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Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel stood on stage Friday night inside the Beverly Wilshire’s main ballroom and accepted an Inspiration Award during GLSEN’s Respect Awards – Los Angeles. Timberlake joked about their parenting skills with 6-month-old son Silas Randall (“We’re not very good at it yet”), thanked event organizers for offering them a now-rare night out on the town (“Mommy’s looking hot and it’s date night”) and paused to recognize the capacity gala crowd of grown adults (“They don’t smell like poopy diapers”).
But it wasn’t until the entertainer and his actress wife snuck out a pair of baseball hats emblazoned with ‘RESPECT’ that the superstar couple showed that even they, too, were suddenly smitten with the real stars of GLSEN’s annual West Coast fundraiser — the out and proud students. Specifically, they put on the hats as a nod to GLSEN’s Student Advocate of the Year recipient Mars Hallman, who had already accepted the honor while wearing the same hat. “We’re big Mars fans,” Timberlake said. Added Biel: “To the young people, we are incredibly blown away by you tonight.”
And they weren’t alone. More on Hallman later, but it seems that all of GLSEN’s younger ambassadors gained scores of new supporters during the 11th annual gala, which celebrated the org’s notable 25th anniversary. Even with people like Julia Roberts in the audience, the kids never faded into the background. It helps that GLSEN stays committed to its mission even during the fundraiser, which netted north of $1 million for the organization, by empowering youth and pairing its National Student Council members with big name presenters like Jeffrey Katzenberg and J.J. Abrams.
Speaking of boldfaced names, honorary co-chairs of the event included Simon Halls and Matt Bomer, Bob Greenblatt, Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg, Jim Parsons and Todd Spiewak, and Roberts and husband Danny Moder. Jim Fielding, Dave Karger and Chip Sullivan served as co-chairs. Jessica Capshaw and Karger, the awards season guru and the face of Fandango, kicked off the night with an out teen named Val, who briefly touched on her story and the challenges of coming out as a lesbian the suburbs of New York City.
(Chip Sullivan and Dr. Eliza Byard pose with Julia Roberts.)
“Thank you Val, you are the perfect reminder of why we are all here tonight,” Karger noted. He later gave a special shout out to his mother, Mary Jane Karger, a previous GLSEN honoree, and the nod got a rousing response of laughter and applause because of this timely remark: “If you’re a bigoted homophobe, she will shut you down like Hillary Clinton at a congressional hearing.”
No need to shut Abrams down. The filmmaker came onstage next, and while he’s already proven that he has a way with words (just check IMDB), the Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens filmmaker also showed a flair for awards presentations. Reading off note cards (and joined by 15-year-old Austin, Texas., student and GLSEN National Student Council member Cici Jordan), Abrams called out honoree Zachary Quinto for all his positive attributes, though charging that the actor has very little to do with things like being handsome, tall, talented and virile with excellent bone structure. Instead, Abrams praised his Star Trek star for the attributes he does have control over — his personal advocacy on behalf of LGBT community since coming out as a gay man himself. “He’s a kind and generous and funny and thoughtful man,” Abrams said.
Quinto then walked to the stage to accept his Champion Award and said: “It’s been less than five years since I made the decision to come out publicly, and in that short time, we’ve made more social and legislative progress as a community than any other time in the history of our nation. And that’s truly a humbling realization and one that should cause all of us to swell with pride and gratitude to be alive and this most vital and exciting time. We have triumphed in so many ways recently. In that triumph, we stand on the shoulders of many pioneers and fighters and younger people who never had the good fortune to witness the fruits of their labors. To them, we all owe a … debt of gratitude and in the memory of those truer champions than I will ever be, I humbly accept this honor.”
(Zachary Quinto accepts his Champion Award.)
NBC Entertainment chairman Greenblatt then took the stage with GLSEN National Student Council member Ben Espejo in one of the livelier pairings of the night as the two played off each other well after having met at the 2014 Respect Awards gala. “Ah, memories,” Espejo joked. On a serious note, Greenblatt praised GLSEN as a grassroots movement. “I love this organization,” he explained. “Everything starts at the grassroots (level).”
The veteran TV executive then introduced Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s executive director. She recounted a story from the year the organization was formalized that captivated the room. “Twenty five years ago, a high school English teacher sat in a windowless meeting room,” Byard explained, continuing how that New York teacher, one of the few volunteers for the fledgling organization which operated under a different name at the time, wanted to help find a solution to the rampant bullying of LGBT students in her school. “That woman was my mother.”
(Greenblatt poses with Byard.)
“Years later she told me about that day, saying ‘What I remember most was the fear I saw in that room,’” Byard said, offering that 25-30 years ago, teachers and staff were afraid of losing their jobs for being associated with such an organization. “In 1990, nobody talked about LGBT issues in the K-12 classroom. … What a journey it has been from that meeting room to this ballroom.”
Byard then singled out the members of the host committee by asking them to stand while the audience applauded. Byard thanked Roberts, Sullivan and “the great and powerful Oz” Kevin Brockman for their efforts surrounding Friday night’s gala.
“Since 1990, GLSEN has grown and changed its name,” Byard said, “but the clarity and power has stood the test of time.”
