Debra Messing: ‘It’s time to make America gay again!’

Debra Messing: ‘It’s time to make America gay again!’
Debra Messing at GLAAD Media Awards in NYC Saturday, May 6, 2017. Photo: GLAAD via YouTube
Debra Messing of Will & Grace — which returns to NBC this September — used her acceptance speech for GLAAD’s Excellence in Media Award Saturday night in New York City to advocate for resistance to anti-LGBTQ politics, from President Trump to the Republican-controlled Congress. “Things are getting dire,” Messing told the black-tie crowd attending the annual gala to honor members of the LGBTQ community and allies who work in the news and entertainment media. “To paraphrase Charles Dickens, ‘This year has sucked,’ ” she said. “Unless you are an unenlightened straight cisgender white male, you are a target. That makes us all a target. There is a very bad and very orange man in the White House. At least a few times a month.”
Debra Messing Hannah Simpson
And then she directed her acceptance speech at President Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, who as his unpaid adviser has her own White House office, and who was booed in Germany last month at a women’s summit. “One Jewish mother to another. It is not enough to simply say women’s issues are important to you. It’s time to do something.”
Ivanka, you can change the lives of millions of women and children just by telling your dad stories about real people who are suffering. Don’t let him separate immigrant mothers from their American-born children. Don’t let him take healthcare away from women who need it.
And her remarks were just one part of an evening that began as a mix of celebration, frustration, and resilience that was not lost on the stars or guests. Blue ampersand pins symbolized the night’s “Together” theme, linking human rights activism across women’s, immigrant, LGBTQ labels. In addition to Messing, the star-studded gala at the Hilton Midtown also featured Whoopi Goldberg — who won Outstanding Reality Program for her trans modeling show, Strut, which she executive produced —in addition to Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto, Christian Slater, Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah and actress and entrepreneur Angelica Ross — who together won for Outstanding Talk Show episode, for The Daily Show — author Janet Mock — who has a new memoir, Surpassing Certainty, out soon — as well as CNN’s out anchor Don Lemon and YouTube sensation Gigi Gorgeous. Although the evening was filled with jabs at the sitting president, this night wasn’t just about attacking Trump. There was plenty of that, but it felt bigger, because together we are bigger.
Cleansing the Room Ross Mathews, in his fourth turn as host, told me on the red carpet that this year “feels different.” “We’re gonna be real, real. Not mean, but just real,” outlining his approach. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle [on social awareness], but you can take away rights.” On stage, he noted that Trump claimed victory from this very room on election night. He broke into a brilliant flaming (and flaming) sage ritual “in the name of Liza and Judy and all this is holy,” to cleanse away lingering negative energy, bringing the house down in laughter in the process. Rosie O’Donnell’s appearance was a surprise, and then she surprised fans by pretending to tweet from the stage: “’Fuck you, Donald. From the gays.’ Sent.”
O’Donnell was there to introduce Billy Porter, recipient of the Vito Russo Award for his advocacy work and theatre career.
Billy Porter Hannah Simpson
Porter turned around to discuss his first disastrous interview on her show and the moment thereafter. “Rosie saw ambush in my eyes. ‘What’s wrong? My office, no bullshit.’” This night of celebration was a series of formative moments.
Hannah Simpson
“Go look for a gown, not a dress,” LGBTQ Nation assistant editor Dawn Ennis repeatedly advised me in preparing to cover this 28th annual GLAAD Media Awards. I have never purchased or worn a gown before. As a reporter for the first time at the LGBTQ community’s biggest media night, the stakes get raised.
The Red Carpet
GLAAD board member Lana Moore, a retired fire captain, best summed up her organization: “GLAAD is ready to slide down the fire station pole when an emergency strikes,” but they also do the drills enforce the codes to prevent disasters in the first place, but for LGBTQ media representation. “All most people see are the lights and sirens.” It is a media watchdog, advocate trainer, and a few nights like this recognizing those who amplify our stories best.
It’s no understatement when people call this the “Gay Oscars.” This year’s hands-down winner of the GLAAD award for wide-release films, Moonlight, also took home three Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was the first LGBTQ-focused feature to snag that title. More and more often, strong and diverse LGBTQ are translating to critical and popular mainstream success. GLAAD comedy series winner Transparent just wrapped filming for its 4th season. The Amazon show beat out Steven Universe, which stood out for for being the only cartoon series, and one tremendously popular among adolescents and younger ages at that. The red carpet leading up to the ceremony is two hours of controlled chaos. Visually, everything screams glitz from the repeating backdrop to the carefully spaced lighting and velvet ropes. Then there was me and my three-dollar selfie stick preparing for the live feeds, that is. At least I was wearing a proper gown as advised, or I would have felt terrified. You talk to whomever you can for a few minutes each, then on to the next reporters they go. Nervousness around tremendously famous people is par for the course, but GLAAD feels like family, especially among my transgender siblings. Many of us have crossed paths representing the community at other events. I get most giddy around personal heroes, who doesn’t? There were people in the room who personally inspired me into being myself and speaking up. Others have overcome truly amazing odds.
Jenny Boylan’s Next Big Thing I first met Jennifer Finney Boylan here two years ago. On Saturday night, I was listing her accolades — she’s an author, professor, and GLAAD board member and co-chair, retiring after seven years — when she snarked back, “Oh, look who’s talking?” I should be so lucky to reach her stature one day. Long Black Veil is Jenny Boylan’s new mystery novel about old pals “goofing around” an abandoned prison. Perhaps she can’t help but bring her truth into this fiction: “And don’t be shocked if there might just be a transgender character in there somewhere.”
Moving on from the board, she told me she is thrilled that GLAAD has “doubled in size” in her tenure and trans-focused efforts now “make up almost 50% of our mission.” Boylan will be working with their new grassroots activism institute, and may have more work to do as the mentor and on-air conscience of Caitlyn Jenner, who she helped to transition amid public frenzy. I still haven’t met Caitlyn. I hoped I would get to. She’s was in two nominated-works this year: her now-canceled reality show, I Am Cait, and HBO’s The Trans List documentary, both of which went home without a trophy. Jenner was a no-show but she did attend GLAAD’s west coast ceremony in April. It was Catlyn making headlines two years ago that got me invited to discuss trans issues on local news in the first place. When Boylan came out in 2000, there were no openly trans reporters nor might anyone back then have imagined there could be. She paved the way for me to be me, as well as so many others. Other trans attendees included Zeke Smith and Gavin Grimm, who both looked sharp for the evening and are so freaking cool! They are schooling an entire country on how to be amazing and empowered young men. Speaking to them together on the red carpet, I had to laugh that Grimm’s fight is to use public restrooms in his Virginia high school, while Smith, who was booted off Survivor this week less than a month after becoming the first trans person outed in a TV reality show, enjoys the ocean as his “one big gender-neutral restroom.”
Gavin Grimm (left), Zeke Smith, Hannah Simpson Hannah Simpson
Grimm just turned 18. He’s going to prom with friends, but says he’s available if anyone needs a celebrity date. Just saying…

