Every now and then it’s imperative to stop, breathe and appreciate where we’ve been and how we got here. For those of us whose job it is to reconnoiter in the Culture Wars, constantly surveying enemy territory and the ramifications of the slightest troop movement, the occasional foray into LGBT cultural history lends a perspective on today’s machinations that is infused with gratitude and inspiration. Teeth gnashing takes a holiday.
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So it was last night at Outfest’s Legacy Awards at the Directors Guild of America, this year honoring “Ugly Betty” actress Judith Light and the premium cable channel “Showtime” for their long work on behalf of HIV/AIDS and LGBT people. The awards gala benefited Outfest’s Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, which is building a “world-class collection” at UCLA of neglected independent LGBT films.
Join me after the jump for a roundup of the evening and my own take on Judith Light as a political reporter...
To be honest, as a primarily political reporter, sometimes I’m a bit befuddled at celebrity-studded events. Since my TV fare is mostly CNN, MSNBC, and “Law and Order,” I count on the paparazzi and friendly reporters to tell me who’s who, what they’re in and why I should care. And, since I don’t have premium cable, I have never watched “Queer As Folk” (I don’t even know what the title means) or “The L-Word,” which I gathered by her appearance last night, now features the wonderful actress Marlee Matlin.
Others I did recognize because they give lots of time to helping our community – folks such as Wilson Cruz, comedienne Caroline Ray actor Peter Paige, director/producer Paris Barclay and comedienne/news junkie Jane Lynch. David Duchovny, whose hysterical “crush” on fictional talk show host Larry Sanders is a classic, was also there. (See my friend Greg Hernandez’s Out in Hollywood blog for more celebrity stuff.)
The other “stars” were the film clips from Outfest’s “25 films that changed our lives” –including the powerful documentary “Paris is Burning,” and lesbian films “Go Fish,” and “Desert Hearts” with directors Jennie Livingston and Donna Deitch and screenwriter Guinevere Turner in the audience.
Robert Greenblatt, President of Entertainment for Showtime, accepted the Special “Outie Award” and he delivered a thoughtful and occasionally rousing speech about how the 30-year-old Showtime has “explicitly sought” an LGBT audience, starting in 1984 with “Brothers,” apparently pay-cable’s first situation comedy, which unabashedly featured two openly gay major characters and gay themes. Showtime also produced “Soldier’s Girl” in 2003 about the brutal murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell for his love of transgender Calpernia Addams, who was at the event.
So why did I go? Where’s the news? Well, there was some news: Stephen Gutwillig, executive director of Outfest, the oldest continuous film festival in Los Angeles, is leaving after eight years. During that time, Gutwillig expanded Outfest, and created new cultural events, including an LGBT people of color film festival and the Legacy Project.
But truthfully, I attended to witness the honoring of Judith Light. Most folks know Judith for her character turns in “One Life to Live,” “Who’s the Boss?” or innumerable made-for-TV movies, or on stage in “Wit,” where she shaved her head to play a woman undergoing cancer treatment. Before her latest acclaimed role in “Ugly Betty,” she played a clenched-jawed DA and judge on “Law and Order: SVU.” All good, all different, all – as her “Ugly Betty” co-star Michael Urie put it in his introduction last night – a “master class” in acting that raised the bar even during a line-reading.
My experience of Judith Light is that she is a woman intent on being the change she wishes to see in the world. For instance, she keynoted a National Minority AIDS conference in the early 90s when few people – except LGBT people of color and their allies – were concerned about HIV/AIDS in the African American community.
I first met Judith in 1986/7 at a party in Beverly Hills. We talked about acting, which segued into spirituality – I don’t remember if we discussed AIDS. In 1988 she starred as Jeannie White in the ABC movie “The Ryan White Story,” in which the real Ryan White had a cameo. He died the following year.
The TV movie and the death in 1990 of her close friend Stephen Kolzak, the casting director who hired her for “Who’s the Boss,” galvanized her continued work on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS. I met Judith again in 1991 when she presented GLAAD/L.A.’s first Stephen Kolzak Award to author Paul Monette, whom Judith, her husband actor Robert Desiderio, and their manager/friends Herb Hamsher and Jonathan Stoller had met through Stephen. When Paul died of AIDS in 1994, they all rode the entire 560-mile, seven day California AIDS Ride in his honor.
Bottom line: when there has been an LGBT or HIV/AIDS news event worth covering – including the 1993 March on Washington – Judith Light and her family have been there. And honestly - sometimes they show when I don’t.
So if you don’t know her, or just want to spend a minute in her heart – here are Judith Light’s remarks at the DGA last night, Oct. 4, upon receiving Outfest’s Legacy Award:
Thank you for that lovely and generous introduction. Listening to you, it is awfully difficult not to hear the subtext as, “Wow; this lady has been around a really long time!”
And thank you for this honor, which is truly one of the most special I have ever received because the Legacy Project itself has a very powerful significance to me.
The Legacy Project is iconic because it is a symbol that this community “gets itself”. You not only recognize your history; you see the importance of your history being projected into the future, and being available for subsequent generations. The Legacy Project to me is a manifestation of honoring yourself by honoring your art; it is a manifestation of genuine self-esteem.
One cannot acknowledge the Legacy Project without acknowledging Stephen Gutwillig, It is his guidance of Outfest not only into a new generation of film and entertainment but leadership and inspiration that distinguishes him as a leader of the community as well as the extraordinary head of an extraordinary organization .
People are forever asking why I am so involved in the GLBT community. The answer is always: my response to the way AIDS took away so many people dear to us and to my outrage at the way this country was so viciously insensitive and uncaring and, of course, because of Herb and Jonathan who have been my family for nearly thirty years and don’t have the same rights in this country that Robert and I do. All of this is, of course, true. But it also is incomplete.
I am also deeply connected to this community because you are my teachers. You are my role models.
You risk everything to be authentic. Do you know how rare that is in our culture, authenticity?!
I have to be clear about this. While I feel an empathic bond with every single GLBT person being marginalized in this country, who I am talking to and about are you people, people who are OUT and who are willing to risk in order to lead.
Watching you, and acknowledging you over the yeas, I have simply been unable to avoid challenging myself to pull myself up to even some semblance of the courage to be authentic and take risks that I see in you.
I hope that the formation of the Legacy Project is a cornerstone of a new consciousness, one that validates that you have the capacity, inherently, not only to impact on the world, but literally lead it, the way you have led me.
The lesson of history that I think is too often missed is that the oppressed are not working to overturn a system of oppression merely for themselves but to confront and wake up a system that is oppressive when it thinks it is grand.
The lesson that virtually every one of you contains in your own history is that you turned to a family that was convinced they loved you and said some version of, “It is wonderful that you say you love me, but you have to love ME. If you don’t, you have to realize that it is you who has a problem, and not me. You may not have known this about yourself before now, but now you do.”
Like everyone’s friends and families, it is essential that this country BE what it says it is. In truth it is what I actually think it wants to be but which it absolutely at this point in history is not!
There is no person, straight or gay who should not be on the forefront of this fight. If the Constitution does not protect your rights, it is only a matter of time until some right of mine becomes inconvenient for whatever majority happens to be in power for the moment.
Not only do I stand with you, now and forever; I am eternally grateful to you –
For your teaching, for your modeling, and for expanding your experience of family sufficiently to include me as a part of it.