*I originally published this post on The Huffington Post on June 18, 2014.
I wrote and read this piece on June 3, right before a special performance of The Laramie Project that I co-produced with the U.S. Embassy and the Matthew Shepard Foundation at Mexico City’s Teatro Milán.
At the end of my first year in college, just when I began to come out to my family and friends, I read about a young man in the United States, Matthew Shepard, who had been brutally murdered for being gay. This shocked me for many reasons — first, because I identified with a few of Matthew’s traits: My age at that time was almost the same as his when he was killed. We were both university students studying international relations. We both enjoyed traveling and learning new languages. We were both gay.
But what caught my attention the most was the fact that he was a regular guy. Matthew was not a famous activist whose work made someone in power feel uncomfortable. He was not a politician getting in the way of another. Matthew was just at the wrong spot at the wrong time with the wrong people. This terrified me.
A couple of years after that, I was living in New York, and I met Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mom and the co-founder of the organization named after him. Judy spoke at the city’s LGBT Community Center. At the end of the event, I came up to say hello, mentioned how much I admired her work, and asked her a couple of questions. Judy gave me a purple plastic bracelet that I have worn every day since then, for five years now. It has two simple but very strong words on it: “ERASE HATE.”
The hate that took her son away. The hate that ended Matthew’s life in 1998 in Wyoming, Brandon Teena’s in 1993 in Nebraska, Daniel Zamudio’s in 2012 in Santiago, Agnes Torres’ in 2012 in Puebla, and the list goes on. The same hate that ends relationships between friends because of one’s sexual orientation, or between a mother and her transgender daughter because the mother doesn’t understand her daughter’s identity.
The message sent by people like Matthew’s murderers (and everyone else’s) is that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is wrong. It is a problem. It is dangerous. It’s best to get rid of them. Alarming, right? Far from the promises of campaigns like It Gets Better, for people like Matthew and many more it actually got worse.
The amazing thing is that, 16 years after that episode, and thanks to the work of many, many people, Matthew is still “alive.” His story and the story of the small town that knew him keep traveling, moving hearts and minds, inspiring playwrights, filling theaters around the world, pushing laws forward against discrimination, driving young men and women to promote respect for diversity.
Today I celebrate that Matthew’s life did not end for nothing. If he, a 21-year-old, ordinary student, is here tonight and has made us come and know his story, we now have the task of erasing that hate and replacing it with respect and understanding.
Each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gives out a number of media awards to honor outstanding images and stories of LGBT people. Since they first began in 1990, they’ve become the single most prestigious recognition of its kind. In 2012, the 23rd GLAAD Media Awards were presented in ceremonies in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This last one just took place last weekend.
A few weeks ago I talked to Rich Ferraro, Director of Communications at the organization, about the awards and the organization’s influence in the media.
How did the GLAAD Media Awards start? What is their purpose?
GLAAD is an organization that works with the media to tell stories about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people. We work with a wide range of media from entertainment outlets, movie studios and TV networks to national news outlets in America, religious press, sports media, online media. We’ve seen that when people hear stories about LGBT people, and allies of LGBT people, they come to learn that LGBT people deserve the same opportunities as they do.
The GLAAD Media Awards honor those stories. They began with an awards ceremony in New York 23 years ago with just a handful of honorees, because LGBT issues were not so spoken about in the media, and certainly not spoken about in a positive way. We wanted a way to say you’re doing a good job, and we want others to follow. And now what we’ve seen is that the awards have become the most visible LGBT event in America, and likely around the world. We’ve had celebrities from Ricky Martin to Ellen Degeneres and Josh Hutcherson, star of The Hunger Games.
Can you tell me about the process of choosing honorees?
We have nominees in English and Spanish-language for a total of 35 categories including news, entertainment, TV, film, as well as some smaller parts of our culture like theatre, comic books, where stories of LGBT people are impacting our culture and creating change. GLAAD has a series of volunteer juries with expertise and with industry experience in all of these different areas. The juries come up with a pool of nominees with a termometer in the media year-round, whether it’s music artists who have used their recent albums to raise awareness on LGBT issues, or monitoring local news media.
GLAAD’s Board of Directors, staff and some of our major donors choose. They vote on the winners. The criteria for voting on the awards recipients is that they are fair, accurate and inclusive of our community, of the full diversity in the LGBT community, it should be original content, a news story that we haven’t heard before, tactful, reaching Americans and those around the world, and overall quality.
There are three ceremonies. Is there a different set of categories or audience for each? Do they have different goals?
The goal of each ceremony is to provide a platform for celebrities and media outlets to talk about their support for LGBT people. It is also to honor public figures and media outlets who are doing an exemplary job. The GLAAD Media Awards have become an industry benchmark that a lot of different movie studios, production companies, newspapers and television networks strive for. They want this recognition. They want to know that they are doing a good job for our community.
