In an era defined by far-right attacks on LGBTQ+ identity — from drag queen bans to virtual book burnings — standing up to be counted has never been more important.
Enter the artists, actors, musicians, dancers, and writers.
They are the world’s eyes and ears, and who they are — and how they represent us — matters.
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This year, the nominees for Arts and Entertainment Hero all spoke out forcefully through their work and simply being themselves. The results were all enlightening.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Carroll High School Drama Club defied “hateful” parents and put on a play with — gasp! — LGBTQ+ characters.
Legendary DJ Honey Di’jon brought the beats and trans visibility to Beyoncé’s smash-hit Renaissance album.
Funny and personable Jaboukie Young-White charmed audiences with his portrayal of Disney’s first out gay character in an animated film.
And gay dad and author Chasten Buttigieg helped out gay teens looking for affirmation and hit back at craven politicians looking for a cheap laugh.
Carroll High School Drama Club
Their video will move you to tears.
In February, drama students at Carroll High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana were abruptly notified that their spring production of Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood had been canceled due to objections from a group of parents unhappy with the play’s queer themes, including a same-sex couple and a character that comes out as nonbinary.
The drama-ramas and their allies were in shock — before they mobilized for action.
Their first act was notifying local news and the play’s author that the production was under siege. That yielded sympathetic coverage and 5,600 signatures on a petition to reinstate the play.
Next, students showed up in force at a school board meeting, putting Bible-wielding parents on notice that they were writing themselves into history as “hateful.”
Finally, when the school still didn’t relent, students decided to mount the production themselves.
They hired a producer, rented out a venue, and performed Marian for over 1,500 fans at an outdoor theatre on a beautiful night under the stars on the Indiana prairie. They’d raised over $80,000 with that moving video.
“A few months ago, we thought this was completely hopeless,” said sophomore Peyton Stratton, who played Marian. “And it feels very earned in a way to be like, ‘Wow, we did it. And it’s happening.’”
If it’s Beyoncé’s world and we just live in it, then we’re lucky to have trans DJ Honey Di’jon spinning the soundtrack, with her signature golden-era disco, techno, and house beats.
The Chicago-born Di’jon, who’s been behind the turntables since the 1990s, is having a moment now as a contributor to Queen B’s smash hit Renaissance album, producing tracks including “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar,” along with trans visibility.
Di’jon earned Grammy nominations for her work on the album in November.
With a long track record and prominent admirers — Madonna calls Di’jon “my favorite DJ in the whole world” — she’s earned arbiter status along with the Grammy nods, holding forth on house music history and the influence of Black and LGBTQ+ artists at forums like MoMA PS 1.
Three days after those Renaissance noms, Di’jon released her own, second collection of house music, along with a message of liberation:
“The secret of great dance music is joy. That’s why disco has always spoken to me. Even though it told realities from life, it also was uplifting and liberating. That’s what great dance music also does. It uplifts and liberates us, while making us think. It advocates for affirmation.”
In November last year, history found Jaboukie Young-White.
He surfaced in 2016 with some funny memes on Twitter and Instagram, and parlayed the attention into a career spanning stand-up, film, and most recently, music; his debut album from Interscope, All who can’t hear must feel, drops in August.
The actor came out matter-of-factly on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2017.
Five years later, filmmakers at Disney applied that same casual approach to teenager Ethan Clade in Strange World, the very first animated film in the studio’s hundred-year history to feature an openly gay character. Young-White was a perfect fit for the role.
“I thought that it was pretty cool,” the actor said of director Don Hall and writer and co-director Qui Nguyen, that they “really have a commitment to just reflecting what our world looks like and what reality looks like, in a way that isn’t heavy-handed or forced. It’s kind of just the way it is.”
That light touch extends to a sweet scene when Young-White’s character is shy in front of his boy crush. Ethan’s dad, voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal, barrels in declaring, “So nice to meet you! My son talks about you all the time!”
This year, Chasten Buttigieg — husband to Pete and dad to twin toddlers — revisited his refreshingly candid 2020 memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, hoping to inspire a younger audience with his story. The result: I Have Something to Tell You — for Young Adults.
He spent the better part of this past year touring the country and sharing his story, apropos considering all the states and school districts banning LGBTQ+ books and discussions.
The 34-year-old author told NBC, “When I was growing up in northern Michigan, I thought I was the only gay person in the world. I thought something was wrong with me.”
While Buttigieg says he came from a loving home, the teenaged Chasten could have “benefited from a 10-second conversation with my parents when I was younger.”
“What if they sat me down and said, ‘We just want you to know that you are loved, no matter what, unconditionally. If you’re gay, straight, no matter what, you will always have a roof over your head and you will always have two parents who love you.’ Imagine if I could have heard that, and then poured myself into everything else that young people should be paying attention to: sports, academics.”
And that’s the message of the book.
“There is goodness out here in this world,” Buttigieg wants to tell his readers. “People do love you. People are fighting for you.”