Ms. Carter explained what lead up to “Smile,” the JAY-Z song that features her reading a poem about her sexuality. “For me, this was the first time I spoke to anyone about who I really am. My son cried and said ‘It must have been horrible to live that way for so long.’ My life wasn’t horrible. I chose to protect my family from ignorance. I was happy, but I was not free. Then one day, I met someone who made my heart sing. That made me no longer want to sneak a peep at them but actually look at them with loving eyes.... Here I am. I’m loving, I’m respectful, I’m productive, and I’m a human being who has a right to love who I love.”
"Having the biggest rap artist in the world and his mom talking about this openly and in a loving way -- and showing in the ["Smile"] video what the lack of acceptance did to her -- is amazing. It’s a big deal," GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told Billboard.
"In the culture we’re living in today, and the culture war that has come to our front door steps, it’s more important than ever that we’re represented in media. It's where we get our stories told, and that’s where people learn who LGBTQ people are and the struggles we have."
The evening also honored Ava DuVernay, who received the Excellence In Media Award (presented by Sen. Cory Booker), and out actress Samira Wiley, who was present with her wife and gave a stirring speech about the LGBTQ community seeking acceptance, not just tolerance, from the mainstream while accepting the Vito Russo Award.
“It’s extraordinary to be included in a night like this -- it was such a profound, compelling group of stories we heard tonight,” DuVernay told Billboard backstage. “To be standing with these other honorees -- folks that are raising their voices about where we are right now, to make sure we’re amplifying our concerns, whatever they are, and matching the noise we’re hearing with our own voices and the strength of our convictions. This is a whole room and a whole organization built upon that.”
“I feel grateful to be here with someone who is representing, in my opinion, the interconnectedness of our struggle,” Sen. Booker told Billboard of sharing the stage with DuVernay. “We’re seeing increased acts of bigotry and hate crimes against everyone from Jewish and Muslim communities to trans America. So to be standing on a stage with this extraordinary person who is shaping the culture with her works, injecting a greater love and greater awareness, it’s a humbling honor.”
Hosted by Ross Mathews, the night opened with a monologue that skewered Trump and the myriad scandals surrounding his presidency. “Hysterical as always,” Auli?i Cravalho (Rise, Moana) told Billboard of Mathews. “Actually making me laugh out loud and cackle.” Attending the ceremony with her Rise castmate Ellie Desautels, who is just the second nonbinary person to appear in a primetime series on network TV, the 17-year-old Cravalho spoke of the importance of being a vocal ally. “For me, I’m a high schooler, and I think it’s really important that young people know they’re supported,” she told Billboard backstage, where -- with numerous drag queens in attendance at the event -- the conversation naturally turned to RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I’m so sad to see Monique Heart go!” Desautels said. “That laugh! But also she worked really hard as a person who didn’t have a lot of money and made amazing outfits out of scratch.” (Ed. note: Agreed.)
Aside from awards, the evening also featured a ripping duet between Adam Lambert and Melissa Etheridge on her song “I’m the Only One” from the landmark 1993 album Yes I Am. Even though it was their first time performing together (or even spending more than a passing moment together), the two were laughing and calling each other “rock and roll friends” backstage.
As the ceremony wrapped, Etheridge and Lambert spoke to Billboard about the “freedom” of performing for a primarily LGBTQ audience. “We do most of our work in a straight world. The music industry is mainly straight,” Etheridge said. “I’m not afraid of a straight audience, but it’s a freedom to relax [at GLAAD]. It’s family. It’s like home.”
“At one point in time to be a musician in mainstream music, you had to second guess some things or be careful what you said,” Lambert reflected. “It’s changing so rapidly, which is wonderful, and at an event like this we can be reminded that things are shifting night and day in the music industry, even compared to 10 years ago.”
Billboard was also honored at the ceremony, winning the award for Outstanding Magazine Overall Coverage. During the show, Lea Michele lauded Billboard for “all you do to support LGBTQ artists and allies.”
Next year, the GLAAD Media Awards will celebrate its 30th anniversary. In the words of DuVerney, “It’s gonna be a party."