Billy Crystal, 'Will & Grace' Recognized for LGBTQ+ Achievements in TV

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Billy Crystal and Janice Crystal

The Paley Honors event also paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

"I met a woman in an airport in the middle of the country. She came up to me and she said, ‘My husband hates gays,'" Debra Messing told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday night at The Paley Honors: Tribute to LGBTQ+ Achievements in Television, explaining that the woman was apparently a fan of Will & Grace, despite her spouse's disapproval.

The woman told the actress that her husband refused to watch, often covering his face with a newspaper. Then, one day, he referenced Sean Hayes' iconic "Just Jack!" complete with the hand motion.

"He had been listening behind the newspaper and ultimately started laughing," Messing said. "That was an incredible anecdote about how hearts and minds can be changed."

This was essentially what the Paley Center for Media was celebrating Wednesday at New York City's Ziegfeld Ballroom: LGBTQ+ achievements in television, from comedy and drama series to documentaries and news reports, all of which "brought greater understanding to the LGBTQ+ world." The program featured hundreds of clips dating back to the 1950s, and specifically honored Will & Grace, Modern Family and Billy Crystal's Jodie Dallas from Soap.

"In a world where so many things divide us, TV can be a uniting force," said Paley Center president and CEO Maureen Reidy. "It can cross borders, remind us of our commonalities, and connect us whether we’re watching on a big screen or on our phones."

Our Lady J, a writer and producer for Transparent and Pose, told THR that like Messing, she has experienced the power of LGBTQ+ representation on the small screen.

"My own parents call me after every episode of Pose and say, ‘I learned something today!’" she said, adding that if her rural Pennsylvania parents are having that experience, she knows "that's happening in a lot of other households as well."

Onstage, Messing said that Will & Grace afforded her and her co-stars Hayes, Eric McCormack and Megan Mullally "an incredible platform."

"I am humbled by it and so grateful for it," she told the audience. "To have the good fortune of being part of the show that continues to resonate with audiences, and have real meaning beyond the 22 minutes that we're on the air each week, is a privilege."

Jesse Tyler Ferguson echoed Messing's sentiment in regards to Modern Family, even crediting Will & Grace as part of the reason for both his and his series' success.

"That show for me was a lighthouse when I was struggling with my sexuality. It is an honor and an inspiration, and I hope to be that for many other generations. There would be no Modern Family without Will & Grace. They held the door open for us," the actor said. "We plan to hold the door open for those who want to come after us. And personally, I’m so excited to see what future talents do with that opportunity. It is my great hope that we continue to challenge our audiences. There are still so many stories to tell. We still have so much we can do to represent the LGBTQ+ community on television."

The continued need for progress was touched on throughout the evening.

"A lot of people still haven’t quite opened their minds and still don’t understand the transgender concept, and that causes there to be the presence of a lot of ignorance and hatred out there," said Jazz Jennings, the focus of TLC's docuseries I Am Jazz, which was also honored Wednesday. "And to those people, I try to tell them to just look at us as fellow human beings. Be empathetic. Understand that we’re just humans trying to live our lives. And anytime you’re telling someone, ‘You can’t do this,’ or ‘You can’t identify that way,’ then you’re using your own ego to place boundaries on that person."

To conclude the evening, Crystal took the stage following an introduction from Judith Light. In between jokes — like his Soap residuals paying for the band at his grandson's bar mitzvah — he discussed the backlash the show received, and how he overcame it.

"There were challenges and criticism unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. But we listened. And we kept trying, like chemists, to get the formula right," Crystal said, later explaining that he was just happy "the haters" were watching.

"They weren’t changing the channel. They were watching. They were hearing two men sharing their feelings for each other," he added. "And I think in some small way, I’d like to think that Jodie Dallas made just a little bit of difference. He opened some eyes, and I think we changed some minds."