Shonda Rhimes Honored at HRC Benefit: "You Are Not Alone"

Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP
Shonda Rhimes at the Human Rights Campaign Gala Dinner

The prolific showrunner and HBO's Michael Lombardo were celebrated for their wide inclusion of the LGBT community on some of the highest-rated shows on TV.

Two major forces in television, Shonda Rhimes and HBO programming president Michael Lombardo, never back down when it comes to depicting LGBT issues onscreen. The two were honored at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner, hosted by Dana Goldberg on Saturday night at the JW Marriott at LA Live.

"She did it," exclaimed Scandal star Guillermo Diaz, who presented Rhimes with the Ally for Equality award. "Shonda took a chance and cast a gay latino from Washington Heights to portray this amazing character. She saw past all those things that people in this business usually see first."

Diaz said that, since the majority of acting roles are usually written for white, straight actors, he was once afraid to tell Rhimes he had been in a relationship with a man for 11 years. He knew Rhimes was in his corner when he partied with castmates Kerry Washington and Katie Lowes at the GLAAD awards dinner afterparty in San Francisco.

"When this guy that I didn’t know started to dance kind of close to me, Shonda came up to him and said, quite firmly, 'He has a man. You need to back off,' " said Diaz. "Talk about a straight ally."

Rhimes, however, has never had to think twice about recognizing “diversity,” which is a word she hates, since it makes the term seem rare or special in society. When Rhimes took the stage, she addressed depicting the different gender, race and sexual orientation as “normalizing” television. “You should get to turn on your TV and see your tribe,” said Rhimes. “Your tribe can be any kind of person, anyone you identify with — anyone who feels like you, who feels like home, who feels like truth.”

Rhimes added that she's been writing characters from her imagination since she was young, explaining she was "highly intelligent, way too chubby, sensitive, nerdy and painfully shy."

"I wore Coke bottle-thick glasses, I had two cornrow braids that traveled down the sides of my head in a way that was not pretty, and here’s the kicker: I was often the only black kid in my class," said Rhimes.

“Shondaland, the imaginary land of Shonda, has existed since I was 11 years old,” Rhimes added. “I build it in my mind as a place to hold my stories. A safe space, a place for my characters to exist, a space for me to exist until I could get the hell out of being a teenager and run out into the world and be myself. … The characters that lived inside my head are on the television screen, and they are not just my friends now — they are also everyone else’s. Shondaland is open, and if I am doing my job right, there will be a person there for everyone."

Rhimes added that writing as a child helped save her life. She expressed that, in return, it’s humbling to receive letters and tweets from teens and adults who tell her that her shows have helped them to come out to their parents or saved their lives.

"I only ever write about one thing: being alone," said Rhimes. "The desire not to be alone, the attempts we make to find our person, to keep our person, to convince our person not to leave us alone, the joy of being with our person and thus no longer being alone, the devastation of being left alone."

Rhimes also addressed why she responded on Twitter to a user who asked why she has so many gay characters on her many successful TV shows, including Scandal, Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder.

“I’m very proud of what I said to the person who tweeted me the nasty comment about the gay scenes,” said Rhimes. “Sometimes I wish that I thought first and tweeted later because think of what an even more awesome thing I [could have] said with a rewrite and some notes.

“I’m going to accept this award as encouragement and not accomplishment,” said Rhimes. “I don’t think the job is finished yet. I have a lot of lesbian and gay friends whose marriages I would like to see recognized in every single state in the country.”

Legalizing gay marriage across the country is a goal that HRC president Chad Griffin and Senator Al Franken expressed was a priority. Franken noted that only 37 states recognize gay marriage today.

Girls creator and star Lena Dunham presented the HRC Visibility Award to her boss, Lombardo. She applauded Lombardo's caring personality, how his door is always open in support of LGBT fundraisers and benefits and even exclaimed she welcomes his notes for Girls because she knows it has nothing to do with censorship.

“He is curious, charming, even cozy I would say, and it’s a freaking delight when you get him to laugh that awesome laugh,” said Dunham. “This comfort only became deeper when I ran into him at a lesbian spin class. A true camaraderie was born after seeing him sweat, although I sweat way more.”

Lombardo, who started his career as a lawyer, recalled being told he should never come out as gay for the sake of his career. Looking back, the executive expressed he was happy he didn’t take the advice.

“Living my life honestly and openly is really the highest achievement I could have hoped for,” said Lombardo. “It’s one that I never would have dreamt possible when I came out to myself and my family many years ago.”

Lombardo also had high praise for Rhimes. “She’s someone that I’m dying to work with,” Lombardo told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m hoping she brings her innumerable talents to HBO. That would be a high for me.”

When THR asked Rhimes about partnering with Lombardo, she was on board. “Sure, why not,” she said. "When I have some free time."

Empire star Jussie Smollett exclaimed to the audience that Mariah Carey performing at the event is proof “Jesus does love us.” Smollett introduced the pop star, who shared childhood memories of growing up with her gay uncles before performing “Hero” in front of an audience that included Matt Bomer, George Takei, Dan Bucatinsky, Molly Shannon and Sara Ramirez, among many others.