As always, we limited ourselves to selecting the 10 people who were most influential on LGBT lives during the past year, and the resulting list represents some of the biggest stories of 2016. This was been a difficult but unforgettable year, with astounding advances in representation (Moonlight, Kate McKinnon) and heartbreaking losses (the Pulse shooting, the presidential election).
Who is The Advocate's Person of the Year? (Find out here.) Here are nine runners-up for the title.
MOONLIGHT: This Movie Matters
It may seem strange to nominate a film as a “person of the year.” But Moonlight, a new film from director Barry Jenkins, is filled with such magnificent work from its cast and crew that it warrants an exception. The story was initially conceived by out writer Tarell Alvin McCraney for his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It follows a gay black man, Chiron, through three stages of his life: childhood (Alex Hibbert), adolescence (Ashton Sanders), and early adulthood (Trevante Rhodes). His path is not easy. He is bullied by his peers. His emotionally and physically abusive mother is addicted to crack cocaine. He is trapped in a cycle of poverty with little hope of escape. Yet for all these travails — and also because of them — Moonlight has enchanted both audiences and critics, who have universally praised its striking and searing portrayal of humanity. In his review for The New York Times, titled “Moonlight: Is This the Year’s Best Movie?” A.O. Scott praised the beauty of its photography by James Laxton, the richness of its “subtle score” by Nicholas Britell, and “its open-endedness, its resistance to easy summary or categorization.”
“To be afforded a window into another consciousness is a gift that only art can give. To know Chiron is a privilege,” he wrote.
Black gay men rarely get this kind of screen portrayal — the kind that shows them with haunting and joyful complexity and receives glowing reviews from top critics. It may even find its way to the Academy Awards. In a time when so many of the topics addressed by the film — poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, homophobia, and school bullying — remain real issues in vulnerable communities and in America, it is indeed a privilege to have a film like Moonlight. Perhaps its magic will inspire real-life change.
ANDERSON COOPER: Keeping Them Honest Is a Way of Life
Anderson Cooper is not only the top ratings draw on CNN, but also a pivotal figure in the presidential election. The journalist became the first out gay man to moderate a presidential debate — and, boy, was it a doozy. Cooper had the job of confronting Donald Trump on live national television about the Access Hollywood tape. “You called what you said 'locker-room' banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals,” Cooper began. “That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” It was because of Cooper's question and Trump's denial that he'd ever actually done what he’d said on tape that a series of women came forward to say the Republican nominee had touched them sexually without permission. If Trump’s campaign was ever almost derailed, that was one moment. Soon after, Cooper scored a rare televised interview with Melania Trump. Cooper probably popped up in your Facebook feed for tangling with Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. Cooper had a big year outside of politics too, penning a best-selling book with his famous mom, Gloria Vanderbilt — The Rainbow Comes and Goes — and premiering a simultaneous HBO documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid. Both are intensely personal, a quality in Cooper’s reporting that was on display when he grilled Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after the Pulse massacre about her history of opposing equal rights for LGBT people. We all related as he broke down in tears while listing the names of the dead shortly after the tragedy. What’s different about this journalist is that while he’s steadfastly objective — he won’t even vote in elections — Cooper lets his passion through.
LADY GAGA: Using Fame to Uplift
Yes, Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe, was nominated for an Oscar, belted the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, and released her fourth album all in one year, but those achievements paled in comparison to the bold advocacy she pushed in 2016. As one of the nation’s most prominent bisexuals and LGBT activists, Gaga has embraced her fame and turned into a force for good ever since she hit the big-time in 2008. After launching the Born This Way Foundation four years ago to battle bullying, Gaga more recently turned her attentions to the epidemic of sexual assault. She teamed with Joe Biden to promote the vice president's It's On Us initiative, which focused on ending rape on college campuses. She recorded and cowrote a devastating song — "'Til It Happens to You" — that appeared on the soundtrack to the 2015 campus assault documentary The Hunting Ground; she was nominated for an Academy Award for the song and performed it at the ceremony in February. Gaga was also a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton and protested Trump's victory by holding up a "Love Trumps Hate" sign atop a New York sanitation truck, changing her Twitter name to #CountryofKindness, and even urging the Electoral College to install Clinton in office. This is what we need from our celebrities: fewer selfies, more selflessness.
