Ellen Pompeo, 'Will & Grace' Creators Toasted at GLSEN Respect Awards

Will and Grace castmates at GLSEN - Getty - H 2018
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for GLSEN

The Beverly Hills gala attracted NBC mainstays Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally, plus newly poached-by-Netflix Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes.

During their 10-minute acceptance speech at the GLSEN Respect Awards – Los Angeles, Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick apologized to the school kids served by the namesake LGBTQ rights advocacy organization. “Your generation is just better than ours,” Kohan proclaimed to 500 agreeing guests Friday night inside the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s ballroom. “Thank you in advance for saving the world, we’re sorry.”

Once known as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”), began with 70 teacher-volunteers in Massachusetts. Twenty-eight years later, nearly as many states now boast GLSEN chapters, and executive director Dr. Eliza Byard says just about 1 million students have attended an affiliated event. GLSEN works to combat all bullying and inequity children may face because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Mutchnick later earned cheers with this hypothetical: “Forty-five years ago, at Columbus North High School in Indiana, if they had a GLSEN program, we possibly wouldn’t be dealing with a homophobic vice president. We might actually be dealing with Mike Pence Dinner Theaters.” “That is a production of 'night, Mother I would like to see,” quipped Kohan.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz introduced the duo, and his opening remarks earned Kohan’s praise (“I would say you sound absolutely presidential, except you didn’t call either one of us ‘horseface’”). Leading Will & Grace quartet Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally also took the stage, toasting the men who recently rebooted their two-decade-old sitcom. “The greatest gift any of us receive is the one we get every time someone from the LGBTQ community, or when a family member in an LGBTQ community tells us — with tears in their eyes — that our show has helped them in some way,” said Messing. 

The $1,000/plate fundraiser featured nine student hosts, and Bronx teen Ruby Noboa was awarded the Student Advocate of the Year Award. Noboa’s partner is a trans woman of color, and members of that identity group have an average life expectancy of just 35. In preparation for the inauguration weekend Women’s March, Noboa said, “I tried to put the names of all the trans women who’d been murdered on the back of my sign, but they wouldn’t fit.”

DreamWorks Animation co-founder and ex-Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg presented Noboa’s trophy. Speaking on behalf of himself and wife, Marilyn — the evening’s honorary co-chairs, alongside Greg Berlanti and Robbie Rogers, Matt Bomer and Slate PR co-founder Simon Halls, Bruce Bozzi and CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd, People and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle and Timeless veteran Matt Whitney, exiting NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, Jim Parsons and Young Sheldon executive producer Todd Spiewak, Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake, Julia Roberts and Danny Moder, and YouTube star Connor Franta — Katzenberg said, “Having become grandparents, we have come to appreciate GLSEN’s work in a whole new way. It does make you think about the world you will leave behind, and the future you wish and hope your grandchildren will experience.”

Disney was the gathering’s biggest backer; additional sponsors included YouTube, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg, Amazon Studios and Target (the company sent Bullseye, its canine mascot, to Beverly Hills for photo ops). Other guests included Emmy winners Norman Lear, James Burrows and Ryan Murphy. The latter welcomed his Pose actors Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez for a closing duet of “Home” from The Wiz (series writer Our Lady J accompanied them on piano). 

Set to break his own record by producing 14 series during this season, Berlanti was the unofficial honoree. Not only did he and husband Rogers pledge $1 million to open GLSEN’s L.A. office, but Disney-bound Elizabeth Gabler picked up the Visionary Award on behalf of her current studio, 20th Century Fox, largely for its decision to greenlight his March release. Love, Simon became the first major studio film centered on a gay teen (Nick Robinson was present, as was co-star Katherine Langford).

Months after the movie's $11.8 million opening weekend, Berlanti was still excited “for those families [who got to] go to the movies together, just miles from their home, and cheer on a gay kiss, much the way audiences have been cheering on straight kisses at the end of movies for decades.”

Joked Mutchnick, “Greg, we admire you, not simply because you’re younger, richer, and have more shows on the air. That fact is actually annoying to us.” Meanwhile, Gabler got more sentimental, calling Berlanti, “one of the best creatures on the planet in every way.”

Twentieth Century Fox’s film vice chair also revealed her own past insecurities. “For a long time in my career, I questioned the worthiness of what I did,” said Gabler. “I would look at all people who I felt truly were saving our world — caregivers, medical personnel, firefighters, teachers, librarians — many of whom were risking their lives on a daily basis to help us all. I asked myself what I was doing that could ever compare with their sacrifices and contribution. And then I found solace in the knowledge that I was helping to create entertainment.”

Cinema, she continued, provides solace to “those who feel alone and excluded; who feel fear to express the essence of their very being; who are ostracized for their gender, age, sexual preferences, skin color, religious beliefs, cultural or financial status.”

GLSEN Respect Awards also went to two women anchoring ABC programs, Yara Shahidi (Grown-ish) and Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s Anatomy; Pompeo lobbied for gender parity and won a $20 million salary). Earlier this year, Shahidi’s 18th birthday party included a voter registration booth. “These policies of the current administration are promoting a dangerously unhelpful narrative, and stereotypes,” she said. “More than that, it’s opened the door to intolerance from almost any and all identity groups.”

The Trump presidency weighed heavily on Pompeo’s mind, too. “The painful truth is, I was sitting on set last night trying to write this speech, and I was thinking about the current state of this country and I couldn’t think of one inspiring thing to say,” she admitted. Yet she also emphasized, “The LGBT community has taught me so much about courage, about love, about joy, celebration, self-expression,” urging everyone to “keep pushing our agenda of respect and kindness.” Nearing tears, Pompeo then named almost a dozen people — including 14-year-old suicide victim Kyler Prescott, the son of GLSEN National Board of Directors member Katharine Prescott — whose lives were “senselessly taken because of an absence of love.”

Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes was feted by GLSEN back in early Obama-era 2009. “Now things seem to be rolling backwards, or sideways, or in on themselves and imploding or something,” she said. “The times feel really messed up. The times feel dark. The times feel twisty. And this is not a television show and I could not make this up if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.…' When faced with darkness, Ellen did not light a single candle, Ellen has been busy lighting a bonfire.”