Madonna received the GLAAD Media Awards’ Advocate for Change award Saturday night at Manhattan’s Hilton Midtown, where the singer delivered an emotional speech that was among the ceremony’s highlights.
“The first gay man I ever met was named Christopher Flynn,” the 60-year-old entertainer and longtime advocate for gay rights said. “He was my ballet teacher in high school, and he was the first person that believed in me. That made me feel special as a dancer, as an artist and as a human being. I know this sounds trivial and superficial but he was the first man to tell me that I was beautiful.”
Flynn brought Madonna to her first gay nightclub in Detroit — “that got me grounded the rest of the summer,” she added — and she was immediately entranced by the atmosphere and freedom of expression that the gay community offered. Flynn later encouraged her to move to New York and become a performer; she settled in Manhattan right as the AIDS epidemic reached its apex.
Madonna tearfully recounted the friends she lost during that time, including her roommate Martin Burgoyne and the artist Keith Haring, who would have been 61 on Saturday. She recalls smuggling illegal drugs across the Mexican border to give to her friends with HIV, only to watch as the drugs worsened their conditions; she remembered going to the AIDS ward in a hospital one night and hugging every single patient.
“I came home smelling like shit and vomit and death and defiance,” she said. “I came home smelling like gratitude.” The next morning, she says she awoke to paparazzi cameras pointed at her face, and reporters falsely claiming that she had been diagnosed with AIDS. In her speech, Madonna stressed that advocating for LGBTQ rights means dealing with “lies and bullshit” and having to fight back as hard as possible.
Other honorees at the event – hosted by drag star Shangela – included Don Lemon for a CNN segment on the Supreme Court case for same-sex wedding cakes, the FX series Pose for Outstanding Drama Series and Andy Cohen, who was honored with the Vito Russo Award.
Cohen’s award was presented by his longtime friend Sarah Jessica Parker. In his speech, he recounted his journey from CBS intern to vanguard talk show host and creator of many iconic Bravo series.
“When I finally came out to my mom,” said Cohen, gesturing to his parents in the audience, “the first thing she said was, ‘That’s OK, I probably would’ve hated your wife anyways.'” He went on to say that his mother got involved in a local AIDS organization, and encouraged everyone to recognize the continued importance of advocacy for HIV/AIDS health.
Samantha Bee and her writing staff were awarded Outstanding Variety or Talk Show Episode, for a segment titled “Trans Rights Under Attack.” In her speech, writer Nicole Silverberg stressed the threat that trans people are under in the U.S. and the world over, adding that the average life expectancy for trans women of color is 35. Both she and Bee said they hoped to bring more awareness to pressing trans issues with the segment.