Norman Lear and Jeffrey Katzenberg in the same room, supporting safer school environments across the country for LGBT youth; it’s kind of all that needs to be said about the GLSEN 2018 Los Angeles Respect Awards, held October 19 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It was a power room, to be sure.
But the room was bursting with prominent members of the LGBTQ community and allies alike, including Honorary Co-Chairs Robbie Rogers, Simon Halls, and Connor Franta, Co-Chairs Jim Fielding, Dave Karger, Patrick Moran, Chip Sullivan, and additional special guests including Shannon Beveridge, Logan Browning, Gloria Calderon Kellett, Charlie Carver, Diego di Marco, Tommy Dorfman, Kat Graham, Olivia Jordan, Sasha Lane, Arturo Mesquite, Our Lady J, Judy Reyes, Roselyn Sanchez, Cammie Scott, Shangela, Meher Tatna, Eric Winter, and many more. Did we mention Joan Collins? And Billy Porter? And Ryan Murphy? We could go on.
The event, which raised over $1.5 million, honored actress and activist Yara Shahidi, Will & Grace co-creators and executive producers Max Mutchnick & David Kohan, actress, producer, and activist Ellen Pompeo, Elizabeth Gabler, President, Fox 2000 Pictures, accepting on behalf of Twentieth Century Fox Film, and Student Advocate of the Year Ruby Noboa.
GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard announced a staggering $1 million donation: “Greg Berlanti and Robbie Rogers are making a transformative gift to GLSEN at a critical time in our history. I cannot thank them enough for the opportunity to take on today’s urgent challenges while building for GLSEN’s future. I have no doubt that their gift will change and save lives here and everywhere, and inspire others to join the fight. Thank you, Greg and Robbie.”
Byard also announced the group would be opening West Coast headquarters in Los Angeles.
The Berlanti Family Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of all LGBTQIA people and their straight allies through education, the arts, medicine and other social services is poised to make additional contributions to other group’s this year, but felt that the work that GLSEN was doing merited an inaugural donation.
The evening was filled with special presentations and performances, as each honoree was recognized for their outstanding work and activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Former Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz addressed the crowd, stressing the importance of encouraging diversity and inclusion in the workplace, before welcoming the stars of Will & Grace to the stage.
Schultz, an ally, shared an amazing example of his own leadership for equality: “One of my proudest achievements (at Starbucks) involves LGBTQ rights. We at Starbucks were one of the first companies in America to support same-sex marriages,” he said to thunderous applause. “Today we offer full benefits to same-sex partners and offer medical benefits for transgender employees without exclusions for medically necessary care.”
But, he told the audience those positions have been not without shareholder consequence. “At a shareholders meeting a gentleman stood up and questioned my decision to offer health benefits to same-sex partners, arguing we should not impact the economic interest of all shareholders for something that affects a small percentage of our employees. I told him and the 3,000 shareholders in attendance that ‘with respect, this was not an economic decision. Starbucks is a company that defines itself by the relationship our employees have with their communities. We embrace diversity and inclusion, I said. And if he or anyone else in the room disagreed with that position they could sell their stock in the company.” The room was electrified.
Schultz, who delivered several hysterical one liners, then introduced Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, the cast of Will and Grace who presented the Champion Award to the show’s creators, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.
Mutchnick, in his characteristic humor, poked fun at Greg Berlanti and Robbie Rogers for their mega-donation. “We admire you not simply because you are younger, richer and have more shows on the air than we do (that fact is actually annoying to us) we admire you both for your talent, generosity and spirit.”
To the cast of Will and Grace, Mutchnick took another dig, drawing great laughter from the crowd of Hollywood insiders. “What can we say. You are nothing without us.” He went on to disprove himself, saying “they know it’s the other way around and most importantly Business Affairs knows it’s the other way around.”
To the many students at the event, Mutchnick said, “Thank you in advance for saving the world. We’re sorry,” one of many references through the night that implied the LGBTQ community was facing a tremendous socio-political setback.
David Kohan, an ally and best friend of Mutchnick since childhood, jokingly struggled to explain how Max might have been a better person if GLSEN had existed while they were growing up. “Imagine there had been GLESN when we were in High School,” Kohan said, “I think you would be, I don’t know, more, ahm….nice.”
Their sparring revealed the depth of a loving, life long relationship. “Are you upset because I am sitting next to Norman Lear,” Mutchnick implored, adding “is that what this is about? I just wanted to see how a legend eats chicken”
The pair heaped praise on Norman Lear, who received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd. “Norman, we owe you so much for showing us that a sitcom can be so important in just 30 minutes,” Mutchnick said. “You taught how to make what we do an instrument of social change. The rest we learned from our collaborator, Jimmy Burrows.”
