Robin Roberts, Chely Wright, Clay Aiken, Janet Mock and More at GLSEN Respect Awards
At the 11th Annual GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) Respect Awards -New York, which were held on Monday, May 19 at Gotham Hall, the mood was festive -- and not just because it was a gala with free drinks, good food, and a cool goodie bag. As the organization's executive director, Dr. Eliza Bayard, told EDGE before the ceremony: "I think there's a real explosion of choice now for LGBT students as to who can they look up to. Whether it's an entertainer, athlete, author, or just a hard-working person, there's now a role model for you."
While it was the LGBT students who have worked to make their high schools a safer and better environment for everyone who were the real stars of the evening, there were plenty of high-profile luminaries on hand to salute them. Among the many celebrated presenters and attendees were "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts, pop singer (and current political candidate) Clay Aiken, country music star Chely Wright, actors Dot-Marie Jones ("Glee"), Maulik Pancholy ("30 Rock"), and Matt Walton ("Under My Skin"), reality TV star Miss J. Alexander, WNBA president Laurel Ritchie, and New York Liberty players Essence Carson and Katie Smith.
For Wright (the evening's honorary co-chair), Jones, and Pancholy, this was their first GLSEN event, and each had their own reason for attending. "I was involved with GLSEN before I came out, because of the good work they do. I think it's so important to raise awareness about safe schools and safe spaces," said Wright, a mother of young twin sons who came with wife Lauren Blitzer.
"The singer also added that her work in country music has given her a special perspective. "Because of my fan base, I've begun to hear from many people who told me they were gay in school but couldn't discuss it. And I think it's so important for people in rural parts of the country to realize they can be gay and still live a 'normal life.'"
Pancholy, who recently got engaged to his longtime partner Ryan Corvaia and who is of South Asian heritage, echoed Wright's sentiment. "I didn't have any kind of support structure when I was in middle or high school, and I don't think I knew a single out teacher or student, so it would have been useful to have things like a Gay-Straight Alliance when I was growing up. It's great that we're educating people now at an early age."
Jones, who attended with her wife Bridget Casteen, spoke movingly of her struggles with bullying growing up - although mostly because she was over six-feet-tall by the time she was in the eighth grade. "It took me a long time to accept the skin I was in, and kids can say some terrible things," she notes. "So now, I feel we can never do enough for the kids, and the most important thing is to help any kid out there from committing suicide. I am blessed to still be here."
During the two-hour ceremony, four awards were bestowed by the organization. The GLSEN GSA of the Year Award was given to the Park City (Utah) High School Gay Straight Alliance, whose many accomplishments included their continuing work to erase anti-discrimination laws on the state and federal levels, and having a wide variety of students and teachers wear rainbow flag armbands to greet conservative Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert when he paid a recent visit to their school. Their goal, as one student said, "is to make sure that society treats everyone equally, because it is the right thing to do. "
AT&T received GLSEN's Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion Award. The 138-year-old company first launched its own anti-discrimination policy way back on 1975 and has long been in the forefront of protecting and helping LGBT employees through the formation of LEAGUE (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allies Employees), implementing benefits for domestic partners in 1988, and becoming one of the first U.S. corporations to offer transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits.
Dr. Laura Taylor, former principal of Urbana High School in Illinois and currently the assistant superintendent for Champaign Schools in that state, was named Educator of the Year for her work with LGBT students. In an inspiring acceptance speech, Taylor noted: "I am often told that I am brave, but the true bravery comes from the many students I've met who work as advocates and activists for other students. I want to thank GLSEN for working so hard that, in the future, no one will have to be brave."
Finally, the group's coveted Inspiration Award was bestowed upon popular trans woman author Janet Mock, whose groundbreaking work includes the best-selling book "Redefining Realness," and the creation of #GirlsLikeUs, a movement that encourages trans women to live visibly. "When I was first approached to accept this award, I immediately thought of three things," said Mock. "I thought of all the people who came before me, from Audrey Lorde to Bayard Rustin to James Baldwin, without whose audacity I would not be visible as a trans woman or as an African-American author. I thought of all the GLSEN student ambassadors who have the courage to change their lives and the lives of others. And I thought of all the young people who didn't make it through school, but who still deserve to be recognized."
As Dr. Bayard put it succinctly, when discussing the past year: "I think we've been rolling the boulder up the hill for a long time, and the momentum is finally heading in the other direction. We have things to build on that we have never had before. But it's important for us not to quit before we cross the finish line."