The GLAAD Media Awards are also a fundraiser for GLAAD’s work year-round to tell stories of LGBT people. The awards in the three different cities are part of our fundraising. It’s also kind of a way for us to get in front of different communities around the country. In addition to the people who attend the events, each of these has a program with young adults, LGBT and their allies, who come to the awards for free through generous donations from our sponsors. They are able to interact with others like them, to say hello to celebrities who support them for who they are, and they get to see the show.
Do you think the GLAAD Media Awards somehow help push forward or enhance someone’s career, a certain media or show’s success?
I think what they’ve done is they’ve pushed celebrities, public figures and media to do a better and more proactive job at telling LGBT stories.
Speaking of GLAAD’s work more generally, where does GLAAD draw the line between calling out on media’s unfair representation of LGBT people and issues, holding them accountable for their words and images, and making it seem as if GLAAD is maybe trying to censor the media?
More and more when we’re calling out celebrities or media outlets, we’re trying to do more than just get an apology. We’re trying to make it a teachable moment for our culture, and we’re trying to start a national dialogue.
Last year Tracy Morgan, a comedian and actor, made a joke in a standup routine that if his son was gay he would stab him. At GLAAD we hear stories when we work with organizations such as The Trevor Project, we know of the harm and what could happen to LGBT young people when their parents don’t accept them. We’ve also heard terrible stories about the violence that LGBT people face. What we wanted with Tracy was not to bully him into an apology, not to get a two-sentence press statement, but we wanted to use that as a way to really start a national dialogue about what it means when parents reject their LGBT kids, and the violence that LGBT people face.
We spoke with Tracy Morgan, we told him we wanted to take him to The Ali Forney Center, which is a homeless shelter for LGBTs in New York City. He went there with us, he met with young adults whose parents didn’t approve of who they were, and as a result these kids were turned away. Thankfully they had an organization such as The Ali Forney Center to welcome them.
Tracy then spoke with the media and told his fans, who are people that maybe wouldn’t generally hear of this, about why they should accept LGBT people. They heard from someone they admire and from someone whose career they follow that the right thing to do is to accept your kids no matter what. We also worked with teens at The Ali Forney Center to get them to talk about their own stories in the press. After they met with Tracy they went to The Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, MTV News, to some really powerful and international news publications so they could talk, not only about meeting with Tracy but also about their own personal stories.
More and more we’re really trying to push the envelopes. It’s not so much about GLAAD versus the media. It’s about GLAAD telling a wider story.
Jonathan Tolins is an awarded playwright, screenwriter, blogger, activist, husband and father of two, living in Fairfield, Connecticut. He has written, among other things, The last Sunday in June – which was recently translated to Spanish and is having a short season here in Mexico City, as I blogged about.
Jon’s work questions love, sexuality, relationships, politics, genetics, hatred, fears… life! And besides his scripts, he has other great things to say. I interviewed Jon and am glad to share this with you. Thanks for reading and commenting. :)
What inspired you to write The last Sunday in June? I was living in the West Village overlooking Christopher Street in New York in the late 1990’s and on Gay Pride Day in 1997, a bunch of friends dropped by unnanounced to watch the parade from my window. We started joking that it felt like we were in a gay play with all the familiar conventions. We laughed a lot. The next day I wrote down some of the conversation and took it from there. I was in my early thirties at the time and my friends and I were at that stage in life where you begin to examine where you are, the choices you’ve made, and the roles you find yourself playing. I was feeling sensitive to the pressures from within the gay community, as well as those from outside. I thought I might have something to say about it.
Do you personally agree with or support LGBT pride marches? Sure, I think the parades can be wonderful. I understand how the more outrageous displays of gay sexuality can make people uncomfortable since that is what will always make the evening news, but I think society (for the most part) has gotten past that squeamishness. I have marched in several parades, both in New York and Los Angeles, and always had a great time. I was on a float with The last Sunday in June company in 2003, which was wonderful. Even better were the times I marched in Los Angeles with my husband and our daughter, as part of a gay parents group. That was “living the dream.” Selina waved to the people from her stroller like the Queen of England.
How do you think your work (written, TV…) affects people who read or see it? I honestly have no idea. I hope that people find that I’ve written truthfully about the characters and the work inspires audiences to talk and think about their own lives, or to find expression for things they’ve been thinking and feeling themselves. But I can’t think about that when I write. I just have to follow my imagination and be as honest as I can.
In what ways has your work had an effect on the LGBT community/movement? Alas, my work is far too obscure to have had any significant effect on the LGBT community/movement. The most widely seen work of mine is probably my contribution to the U.S. version of Queer as folk, but that was always through the filter of the executive producers who ran the show and I’m afraid it was never very close to what I intended. I think The twilight of the Golds may have had a small impact in giving the community a way to talk about the genetics issue. Those discussions come up again from time to time with reference to my play, so I’m proud of that. Most of all, I have heard from individuals who have been influenced or inspired by some of my work and that is intensely gratifying.