It’s that time of year again for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual Media Awards where the organization honors achievement in media for fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the LGBT communities. GLAAD has been doing so since the first Media Awards in 1989, making this Saturday’s LA-based awards a quarter of a century celebration. (The NY Awards will be held on May 3rd.)
This year, honorees include transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), who’ll receive the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her work promoting equality. Cox will be presented the award from none other than newly out actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception). Past recipients include Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres, Sir Ian McKellan and Rufus Wainwright.
In addition at the LA Awards, Jennifer Lopez will receive the Vanguard Award for her work, which has provided visibility and understanding of the LGBT community. A longtime supporter, Lopez is also Executive Producer of the ABC Family series, The Fosters, which features a family headed by a married lesbian couple (played by Teri Polo & Sherri Saum). The series is nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Drama Series.
Actor and a regular on our Hot 100 list, Wilson Cruz has a long history with GLAAD in that he was present back in 1995 when he accepted the award for My So Called Life, where he played gay teen Rickie Vasquez. (A video of last year’s speech by Cruz including footage of that 1995 Awards is below) Now, Cruz is a full time staff member and National Spokesperson and he sat down with TheBacklot to preview this year’s show as well as his recent return to being in front of the cameras acting in a new television pilot starring Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer.
TheBacklot: Tell me about the GLAAD Media Awards this year. The announcement about Laverne Cox was just made …
Wilson Cruz: If there’s anybody who’s been a part of the last year of telling the stories of the LGBT people it’s definitely been Laverne Cox, who’s kind of changed the conversation. She has really taken the conversation about trans media images to another level and I’m excited about her. And we know that she gives a great speech. She’s fantastic and we’ve done panels together.
We’ve actually worked really closely with Laverne for years even before Orange Is the New Black. When she was doing P. Diddy’s reality show for MTV [I Want To Work For Diddy] where he was looking for an assistant. We’ve always pitched her as a spokesperson to talk on the issue so when we were talking this year about who deserves to be recognized, she was at the very, very top of the list, and so we were really thrilled when she accepted it. And then, of course, there’s this little lady named Jennifer Lopez that you might have heard of…
Which is awesome.
WC: Which I’m personally very excited about. You know, as a fellow New Yorican singer, dancer, actress, [laughs] I’m really excited about taking a moment to recognize what she’s been able to do with The Fosters. A lot of people don’t know that she got that show on the air. There was a lot of hesitation and having her and her support really allowed that show to get on the air. And she’s been so incredibly supportive of the creators and the writers and it’s really been a labor of love for her because of her own experience with her aunt, who is a lesbian. And she tells a really great story about her aunt and what her aunt’s life was like and so this is a way to honor her aunt in a way, too. So, make no mistake that the year that I was the most involved with the Media Awards, it’s no mistake that there are two women of color divas who are being honored. So, I’m excited about that.
Talk to me a little bit more about Laverne and what she has brought to just spreading the word about the transgender community. It’s still something I’m getting used to as a gay guy.
WC: I think that’s what has been really valuable about the work that Laverne is doing and that we do with her, which is it’s not just about educating non-LGBT people. A lot of the education that GLAAD is involved in now is really educating or own community because we haven’t really had the conversation inside our own community about why it’s important for us as a community to do this work around trans people. And so a lot of that is just ignorance on our part.
The last couple of decades have really been about marriage. Let’s be honest, it’s about legal protection and that’s really important work and clearly we’re starting to see the successes around that. So what’s left to do, really? And when we look at what’s left to do is our trans brothers and sisters and the fact that their lives aren’t necessarily as understood as our lives are. And that really is GLAAD’s role in the movement. We don’t do the legal work. We’re not a political machine. We’re not a lobbying machine. What we do is we create the conversations that allow that kind of work to be done. Because before any political change can happen you have to have the mindset and the heart that’s willing to do the work and capable of accepting the work.
So when we look at suicide rates and murder rates among trans people it was clear to us as an organization that there was a lot of work that needed to be done. And then when we started to have that conversation just within our own community we started to see that there was a lack of understanding. So Laverne has been really successful at putting a face and humanizing and making tangible what it is that the life of a trans person is like. So she does it so eloquently and so kind of effortlessly and invites you in.
Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)
And it’s the 25th Anniversary, which is a big deal!
Wilson Cruz: It’s a big year. It’s the 25th anniversary and the venues, there are brand new venues for us so it’s going to have a different feel to the awards than we’ve had in years past. We’re at the Beverly Hilton here in Los Angeles, which people have been known to have a few drinks at, at awards shows. They know how to have a good time at the Beverly Hilton. And Hilton has come on as a huge sponsor of GLAAD so they’ve been really accommodating and they’re really excited about putting the shows on there. And on May 3 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. So I’m really excited about that, about coming home to New York with the awards.
So with both LA and New York award shows is there going to be a time to reflect back on this long, long journey?
