Kerry Washington’s GLAAD Awards Speech Was About Much More Than LGBT Rights

The ‘Scandal’ actor made an impassioned, eloquent call to action for everyone who is underrepresented in the media.
Mar 22, 2015·
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Kerry Washington knew she might have been preaching to the choir when she called for more LGBT representation in TV and movies at the 2015 GLAAD Media Awards Saturday night. But the Scandal star rightly suspected that her stirring speech would make national headlines, resonating far outside the walls of the Beverly Hilton, where the annual ceremony was hosted by comedian Tig Notaro and presented by Ellen DeGeneres and Channing Tatum.

“I’m going to say it, not just for us but because on Monday morning, people are going to click a link to hear what that woman from Scandal said at that award show, so I think some stuff needs to be said,” Washington announced during her acceptance of GLAAD’s Vanguard Award, given annually to an LGBT ally in the entertainment community. Past recipients have included Jennifer Lopez, Drew Barrymore, Janet Jackson, and Charlize Theron.

“I know part of why I’m getting this award is because I play characters that belong to segments of society that are often pushed to the margins,” said Washington, who played a German-speaking African American who escapes slavery in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a troubled social worker in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, and a woman dealing with her unfaithful husband’s drug addiction in the Ray Charles biopic Ray.

The irony, Washington said, is that she doesn’t decide to play these types of characters as a political choice, even though the characters often become political statements. One example is her portrayal of Scandal’s Olivia Pope, who is the first African American female protagonist in a network drama in nearly 40 years, according to The New York Times.

“Because having your story told as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian, or as a trans person, or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea,” Washington continued. “There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representation.”

The 38-year-old Bronx-born actor’s call to action came when she urged that “we need more LGBT representation in the media. We need more LGBT characters and more LGBT storytelling. We need more diverse LGBT representation—and by that I mean lots of different kinds of LGBT people living all kinds of lives. We need more employment of LGBT people in front of and behind the camera.”

Examples of diverse LGBT characters on television screens this season range from Jamal Lyon, the young African American musician on Fox’s hip-hop family drama Empire, to the middle-age white Midwestern father Tad Horvath on the HBO show Girls. Both characters faced a backlash after coming out as gay to their families.

As different as they are on the surface, LGBT characters like those were few and far between during the 2014–2015 television season. Just 3.9 percent of series regulars on prime time broadcast series—which would exclude progressive cable shows such as Girls and the San Francisco–set gay men’s drama Looking—were lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters, according to GLAAD’s analysis in the 2014 Where We Are on TV report.

Additionally, the TV representation of gay women still lags behind that of gay men, the latter of whom are represented by TV characters at about double the rate of the former. Also, nonwhite LGBT series regulars account for just 27 percent of LGBT characters, compared with 73 percent of white LGBT characters, according to the GLAAD report.

Although she was speaking at an LGBT advocacy event, Washington framed her speech in clearly inclusive language that aligned her cause not just with LGBT people but with multiple marginalized groups, including women, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and the poor. “We have been pitted against each other and made to feel that there are limited seats at the table for those of us who fall into the category of ‘other,’ ” she said, adding, “As others, we are taught that to be successful, we must reject those other ‘others’ or we will never belong.”

But Washington, who is of Jamaican descent, insisted throughout her speech that the fight for LGBT rights is analogous to that of civil rights. She compared the United States’ antimiscegenation laws against interracial marriage—which weren’t struck down until 1969—to the Defense of Marriage Act, which, nearly 30 years later, allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages.

“We must see each other, all of us, and we must see ourselves, all of us, and we have to continue to be bold and break new ground until that is just how it is—until we are no longer ‘firsts’ and ‘exceptions’ and ‘rare’ and ‘unique,’ ” Washington said, using her fingers to make scare quotes. Her words echoed those of Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes at the Human Rights Camaign gala last week, when she criticized the word diversity because it suggests something other than the norm.

“In the real world, being an other is the norm,” Washington declared. “In the real world, the only norm is uniqueness, and our media must reflect that.”