They praised the work of GLSEN and, as Kohn put it, helping ensure that “everyone’s story can be respected and heard.”
Later Mutchnick gave Kohan a glowing tribute. “When we were in High School, David was my GLSEN. I went to him and I came out; he listened, he didn’t judge and he gave me the support and confidence to go out into the world and feel good about who and what I am. Not every school has a Dave, but we need to make sure every school has a GLSEN.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg said that “having become grandparents,” his wife Marilyn and he “have come to appreciate the work of GLSEN in a whole new way.” Having grandchildren, he said, makes you “think about the world you will leave behind and the future you wish and hope that your grandchildren will experience.”
He introduced Student Advocate of the Year Ruby Noboa, a resident of the Bronx, NY who established an LGBTQ center there. Noboa, who’s girlfriend is a transwoman, retold the story of attending a women’s march holding a sign that read “Trans Women Are Real Women.” “I tried to include all the names of trans women who had been murdered that year but couldn’t fit all of them,” she said. “I was scared to walk around with my sign and I thought ‘do I really want to open myself up to the anger of some feminist?’ and my heart answered yes.” She said “I don’t mind risking my life to make the voice of thousands visible. Don’t be afraid to open the door and hand over the mic.”
Kathryn Prescott, a GLSEN Boardmember whose trans son Tyler committed suicide at 15 years old said that “being misgendered and victimized by peers and teachers at school each day was too much. It’s up to those of us who are still here to make things better for our own children and all of us.”
GLSEN, she said, “is making a real difference everyday. They connect with state and local governments, school boards, PTA’s, teachers unions, individual teachers, GSA’s, students and parents across the country to touch the lives of student’s everywhere. GLSEN is changing the very fabric of our country by extending its reach to every school in our country to ensure that every child can thrive.”
“I still think about Tyler everyday,” she said, “I know that he would be proud of me. And if every here would make a commitment to the changes we need in our laws, and in our schools we could protect everyone of our children.”
Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes praised Inspiration Award recipient Ellen Pompeo for her “fearless advocacy work on behalf of so many marginalized communities of people.” Pompeo accepted her award by calling out the names of those whose lives have been “senselessly taken due to an absence of love,” and reiterating the need to teach and love our children. “I am a Love activist,” she repeated.
Storm Reid welcomed her friend, Gamechanger Award honoree Yara Shahidi, to the stage, commending her for using her platform to enact social change. Shahidi delivered an inspiring acceptance speech, thanking GLSEN for encouraging a world of equality for everyone.
Elizabeth Gabler accepted the Visionary Award on behalf of Twentieth Century Fox Films, taking the opportunity to thank Greg Berlanti for creating the beautiful film that was “Love, Simon.”
There was no shortage of these heartfelt moments, as additional presenters including Matt Bomer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Katherine Langford, Ryan Murphy, Billy Porter, Nick Robinson, and MJ Rodriguez, all took to the stage to praise their friends, colleagues, mentors, and allies, who have continued to spread a message of love and acceptance through both their personal and professional lives. As always, the students were the center of the evening, speaking about the remarkable work that they’ve done to create a safe environment at their schools, launch Gender and Sexuality Alliances, and much more.
National Student Council members attending included Anais Canepa, Brianna Davis, JP Grant, Sameer Jha, Sayer Kirk, Darid Prom, Imani Sims, and Kian Tortorello-Allen.
GLSEN recently released a National School Climate Survey, the latest and the largest body of research on the experiences of LGBTQ youth in schools, including the extent of the challenges that they face at school and the school-based resources that support LGBTQ students’ well-being.
The survey has consistently indicated that specific school-based supports are related to a safer and more inclusive school climate, including: supportive educators, LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, inclusive and supportive policies, and supportive student clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs).
For the first time in years, new data shows progress on safe schools for LGBTQ youth has slowed down, making the work that GLSEN is doing even more imperative.
For nearly three decades, GLSEN has led the way on LGBTQ issues in K-12 education through ground-breaking original research, innovative program development, educator training, student organizing, and targeted state and federal advocacy. With the development of educational resources, direct engagement of youth and educators, and GLSEN national programs like Day of Silence, No Name-Calling Week, and Ally Week, GLSEN has seen the impact of its work.
An attendee, Donna Wilkens, who flew in from Nashville for the event, put it best. “Tonight was a revolution for me and I’m gonna pass it on.” Wilkens says she started a GSA at the rural Tennessee High School where she teaches and that it has become the number one social group at school. “GLSEN makes a profound difference and these kids take that home. And so on.”