From Billy Porter’s historic win as a black gay actor to Patricia Arquette’s powerful acceptance speech in support of trans rights, the 2019 Emmy awards were an unapologetic celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.
Little by little, year upon year, the range of stories on our TV screens start to embrace the diversity in the LGBTQ+ community. And while there’s still a long way to go to ensure future generations are able to see their identities fully reflected on screen, shows with storylines that deviate from the straight, white cisgendered narrative are flourishing - just look to the success of shows like Sex Education, Pose and Tales of the City for proof of that.
When it comes to awards ceremonies, though, it’s not often that the LGBTQ+ community, and films and TV shows centring LGBTQ+ storylines receive the attention they deserve. But in spite of the increasingly hostile political climate, and the slow rate of progress in Hollywood, the 2019 Emmy Awards were an all-round celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.
The headline news from the night, of course, was Billy Porter, who made history as the the first gay black man to be nominated - and to win - in the Outstanding Actor category for his role as Pray Tell in FX’s groundbreaking series Pose, which depicts the ballroom culture of the late 80s and early 90s New York.
“The category is love, y’all, love,” Porter exclaimed jubilantly, in a reference to Pray Tell’s introduction to every drag ball on the show, before urging the acting community to continue to break down barriers for the LGBTQ+ community.
“We as artists are the people that get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet,” he continued. “Please don’t ever stop doing that. Please don’t ever stop telling the truth.”
Porter elaborated on the power of representation in a press interview after his win, when he expressed hopes that “young queer people of all colours can look at me” and live openly and authentically.
“I feel like physical representation are the only things that create change,” he explained. “It’s when we are available, that we have the power to create empathy. Through the way we tell stories,” he said. “I think being black, I know that being black and gay and out, and being in this position.”
Patricia Arquette, meanwhile, used her acceptance speech after winning the trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie to deliver a powerful message about transgender rights.
“I just have to say I’m grateful to be working. I’m grateful at 50 to be getting the best parts of my life and that’s great,” Arquette said. “But in my heart, I’m so sad I lost my sister Alexis and that trans people are still being persecuted.”
Arquette then dedicated her win to her sister Alexis, an actor and transgender activist who passed away in September 2016, and vowed to continue campaigning for trans rights.
“Trans people are still being persecuted and I’m in mourning every day of my life, Alexis, and I will be the rest of my life for you until we change the world so that trans people are not persecuted,” Arquette said in her speech. “And give them jobs. They’re human beings, let’s give them jobs. Let’s get rid of this bias we have everywhere.”
“I feel like I’m just starting to process (Alexis’ death),” Arquette continued backstage. “I really miss my sister and I really want to help create a world where…you know, trans women of colour live on the lowest amount of any group of people in America, under $10,000 a year, deep poverty. Trans people in America have a life expectancy of 35 years. That’s not acceptable. And still, jokes are common and we don’t see people getting employed everywhere. And you don’t see them, so we really need to change this.”
There were further nods to queer representation as Ru Paul picked up his sixth Emmy for Best Reality Competition Program, while A Very English Scandal star Ben Whishaw thanked his partner Mark in his acceptance speech as he collected the award for Best Actor in a Limited Series.
But beyond the celebrations, there remains an urgent need to visibly and vocally show support for the LGBTQ+ community. When Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox took to the red carpet, she brought along Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, to highlight an upcoming Supreme Court ruling that could make it legal to fire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation.
“Everyone should be aware that the (Trump) administration is asking the Supreme Court to make it legal to fire workers just because they are LGBTQ,” Strangio said. “And this is actually going to transform the lives of LGBTQ people, and people who are not LGBTQ, anyone who diverts from (stereotypes), like all the fabulous people here. So we really need to show up on Oct. 8, and really pay attention, because our lives are on the line.”
The celebration of the LGBTQ+ community at this year’s Emmy Awards was undoubtedly empowering, and with the representation of LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast scripted primetime programming at its highest ever level, the film and TV industries are becoming more diverse. But with the SCOTUS case for LGBTQ+ civil rights due to go before the Supreme Court on 8 October, it is vital that we remain vigilant about queer representation, because authentic, humanising narratives about minority communities have the power to change hearts and minds. In the meantime, we must all raise our voices in support of the LGBTQ+ community to ensure that hard-won rights aren’t erased in these politically turbulent times.