'Queer Eye' Cast Honored at Free Expression Awards in D.C.

Cast members of 'Queer Eye'-DC-Getty-H 2019
Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Members of the Fab Five spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about pushing boundaries and opening minds with their hit Netflix series.

By the time the Queer Eye guys (minus culture guru Karamo Brown, who was apparently busy with his book tour) arrived at the Free Expression Awards in Washington, D.C., they’d already been spotted all over the nation’s capital — and Instagram: advocating for LGBTQ youth empowerment at the Library of Congress, mugging with Nancy Pelosi and AOC on Capitol Hill, striking poses with the iconic cherry blossoms in peak bloom. But D.C. was not at all weary of their warmth and enthusiasm, which lit up an otherwise serious event filled with veteran journalists, envelope-pushing artists and activists, and political power players.

Held at Pennsylvania Avenue’s Newseum on Thursday and hosted by Katie Couric, the fourth annual Free Expression Awards served to "recognize individuals who have taken personal or professional risks in sharing critical information with the public, have been censored or punished by authorities or other groups for their work, or have pushed boundaries in artistic and media expression."

Unsurprisingly, there was a particularly anti-Trump sentiment in the room, starting with Couric’s welcome to the crowd filled with journalists — none of whom were from Fox News. "While criticism from the press is of course fair game and has come for virtually every administration since the beginning of time, President Trump’s near daily attacks — dare I say, near hourly attacks — on journalists for reporting facts he just doesn’t like, have contributed to a dangerous mistrust of the news media writ large and a disturbing disregard for the truth."

This year, honorees included Judy Woodruff of PBS’ NewsHour, who, in her acceptance of a lifetime achievement award, took the time to acknowledge former co-anchor Gwen Ifill, a "supernova" of a newswoman, who died in 2016. #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke was also honored, charging the audience with the care of giving voice to the thousands of yet-untold #MeToo stories.

"Be careful not to squander the opportunities right in front of us. This is our moment of truth," Burke told the crowd of journalists who had greeted her with a standing ovation. “If we keep talking about perpetrators, if we keep making lists of who #MeToo is going to get next, we’re going to miss the point and we’re going to miss this opportunity…. Hashtags aren’t movements; hashtags are tools. They’re wonderful, galvanizing tools that help bolster movements, but movements take time. #MeToo has dropped down in the middle of an ongoing movement. We didn’t create the fight against sexual violence, we’re just here to take it to the next level. Our work is about healing and action. Period."

Inviting Ava DuVernay to receive her award, CNN’s April Ryan introduced the Selma and Wrinkle in Time director as "a filmmaker who turns barriers into bridges," and the first female African-American director to have a film nominated for a best picture Oscar. DuVernay, who arrived at the dinner just in time to pick up her award, quoted from her own letter in Time magazine’s February issue, which she guest-edited: "While we live at a time when division is the norm; when biases and beliefs seem static and immobile; when hard science is debatable; when journalism is devalued; when humanity is stripped from those in cells, centers and shelters; when it’s all just too much to organize in our heads, art calls to the optimism within us and beckons us to breathe."

She dedicated her award to fellow L.A. denizen Nipsey Hussle, "a rap artist from near where I grew up in Compton who told the truth through his art.” Hussle was shot and killed outside his South L.A. clothing store last month, and DuVernay spoke of how she was heartened to see such authentic coverage of both his life and his work by a diverse and empathetic roster of journalists.

Couric presented the final award of the evening to Queer Eye stars Bobby Berk, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness (and Brown in absentia), whose show, now in its third season, has been embraced by audiences worldwide. In regard to having dropped "…for the Straight Guy" from the franchise’s original title but retained its "Queer" moniker, the quartet talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how they continue to fight to normalize gender nonconforming and nonbinary stories for people around the globe. They highlighted the importance of reaching an audience beyond just the urbanized, coastal cities.

"Our visibility goes beyond the United States. Netflix is available in several countries, like Brunei, where homosexuality is punishable by death," said Van Ness, explaining that their work is nowhere near done. "There needs to be so many more queer stories told. Hopefully, Hollywood will start to realize that through the success of other LGBTQ-focused shows that these are stories that people want and need to see."

As for other stories they’d like to help highlight, Porowski told THR, "I think the immigrant story is something that I would love to focus on if we’re granted another season. Not just in coastal cities, but what it’s like for people in more central parts — I call them the square states, the ones that are like totally landlocked. What’s the experience like there?"

"But there are so many more queer stories," France emphasized. "We represent five of us — that is not a full representation for our people. There are so many more stories to be told."

France acknowledged that the show has afforded them privileges that allow them to push boundaries in a safe space. Pointing to his belted peak-lapeled navy suit, he told THR, "We’re in a bubble. I get to wear things like this because I’m on a TV show. I know that if I were to wear this in my hometown in England, I probably would get a lot of abuse. But we always have a crew with us, so people aren’t going to say things to us. We understand we have the luxury of being on a show, and it’s still very difficult for people to express themselves. Until that day comes, we’re going to continue to be the way we want to be to encourage people to express themselves."

"Even where I live in Manhattan, when I’m wearing heels in public, I’m very aware of it," said the six-foot-tall Van Ness. "I’m always looking at who’s in front of me, who’s behind me, if I need to run. My guard is never down."