Times certainly have changed, especially with the advent of social media and the power of outlets like YouTube that have greatly influenced the lives and stories of LGBT youth and their allies. One of those is 23-year-old Connor Franta, who next took a turn at the podium along with GLSEN’s National Student Council member Olly Kelly. Midwest native Franta came out as gay via a six-and-a-half minute YouTube clip that has been viewed more than 9.5 million times.
After explaining why he decided to post that video last December, Franta and Kelly introduced the night’s Student Advocate of the Year honoree Hallman. The 16-year-old, who identifies as transgender, is a senior at Berrien High School in Nashville, Georgia, where Hallman has faced significant opposition while working to create safe spaces for students of all gender identities and orientations. Hallman’s work has included getting Berrien to add gender expression to the school’s anti-bullying policy and the creation of a gender-neutral restroom.
Hallman (who self-describes with the gender neutral pronoun “they”) recounted a personal journey of first coming out as a lesbian and a few years later, coming out as transgender before detailing the fight to create equality in the halls of their (Hallman’s) high school. Hallman ended an impassioned speech by saying it’s just the beginning of a life full of activism, “I’m no longer silent.”
Attendees responded with a standing ovation.
Speaking of YouTube, Katzenberg (nursing an injured right arm which was enclosed in a neon pink cast) teamed with Denver sophomore Emery Vela to present the Chairman’s Award to YouTube. Katzenberg praised the platform as a place that has helped raise awareness of LGBT issues for society as a whole while providing a community for creators and fans, one in which they can be themselves. (A clips reel showed major coming-out moments, like this, this and this). “Think about it, YouTube is just barely 10 years old. There probably does not exist a more important, valuable and open tool for people … to be themselves,” Katzenberg said.
YouTube’s chief content officer Robert Kyncl accepted the honor on behalf of his company. “One of the most powerful things we all feel as humans, one of the most powerful desires is to feel that our interests are shared and our opinions are respected,” Kyncl said. “We don’t want to feel alone. … The truth is that we live in that world, but we don’t see it and it was hidden from us for a long time.
“One of the most exciting things about YouTube is that we feel that we reveal this world that exists through video and allowing others to find common ground. … We’re incredibly proud for what YouTubers are doing for youth all around the world where rights are not as progressive as they are here.”
Kyncl then welcomed YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous to the stage. A veteran of the platform, Gorgeous, a onetime competitive diver, has been using YouTube for seven years. She started by posting experimental makeup videos and later finding her voice by documenting her transgender journey. “I grew with the website,” she said. “Here’s to 10 more years!”
Joe Zee was already looking toward the future by the time he got on stage after 9:30 p.m. The editor-in-chief and executive creative officer of Yahoo Style and FabLife co-host followed Kyncl and Gorgeous by teaming with GLSEN’s National Student Council member Lindsay D. from Ozark, Missouri. The 17-year-old apparently invited the fashion business vet to be her date to a notable high school dance. “She invited me to the prom — nobody has ever invited me to the prom,” Zee laughed, before praising Lindsay and her student council colleagues for sharing their challenges and victories from the podium. “I am so inspired by all of their stories.”
He seemed equally charged by his longtime idols Timberlake and Biel. So exactly how longtime? “Back to their ‘N Sync and 7th Heaven days,” Zee explained on stage. “And their generosity and kindness has always been at the forefront.”
The couple — married since Oct. 19, 2012 — walked to the stage with a standing ovation surrounding them. Timberlake opened the couple’s acceptance speech by recounting the story of when his good friend, Matt Morris, came out to him while the two were riding bikes in Orlando, Florida. Timberlake was 12, Morris was 14, and even at such a young age, he remembers that it was easy to accept his friend’s revelation. That hasn’t been the case for all the students on stage Friday night and Timberlake then acknowledged their courage. “These young people here tonight, we’re just blown away, the two of us.”
He continued: “Every day, all of you are also standing proudly on the right side of history. Even with all the trouble in our world today, this movement clearly is winning and is going to keep on winning. Thank you for starting a trend, a change. A change that one day will make it possible for our own son to grow up and thrive in a world where … all he has to do is just be himself.”
Biel added: “We want to thank you for leading the way to make our schools more safe and welcoming and yes, inspiring places for all of our children. Thank you for inviting us here tonight to be part of this amazing event. … To be new parents is to witness up close and very personal the full miracle that every individual little girl and boy really is. So thank you GLSEN so much for all that you do to ensure the individuality of every kid — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender — is respected, protected and treasured in our schools.”
Biel closed their acceptance speech at the event — sponsored by Wells Fargo, Target, Delta, the Edward F. Limato Foundation, HBO, McDonald’s, Warner Bros., Awesomeness TV, Creative Artists Agency, Gucci, the Johnson Family Foundation, Mattel, and Real D. Media — by quoting one of the couple’s favorite poets, Oscar Wilde, whom she praised as “a man who had no problem being his true self.” The quote: “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
But back to that date night. Timberlake and Biel seemed to make the most out of it as the two followed up their GLSEN appearance with a late-night cameo at Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing’s star-studdeed 30th birthday bash near Laurel Canyon. Other stars who may or may not have party-hopped, but certainly were spotted inside the Beverly Wilshire ballroom were Sasha Alexander, Dana Delany, soccer star Robbie Rogers, Todrick Hall (in a show-stopping Moschino suit) and George Kotsiopoulos.
(Roberts is surrounded by GLSEN’s National Student Council members.)
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