Last week I attended the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where I saw Beyoncé and Jay-Z honored with the Vanguard Award for being LGBTQ allies. Madonna will receive the same award at the East Coast ceremony, taking place in New York City on May 4. As an LGBTQ member of the Beyhive myself, I thought the choice to award the Carters for simply being allies was a bit of a stretch at first, but Beyoncé's heartfelt speech ultimately won me over.
Before I get into that, some background: Founded as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, GLAAD is the world's largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization. The GLAAD Media Awards honor media for fair, accurate and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues. After a flute-playing performance by rap star Lizzo, Netflix's Queer Eye won Outstanding Reality Program; Starz's Vida took home Outstanding Comedy Series; Love, Simon won Outstanding Film — Wide Release; and Sean Hayes, aka Jack from Will & Grace, accepted the special Stephen F. Kolzak Award.
Hayes joked as he accepted the award, "All four cast members [have been] honored by GLAAD. I'm the last one. The gay one." While Hayes may have been joking, his point may be representative of a bigger problem in LGBTQ media representation. Even GLAAD, which does great work and is still as necessary today as it was when it was founded in 1985, is so focused on allyship that we're overlooking those from our own community. Why were the straight cast members of Will & Grace all honored before the one who was actually gay? Are they braver or more valuable to telling queer stories? I'd think it would be the opposite.
Or take a winner like Love, Simon. When it came out about a year ago, Nylon headlined its review "Love, Simon Isn’t The Queer Movie We Want But It's One We Need," and I couldn't agree more. The movie was entertaining and groundbreaking as a gay teenage coming-of-age story but it had a very specific narrative, an idealistic coming out that showed, even when forced out of the closet, everything ended happily ever after for the protagonist. This isn't the case for a majority of LGBTQ people, and perhaps that's because very few were involved in the project. Based on a novel by a straight, cisgender female author, Becky Albertalli, Simon's screenplay was written by two straight, cisgender writers (Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker) and the lead character, who struggles with coming out throughout the story, is played by straight, cisgender actor Nick Robinson. It seems the only LGBTQ creatives involved were the director, Greg Berlanti, and Keiynan Lonsdale, who plays Simon's love interest, Bram. Why are we letting cisgender, straight people write and tell our stories, and why are our advocacy groups honoring it? Is it because the storytelling has gone one step further than representation in the past so we're acknowledging that? Or is it perhaps that we think this is the best we'll get?
With that in mind, let's talk about Beyoncé and Jay-Z. The award announcement described why the Carters were being honored "for accelerating LGBTQ acceptance" thus:
"Beyoncé has spoken out against laws that would discriminate against LGBTQ people in states including North Carolina and celebrated the passage of marriage equality nationwide, saying that 'everyone has the right to love who they love.' She has spoken out loudly for LGBTQ youth and told her followers on social media that 'LGBTQ students need to know we support them.' Beyoncé has included LGBTQ people and couples in videos for 'Formation' and 'All Night' and dedicated her performance of 'Halo' to the victims and survivors of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting during the Formation World Tour. Ivy Park, her athleisure clothing line, proudly showcased transgender actress Laverne Cox as one of the featured faces in one of the brand’s promos.
"Jay-Z received a GLAAD Special Recognition Award last year for his song and music video, 'Smile,' featuring his mother, Gloria Carter, who used the song to come out as a lesbian. The lyrics and video poignantly share the powerful story of Ms. Gloria Carter, who accepted the GLAAD Media Award from journalist Robin Roberts. Jay-Z has featured LGBTQ people in his art including an appearance by LGBTQ leader Janet Mock in the video for 'Family Feud,' which opens with a quote from iconic gay writer James Baldwin. He also famously supported the passage of marriage equality, noting it was 'the right thing to do as a human being.'"
Aside from Jay's song about his mother, a snarky friend said after reading this, "So they're being honored because of a couple things they said at their concerts, for posting on social media and for hiring LGBTQ people?" Even as a Beyoncé fan myself, it was hard to argue. The New York ceremony honoring Madonna seemed a better fit, as her allyship has been way more explicit, in your face and aggressive than the Carters' has been, even according to GLAAD's own press release. The cynic in me thought, are they just honoring Beyoncé and Jay-Z to get more press and donations when one of the most famous couples in America comes to accept the award?
Until the award was given out, it seemed that way. The amount of time spent asking the audience for donations seemed endless. Sure, I already acknowledged GLAAD's necessity and GLAAD can't exist without funds, but there's a time and a place, right? (And the time spent on fundraising there seemed to outweigh the awards even.) I thought we were there to celebrate LGBTQ representation in the media, not attend a fundraiser. Imagine if the Oscars or Grammys spent half of their show soliciting donations (it's noteworthy that, unlike the Oscars or Grammys, this ceremony was not televised; the New York one is scheduled to be).
But I digress. After an amazing performance by RuPaul's Drag Race alum Shangela in front of Beyoncé that got her a standing ovation from Queen Bey herself, many people spoke about how the couple have been allies, including trans writer-director and activist Janet Mock and lesbian writer-actress Lena Waithe. They praised the Carters for using their voices as weapons against racism, sexism and homophobia and for being "two magnificent black people [who] let the world know they stand with the LGBTQIA community."
While this is all great and should be praised, I wondered once again if the bar was set too low. Is simple allyship really award-worthy? Or were we simply honoring them because the black community has historically battled with homophobia and we think this is the best we'd get from one of the most famous black couples in the country?
Jay-Z spoke first, mostly about his mother. While it's commendable that he accepts and supports his mom as a lesbian, by focusing only on her and not really saying anything about the LGBTQ community as a whole, it made me question how strong his allyship is. Had his mother not come out, would he have been an ally at all? And having one of the biggest voices in the notoriously homophobic rap/hip-hop industry, was he just using his personal experience to speak about a microcosm rather than the many other issues plaguing his mother's own community?
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Beyoncé's speech, however, won me over. She also used a personal anecdote to relate: She revealed that her uncle, Johnny, died of complications of HIV. Calling him "the most fabulous gay man I've ever known and ever knew," she said, fighting back tears, "he lived his truth, he was brave and unapologetic during a time when this country wasn't as accepting, and witnessing his battle with HIV was one of the most painful experiences I've ever lived." But unlike her husband, she then made the jump and related her own experience to a commentary on our community as a whole: "I'm hopeful that his struggles started to open pathways for other young people to live more freely. LGBTQIA rights are human rights. To choose who you love is your human right. How you identify and see yourself is your human right. Who you make love to and take that ass to Red Lobster is your human right," she said.
Admittedly, I melt for anything Beyoncé does because of how much passion she puts into it, but her words gave me goosebumps, even got me feeling emotional and, most important, convinced me that she understood the gravity of the award she was being given. Perhaps it will inspire her to be even more explicit about her LGBTQ advocacy. "I would say that one of the most beautiful memories from my tour was looking out from the stage every night and seeing the hardest gangster trappin' out right next to the most fabulous queen, respecting and celebrating each other," Beyoncé said.
This is the reason that her allyship is probably more important than I originally thought. As someone with so much fame, looked up to by both the LGBTQ and black communities, her support is truly priceless. The fight isn't over — there's the passage of the Equality Act, ending the trans military ban and stopping the high number of murders committed against trans women of color. Silly as it may sound, the Carters with all their power and influence can help with all this. Now Mr. and Mrs Carter: Let's get in formation, prove you deserved this award and continue to make some positive change for the LGBTQ community!