KATE MCKINNON: SNL MVP
Saturday Night Live’s inarguable MVP Kate McKinnon was already having a great year thanks to her scene-stealing role in the decidedly feminist reboot of Ghostbusters when she thanked Hillary Clinton in her Emmy speech this September. And she did it with good reason.
With the general election just two months out, it was’nt surprising for one of Hollywood’s elite to throw support behind a major party candidate from the podium of an awards show, but McKinnon’s shout-out to Clinton was an acknowledgment that her relationship with the former secretary of State is symbiotic. While Clinton inadvertently helped McKinnon get to that Emmy stage by providing source material for the sketch comic to emerge as a key satirist in this year’s election, McKinnon tapped into the essence of one of the most notoriously guarded women in the public eye and imbued her portrayal with keen wit and pathos.
A sketch from October of 2015 titled “Hillary Clinton Bar Talk” had McKinnon’s Hillary bellied up to a bar pouring her heart out to a wise bartender named Val, played with ironic self-reflexivity by Clinton herself. It was in that moment that McKinnon secured her role in the election cycle as the person who would continually highlight the often polarizing politician’s humanity and humor as well as hold her feet to the fire in areas where Clinton has been routinely scrutinized.
In the sketch, Clinton’s Val (with a wink and a nod) praises McKinnon’s Hillary for getting behind marriage equality so early.
“It could have been sooner,” McKinnon’s Clinton volleys, winking and clucking her teeth.
“Fair point,” Clinton says, humbling herself before her critics before coming out from behind the bar bearing a wide grin to embrace McKinnon and croon a chorus of “Lean on Me” together.
SNL’s first out lesbian cast member, McKinnon had played Clinton several times since beginning her tenure on the long-running show in 2012. But that sketch resonated deeply, in part because Clinton appeared with her, but also because McKinnon uncannily tapped into the essence of woman notorious for being secretive and guarded.
By the time the primaries were in full swing this year, McKinnon had established herself as a key player in managing the public’s perception of Clinton, and her portrayal became anticipated destination viewing.
Earlier this year she verbally sparred with Larry David’s spot-on Bernie Sanders before arriving at this fall's cathartic series of debate sketches that had her toe-toe with Alec Baldwin’s unhinged Donald Trump. Through it all, McKinnon’s Hillary walked a razor-thin line between a caricature of the ambitious career woman never content to bake cookies and a deeply qualified, much-maligned public servant struggling for recognition and her rightful seat in the Oval Office — much like the woman herself.
GAVIN GRIMM: Transgender Teen Goes to the Supreme Court
High school senior Gavin Grimm will take his fight for transgender rights to the Supreme Court. Actually, his school district forced him to go there, because it asked the Supreme Court to review an appellate court ruling that affirmed his right to use the boys’ restrooms at his school, and the high court accepted the case.
Grimm’s fight began in 2014, when he was a sophomore at Gloucester High School in Virginia. The Gloucester County School Board adopted a policy in December of that year requiring the transgender boy to use only single-stall restrooms, even though he had been using the boys’ communal restrooms for two months without incident.
That policy stigmatized Grimm and caused him physical as well as emotional stress, as he has to plan his day around the availability of single-stall restrooms; he tries to get through the day without consuming liquids. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, he sued in 2015, arguing that the policy violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination by schools. The federal Department of Education and Department of Justice have held that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity.
A U.S. District Court dismissed Grimm’s suit, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit begged to differ. In April a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in Grimm’s favor, and in May the 15 judges of the court declined the school board’s request that the full court reconsider the case. So the school board appealed to the Supreme Court, which in August put the appellate ruling on hold. If the high court had decided not to hear the case, the hold would have been lifted.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case early next year. When it took the case, Grimm said he was disappointed that he will have to continue going through high school under the discriminatory policy. “But I’m not afraid and I’m not discouraged,” he added.
