Updated 1:49 pm, Monday, September 11, 2017
Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle
Don Lemon’s responsibility as a CNN anchor fell second to his responsibility as an openly gay public figure, even as Hurricane Irma neared the coast of Florida. When it became clear a major and deadly weather event would strike the South on the very weekend he was due to receive an award from GLAAD, the cable news anchor asked his boss what to do. “He said, ‘You’ve got to go,’” Lemon explained, standing on the red carpet of City View atop the Metreon on Saturday night. “So Anderson (Cooper) is doing double duty.”
Lemon described awards from GLAAD, a 32-year-old national organization that monitors the media on LGBTQ issues, as “the Oscars of gay awards.” According to Lemon, the honor “is something every high-profile person who happens to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer aspires to.”
GLAAD annually holds awards galas in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, each honoring activists working in different media spaces. GLAAD’s President Sarah Kate Ellis explained that Los Angeles’ Media Awards focus on show business and general media while New York’s Media Awards honor contributions in journalism. “San Francisco,” said Ellis, “is all about digital and social media. And you could argue that social media and digital are the front lines of the resistance right now.”
Resistance to the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ policies, specifically the recent call for a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military and possible opposition to net neutrality, were on the lips of many of Saturday’s gala attendees, but by no means did politics dampen the night’s mood. GLAAD was intent on celebrating honorees like Lemon; tech investor and president of Y Combinator in Mountain View, Sam Altman; and Laila Ireland, a transgender military veteran who recently walked the red carpet of the MTV Video Music Awards.
Drinks flowed heavily (Ketel One vodka was a major gala sponsor) and a large-scale silent action took up one end of the fourth-floor outdoor pavilion overlooking San Francisco’s South of Market district. Inside, dozens of formal dinner tables were lit with glowing balls and illuminated glass ice buckets full of cocktails. While GLAAD certainly wanted to celebrate the night’s honorees, the gala was also a fundraiser — one that raised more than a million dollars.
Organizer and activist Prince Shakur of Cleveland was one of GLAAD’s three “Rising Stars,” and as such was the recipient of a $2,500 grant to help him spread his message among LGBTQ youth online. “I’m going to use it to invest in a better laptop and a better blogging camera,” confessed the 23-year-old Shakur, who’d applied for the grant “on a whim.”
GLAAD’s focus on digital communication is vital to the organization because the vast majority of young people connect and get their information online. That notion, that the youths use the Internet to find each other, find themselves, break each other down and build each other up, was repeated in numerous speeches throughout the night. “It’s the weapon they’re using, and it’s the tool they’re using,” said the gala’s host, TV personality Ross Mathews. “If we use social media as a tool to spread positivity, it’s a way to counter the bullying.”
Maja Ahmann and Natalya Foreman, both 18, oozed positivity. The two gala attendees were on their first official date, having recently met at freshman orientation at UC Berkeley. Fresh faced and dressed up, Ahmann and Foreman were already holding hands, giddily explaining how they scored two tickets. Ahmann, amazingly enough, won a Twitter contest held by former GLAAD gala honoree and YouTube star Hannah Hart.
“I said, ‘Hey, I have a brand-new girlfriend — well, almost girlfriend,’” Ahmann proudly explained of her quest to attend Saturday night’s festivities. “This is our first out-in-the-open real date, and I wanted to give her the best.”
“Can you believe her?” Foreman gushed.
Blair Imani, a queer Muslim woman of color, shared her powerful story onstage, and Royce Mann, a 15-year-old poet, performed a spoken-word piece that garnered a standing ovation led by CNN’s Van Jones. Jones was there to introduce Lemon, and when he did, diverted from his script with a heartfelt tribute that left Lemon dabbing tears with a dinner napkin.
But perhaps the night’s most unexpected guest was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose attendance to present Altman of San Francisco with his award was kept a surprise. Pelosi’s iWatch featured a rainbow band.
Altman was the last to receive his honor, the Ric Weiland Award, named for the late software pioneer and LGBTQ philanthropist. In his impassioned and rather stoic speech, Altman drove home the impact of the night’s theme. “I am 100 percent sure,” said the 32-year-old tech guru, “that part of the reason gay people are more accepted now is because of the Internet. Not only did other gay people find their community, but straight people found out that they knew some gay people too — and that they weren’t so bad.”
Beth Spotswood is a Bay Area writer and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.