changed in four years.
In 2013 I had high expectations and left profoundly disappointed. In 2017 I begrudgingly attended because Her Story was being given a special recognition award and ended up having an incredible evening, leaving with a renewed sense of hope.
Some of the differences were of course entirely personal. 2013 was my first red carpet. When I walked out, photographers literally put their cameras down and began checking their phones as I stood there awkwardly not knowing what to do. It wasn’t exactly a high note to start the evening on. It was also my first time having my makeup professionally done, and I didn’t yet know what I wanted or what suited me. I ended up with a look that would best be described as “Neanderthal chic.” I spent a lot of money on a dress I’d never wear again, made do with some clumsy jewelry, and tottered around on heels I later come to think were designed by a sadist.
This year I wore a $15 cotton dress, did my own hair and makeup, trotted down the red carpet with some of my best friends, and chatted with journalists I’ve now known for years.
The real difference, however, happened on stage.
I was shocked at the first GLAAD Awards to see how much stage time was given to straight white celebrities. I didn’t yet realize that this was primarily a fundraiser and evidently, that is what drove the donations. I was disheartened by the lack of people of color on stage and hurt that only a single trans person spoke. It didn’t help that the white gay men at my table were openly making fun of my friend, a trans woman of color who cared for little for decorum (though it’s one of her best qualities).
Nothing that night, however, better represented the dawning of my cynicism that the speech by Steve Warren, accepting the Stephen F. Kolzak Award.
Warren is a noted Hollywood lawyer who was a big part of the fight for marriage equality—which was the topic of his speech. He made a compelling case for the inequities of the system by comparing his situation to that of Chief Justice John Roberts. Both were from the same area, both had attended Ivy League colleges and then Harvard Law School, and both had adopted two children. The only difference between the two men was that Roberts’ spousal and parental rights were recognized by law and Warren’s were not. It was a powerful contrast, one that honed in on the precise injustice and made it personal. The crowd was moved.
But all I could think was that I was nothing like either Roberts or Warren. Marriage meant very little in my community—where black trans women in my city were being murdered with impunity, where my friends were being kicked out of their homes, bullied in school, fired from jobs or denied employment. We weren’t worried about parental rights. We were fighting for survival.
At the time, the whole movement disgusted me. I understand the political strategy of the focus for marriage equality and its “we’re just like you” message, but it was like talking about superior private hospital amenities to a homeless person bleeding out on the street. The prevailing attitude was that the marginalized people within the LGBT community should wait their turn.
Of course I didn’t wait, nor did any of the people I knew. Trans people worked together, inside and outside of LGBT orgs, to protect and lift each other up, to raise awareness of our issues, to center our needs. I didn’t wait for Hollywood to figure out how to represent trans people. I did it myself, along with many others.
Four years later much has changed. Marriage equality has been the law of land for two years, trans issues are part of a national conversation, and media representations of all minorities are under intense scrutiny.
Four years later the GLAAD Awards were opened by a bisexual Latinx actress, Stephanie Beatriz, and Trace Lysette, a fiercely talented and hard-working trans actress. TPOC icons Bamby Salcedo, Kylar Broadus, and trans Navajo director Sydney Freeland spoke on stage. Patricia Arquette had me in tears with her impassioned speech covering the mistreatment of her trans sister Alexis and the national epidemic of murders of trans women of color. When Transparent won the award, again, for Best Comedy, Alexandra Billings, a trans woman of color who has been living with AIDS for 30 years, commanded the room with power, dignity, and grace, urging everyone to work across difference. Even when Moonlight won for Best Picture in a fait accompli, writer Tarell Alvin McCraney spoke about working with Lysette and the importance of getting behind women of color leading our movements, and spoke the names of black trans women already murdered in 2017.
More blackness and transness was represented on stage in one night than all the other big LGBT events I had attended in the last few years put together.
GLAAD has always been very supportive of me and my work, but I had experienced a disconnect between the intentions of the staff I personally knew and the focus of their public events. I understood the reasons why, but also lamented what felt like the exclusion of my community. The changes I saw this year gave me a little more hope for the future of the mainstream movement.
The 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards air Thursday, April 6, at 10/9c on Logo.