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Amid national furor, Vanessa Williams defends drag queens at GLAAD Awards

The Black Catholic entertainment star called efforts to ban the queer art form a ploy of "hatemongers."

Vanessa Williams, right, with Michelle Visage at the 2023 GLAAD Awards in Los Angeles. (Mark Von Holden/Variety)

Amid growing American opposition to LGBTQ+ culture and expression, Vanessa Williams—a prominent ally of the community—spoke out in support of drag queens at the 2023 GLAAD Awards on March 30.

The comments from the veteran actress and singer came as more than a dozen state legislatures across the country seek to ban the queer art form in various capacities—including in Tennessee, where a bill passed in February that outlaws drag shows intended to be performed for children.

“We stand here tonight in solidarity with the LGBTQ community,” Williams said on stage in Los Angeles, standing alongside fellow “RuPaul's Drag Race” and “Queen of the Universe” judge Michelle Visage.

“We cannot and will not be silent as hatemongers try to push proud queer people back in the closet.”

Williams, a practicing Black Catholic, has been a longtime supporter of LGBTQ+ causes, including her public stand for marriage equality before it was codified nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015. She gained a cult following in the queer community following her Emmy-winning role as Wilhelmina Slater in the ABC comedy-drama “Ugly Betty” from 2006 to 2010.

Her “Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community” for Pride Month in 2017 expressed her support for their struggle, calling them to “continue to show [their] presence.”

Williams was present at this year’s GLAAD Awards to present the Outstanding Documentary Award, which went to “Framing Agnes,” a Canadian film on the history of transgender research and treatment.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which sponsors the awards show each year, has also criticized American lawmakers’ recent attempts to restrict LGBTQ+ expression and education.

“2023 is on pace to be a record-setting year for state legislation targeting LGBTQ adults and youth,” the organization said in a report earlier this year.

“There is proven harm in having the bills discussed and a person’s humanity debated, including an increase in mental health distress among young people.”

Catholic leaders in the U.S. have also begun to enact a number of policies targeting queer youth, including policies published last year in the (Arch)dioceses of Green Bay, Omaha, Milwaukee, and Denver. The latter jurisdiction stipulated that transgender students are not to be enrolled in Catholic schools at all.

In Florida, a Catholic governor in Ron DeSantis—a leading GOP presidential candidate for the 2024 election—recently announced that he would expand his state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law to all grades of public education. At least 20 other states have introduced similar bills in their legislatures.

Countering more conservative elements in the U.S. Church, several Catholic universities have issued more progressive guidance, counseling faculty to use students’ preferred pronouns and offering tailored care to those facing discrimination. Among them is Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s Catholic HBCU, which hosted its inaugural Pride Week celebration in 2021.

Catholic politicians have also supported bills at the federal and local levels that would protect LGBTQ+ rights, including the Equality Act, which is due to be re-introduced soon at the federal level. The bill will likely be co-sponsored by the lone Black Catholic in the 118th Congress, Democratic Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who has done so on previous iterations.

Williams, his fellow New Yorker, noted on the red carpet of the GLAAD Awards that the annual show celebrates a “wonderful community” that remains resilient amidst violence and turmoil in the nation.

“We are gathering for a people, for humanity, when it seems like the rest of the world is falling apart,” she said.

“The GLAAD Awards ain’t killing anybody. Drag queens are not murdering people.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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