How Do We Bring Greater Inclusivity to National LGBT Awards?


To whom do we give awards?

For whom do we give awards?

These two questions superficially sound the same, but they are not. The former question is obvious; it can be discovered by anyone with an Internet connection. The latter, while seemingly evident (after all, don’t most award-giving organizations have mission statements?), can be opaque, subjective and driven by financial and political incentives. And yet, the two are related: the intended audience of an award, the “for whom,” most often determines its recipient, the “to whom.” As a result, the question,  “For whom do we give awards?” can be just as important as the question “To whom do we give awards?” 

Early April’s GLAAD Media Awards present a good opportunity to reflect on how the LGBT community rewards its members, and also the conscious or unconscious role wooing the heterosexual community and wealthy queer donors may play in the decision-making process of many awards committees. 

First of all, it’s important to admit that awards are always highly politicized, no matter what they are for. For example, when US President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 (nominated after just two weeks in office), he was “competing” against, among others: Sima Samar, an Afghani doctor, human rights activist and chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission; Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who helps rape victims; and Wei Jinsheng, often called the father of Chinese democracy, who was jailed for 18 years for protesting Mao’s China after leaving his position as a member of the Red Guard. 

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, US Presidentphoto by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

In his 2015 memoir, Geir Lundestad, the Director of the Nobel Institute and Secretary for the Nobel Committee at the time of the award, admitted that the award had been given optimistically, “giving Obama a helping hand” in hopes that Obama would live up to the peace prize rather than on the basis of his past actions. Regardless of your opinion of Obama, that’s clear politicization on the part of the Nobel Committee. Moreover, the idea of awarding a prize on the basis not of actions, but in the hopes that the recipient will effect a certain behavior, will also appear later in this piece.

We face a subliminal tension between rewarding high-profile, A-Listers (who may or may not be LGBT and whose status inherently makes them a face for visibility among the heterosexual community, attracting attendees to fundraisers), and using the national stage to reward/spotlight less well-known members of the community while also drawing donations for LGBT organizations. Should we use awards to publicize the support of celebrities for the LGBT community, or should we mostly use them to reward up and coming members of the LGBT community? Put another way, if we absolutely had to choose between the two, would we rather give an award to Cate Blanchett for playing gay, or to a queer female actress who has done good work on both stage and screen but hasn’t reached A-List status?

The argument may seem moot: Why can’t we do both? And of course, we can and do—but only in a very limited fashion, and mostly at the local level. The following examples are anecdotal, but seem to indicate a trend in which high-profile celebrities may be disproportionately rewarded at the national and regional level by LGBT organizations, at the expense of “lesser” or “non-celebrities.” This apparent politicization probably reflects a conscious or subconscious goal on the part of the award giver to influence the straight community (Do you like Demi Lovato? Demi Lovato likes gays so you should, too!) in addition to rewarding the recipient for his or her pro-LGBT activities. It also reflects—no judgment—the truth that donors are more likely to attend an event featuring Demi Lovato than a talented but relatively unknown queer award recipient.

518849918via Getty

According to GLAAD’s website, “the GLAAD Media Awards recognize and honor media for their fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the issues that affect their lives.” However, this explanation leaves in doubt who is the audience of the award. Heterosexuals? The LGBT community? Both? What level of readership, viewership, or listeners is required for a potential nominee to be considered by GLAAD and should that matter? These questions become important because, in this year’s category for Outstanding Music Artist, the nominees were Brandi Carlile, Miley Cyrus, Adam Lambert, Le1f, and Troye Sivan. (Troye won.) What? The entirety of all the music produced by queer female artists this year can be summarized by a competition between The Firewatcher’s Daughter and Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz?

Why not Melissa Ferrick (Melissa Ferrick)? Halsey (Badlands)? The Indigo Girls (One Lost Day)? Literally anyone from this list? What about aspiring singer-songwriters whose songs haven’t hit the radio yet but who display a stunning ability to pluck at our heartstrings, as well as a guitar?  If straight people interested in finding out more about LGBT artists used the GLAAD Media Awards as a starting point, would it accurately reflect what we ourselves would present as being representative? And if not, what awards would we suggest instead?

This year’s GLAAD Vanguard Award this year went to the aforementioned Demi Lovato, while the GLAAD Excellence in Media Award went to Robert DeNiro. This means that, as far as I can tell, for the entire ceremony, only two queer individuals actually received awards: Ruby Rose for the Stephen F. Kolzak Award, and Troye. It may be sacrilege to suggest that some celebrities are nominated for awards just to bring the award publicity among the heterosexual community and attract donors for LGBT causes, but national LGBT organizations have long recognized how powerful a tool having celebrities at their events can be. Celebrities mean paparazzi, which mean pictures, which mean enduring publicity.

27th Annual GLAAD Media Awards - ShowPhoto by JB Lacroix/WireImage

At least the 2016 British LGBT Awards, called “the Gay Oscars,” include the categories “LGBT Celebrity Rising Star” and “LGBT Celebrity,” but it’s underwhelming to read that former One Direction group member Zayn Malik was nominated in the “Music Artist” category just for saying in response to a question on sexuality, “Just be yourself. If that’s who you are, that’s who you are and don’t be afraid to be the person that you are.” If that’s all he’s ever done to support LGBT rights, and the internet seems to think so, then putting him in the same category as Sam Smith seems egregious. (Side note: there are more queer Americans nominated for the British LGBT Awards than queer people nominated for GLAAD Media Awards. GLAAD sponsored the 2014 British LGBT Award category “Celebrity ‘Straight Ally’ of the Year.”) 

The point is not to diminish the contributions of straight allies like Jane Fonda (well-deserved recipient of the Los Angeles LGBT Center Vanguard Award in 2015), or to question awards given to pop stars (Jennifer Lopez got GLAAD’s Vanguard Award in 2014) in recognition of their support, but instead to suggest it’s worth considering whether we are comfortable with why our national LGBT organizations seeming to spend so much of their resources praising A-Listers—especially straight ones—and fundraising instead of using their position to celebrate artists that the heterosexual community might not have heard of yet but who are excellent representatives of the LGBT community.

Los Angeles LGBT Center 46th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards - Inside Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Los Angeles LGBT Center

Currently, LGBT only (or LGBT mostly) awards of this type seem to be handled locally; for example, Miami’s Pink Flamingo Awards, which honor mostly local people, places, and organizations and works on a write-in voting basis. If GLAAD and the HRC are not the best venues for LGBT-only awards that seek to showcase the best of our community regardless of how famous those people and organizations are, what are better venues?   What if the LGBT community had a national awards ceremony that objectively chose between queer artists in the same musical categories because there were so many nominees that we could actually have multiple categories?

I don’t discount that there may already be national-level awards that reward homegrown queer stars who just haven’t hit the heterosexual mainstream, activists who have worked to improve the lives of the LGBT community, and journalists/bloggers/writers who have shed light on the difficulties of the community, but if so, there is a publicity problem. If these awards not on the first six pages of Google and a reader must search the bowels of the internet to find these awards and their recipients, then the awards have failed to help the recipient by providing additional publicity. Similarly, the LGBT community has not helped by reciprocating that publicity for the award.     

Every person must come up with her own answer to the questions I asked at the beginning: to whom do we give awards and for whom do we give awards? Some may see it as a good thing that at some LGBT national awards ceremonies over half the awards go to straight allies. And certainly, if big names bring in large donations, then the money can be applied to further LGBT projects. If we want our own “Gay Oscars” that are more inclusive of smaller names in the community, however, what needs to be done and how do we go about doing it?  

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