The Hardest Part

Southwest of Salem

The hardest part of the night was not walking in heels or hiking my skirt out from escalators. It was grappling with the reality that authentic LGBTQ representation does not always include happy endings. This year’s entries for outstanding documentary and digital journalism proved that queerness can be a life sentence or death sentence in no uncertain terms.

I met Anna Vasquez on the red carpet before Southwest of Salem received its GLAAD award. Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Vazquez each served 15 years in prison for a crime that had never happened yet were accused and prosecuted around their lesbian identities. “The power of the media is just huge. We’re exonerated, and it’s an honor to be here.” As if her outlook wasn’t already awe-inspiring, she added, “We’re just trekking on, helping others.”

Meredith Talusan won the multimedia digital journalism award for “Unerased: Counting Transgender Lives,”’s chronicle of every known trans person murdered since 2010. It details who they were and how they were lost. She missed the gala, but we talked earlier in the week about the weight of adding each new entry. She said no one person is singlehandedly responsible, to reduce this burden, but that “hopefully there will come day when we wouldn’t have cases of transgender murder, and we wouldn’t need to update the database.”

Any effective fundraiser needs to get people excited at all levels. Songwriter Justin Tranter, himself an out advocate whose hits include songs by Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears, auctioned off two private recording sessions for $30,000 each. This may well be a tremendous bargain, if you have it to spare in the first place. Added together with the auction at the L.A. Media Awards, Tranter raised $123,000 for GLAAD.

Billy Porter best captured the weight of the night:

“We can’t fight if we don’t have any joy. The joy is what fuels the fight.”

That goes for fighting systemic oppressions and building our own livelihoods, too. As many times as I questioned my own worthiness to be in the room, it became clear each and every other every other person had felt the same way at some point.

Wearing my fancy gown home on the subway, carrying my $3 selfie stick, I realized what I learned from this challenging job and from a banquet hall full of extended family, is that I am not only worthy, but at home. Telling powerful LGBTQ stories is telling powerful human stories. I didn’t take a trophy home… but being queer is never giving up.

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