WC: There is. There will be some surprises. We will take an opportunity in both shows to look back at great moments at the Media Awards, people who were integral and the way that we’ve had that conversation. We would be remiss if we didn’t take the time to look back and, A, say thank you and, B, celebrate and look back and remember how much fun those were.
The awards themselves, people are always like ‘oh it’s just a big old party and it’s a fundraiser.’ And you’re right, it is a fundraiser and it is a party. But the awards themselves are an opportunity for us as an organization to say these are the kinds of images. This is the kind of work that we want to see more of. And the reason why we want to see more of it is because it has power in the way that people see us as a community and what people see on their television screens and in their movie theatres or listen to on the radio are catalysts for conversations that create change. And so, and that’s what we celebrate at the media awards is those pieces of art or news that lead to culture change and conversations.
And even though there is so much representation out there, it’s not like the work is done.
I think there is an element, there is a part of us that takes for granted that there is so much out there. But there’s a reason why there’s so much out there. You have an organization like GLAAD out there making sure that we are included in pop culture, in television, on the news. That our stories are told, that our news is covered. You know that we are treated just like everyone else in this country and that we’re part of the American fabric. And you have to have somebody calling for that. Because if you don’t call for it, it doesn’t just automatically happen.
And you also need somebody out there saying ‘that was not good. The way you covered that, the way you spoke about the community was unacceptable or was diminishing of us and here’s how you do it better.’ We don’t just go around slapping people on the wrist. We actually say ‘okay, this is what you did wrong, and here are some tools for you to do it better in the future. And we will continue to keep you accountable.’ So, it’s not that, people don’t necessarily know that. They think we just keep handing out awards. So much of the work that GLAAD does is behind the scenes and has to be that way because, because if it didn’t happen behind the scenes people wouldn’t have the conversations sometimes. That’s how this town works.
Do you find that people are coming to you more? Straight and LGBT people who are about to announce something or about to write a show or write a movie and they say ‘we want to make sure we get this right before we put it out there.’
WC: Yeah. We read it all. The entertainment team is sent scripts all the time. Whether they be films or television shows and we advise all the time. That’s part of our job. And, you know, sometimes we’ll see a recurring problem on a network or with a studio and we’ll ask to have a meeting and point out something that they may not be aware of and just give them the tools to do it better from thereon. And those relationships have been created, cultivated in 25 years. People want a GLAAD award. They want to do the right thing. And also, it’s just good for business.
You look at Duck Dynasty for instance. People think ‘oh, well you lost the Duck Dynasty conversation.’ Actually no, when you look at Duck Dynasty after the fact that we had the brouhaha, their ratings this year were considerably lower. So the lesson there is if you want to succeed, if you want people to watch your show, if you want good business, you can’t be anti-LGBT. Because we will call you out on it and we will stop watching. We won’t buy tickets.
Was it an adjustment at all for you to become the face of GLAAD in a way?
WC: A little bit, yeah.
How did you come to terms with all that?
WC: It was an adjustment. I learned some really valuable lessons. Early on I realized when you’re an actor you’re just stating your own opinion. It’s about you. And I had to realize and come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t just speaking for myself. And be aware that my opinions, while they were mine, also reflected on an organization and the people who work there and the board and so that was an adjustment, because I’m an opinionated guy. But I also have a 20-year relationship with the organization so it wasn’t that difficult.
And I just wanted people to hold on for a little while, while we really found the right person [Sarah Kate Ellis was announced as new President last November] to lead the organization. The work was so strong, the work of the organization was so strong, we just wanted to take our time finding the right person. And now I feel that we have.
And the work we did on Russia recently with the Olympics was really strong. We gave that to all the journalists and all the networks in order to tell them how to cover the story of LGBT people in Russia was strong. Just recently, our work with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York is a great example of how we take on cultural institutions and change them.
Never forget – Cruz as Rickie Vasquez on My So Called Life in 1994 (ABC)
And you just shot a pilot so you’re in front of the cameras again, too! Tell me about your role and the show.
WC: It’s called The Red Band Society. It’s a recurring role so it you know has the possibility of growing. I’m excited about it. Margaret Nagle has written it based on a Catalon series of the same name. And it takes place at a pediatric ward of a hospital [with an 85% recovery rate] that these teenagers are all in and the bond that they create through that experience. Octavia Spencer plays the head nurse. She is kind of like this hard nurse, no fooling around, all business, and I play a fellow nurse working under her. Whereas she is hard with everybody else, she and I have a short hand and have known each other for years and we have an amazing relationship. It’s an amazing group of young actors. Stephen Spielberg producing, ABC producing for FOX network. It’s an hour drama.
How did it feel to get back to work because I know you’ve been focusing on GLAAD so much.
WC: I took a year and a half off, almost two full years [and] what I don’t want is to just go back to work unless it’s something that I really love. I started to get to the point where I was taking work because I need to pay the bills and I never wanted my work to be about that. So, I said to my peeps, I said when I read something that I really like and that I want to be a part of, I’ll come back. And I finally did.