And this case is about more than one student. The Fourth Circuit ruling sets precedent in all the states in the circuit: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, and North Carolina, the latter being where the infamous anti-trans House Bill 2 was passed, denying transgender people access to restrooms matching their gender identity if those are located in government buildings, including public schools. So it could play a role in bringing down HB 2, and of course, a favorable Supreme Court ruling would set a precedent for the entire nation.
UNIDENTIFIED MEXICAN YOUTH: Stopping Traffic for Equality
His name remains unknown to most of us, but the 12-year-old boy who blocked protesters marching against marriage equality in Mexico became an international icon.
In Celaya, Guanajuato, a reported 11,000 demonstrators took to city streets in September, in protest of President Enrique Nieto’s pledge to make marriage equality a constitutional right; protests were held in several other Mexican cities the same weekend. Photographer Manuel Rodriguez snapped the picture of the boy with his arms spread, standing against oncoming police vehicles and a sea of protesters. Rodriguez said he initially thought the youth was only joking, but the boy said the issue hit close to home for him.
“I have an uncle who is gay,” he told Rodriguez. “And I hate that people hate.”
The image is reminiscent of Tank Man, the protester photographed blocking the path of a fleet of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. This moment came to symbolize peaceful dissent in the Communist nation the day after the Chinese military quashed student-led demonstrations for democracy.
Currently, same-sex unions are recognized in nine of the country’s 31 states — including Chihuahua, Chipas, Jalisco, and Sonora — following a series of successful legal challenges to marriage bans. The Mexican Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, but it won’t order nationwide marriage equality, leaving the issue instead to each state’s courts — or the federal government, if Nieto can get the nation’s Congress to go along.
PETER THIEL: A Villain Takes Down Gawker, Builds Up Trump
Not everyone on The Advocate's list is well liked. Sometimes we pick a person who has made a difference in the lives of LGBT people in a negative way. Last year, the Person of the Year was Vladimir Putin. In the case of Peter Thiel, this billionaire of Facebook and PayPal money pioneered a new way to spend it all: by taking down a media company. Thiel got caught this year secretly funding a series of lawsuits versus Gawker Media, the gossipy network of websites that he hoped to exact revenge against for outing him in 2007. In its defense, Gawker Media’s out leader, Nick Denton, maintained that Thiel was actually mad about critical coverage of the Silicon Valley contrarian’s futurist, libertarian ideas, which it regularly mocked. When the Gawker network went bankrupt and the company was sold off in parts, journalists realized Thiel had invented a new way of intimidating the media. And he’s become a symbol for squelching freedom of speech. Although Thiel said he spent millions because he’d been outed, Thiel is now known to the rest of the world as the man who told this year’s Republican National Convention, “I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American.” Thiel is a major Trump supporter, having donated $1.25 million to his campaign in the waning days. At one point, he was rumored as a possible pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. No one seemed to take that rumor seriously, though, in part because Trump promises to appoint justices who will overturn marriage equality. That Trump backs so many anti-LGBT policies and promotes division with racism, xenophobia, and sexism has LGBT people casting him the villain. But if you ask Thiel, it’s LGBT people who promote “intolerance.” He told the National Press Club in speech last month that “The lie behind the buzzword of 'diversity' could not be made more clear: If you don't conform, then you don't count as 'diverse,' no matter what your personal background."
We're all still recovering from seeing Donald Trump sitting next to Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Thankfully, their transitional meeting on Thursday was seemingly productive, but it also highlighted the differences between the two men, and the Trump and Obama families. For eight years, the Obamas have served as role models in determination and decorum. Barack made our rights a cornerstone of his administration, signing a hate crimes bill, orchestrating an end to "don't ask, don't tell" and the ban on trans servicemembers, and encouraging the Supreme Court to legalize marriage equality. Meanwhile, Michelle will be remembered as one of our nation's most beloved First Ladies, teaching us to "go high" when they "go low," and, with Barack, raising two smart, beautiful daughters, Sasha and Malia. This First Family looked different than all those that preceded them and, in handling themselves masterfully, showed America that change isn't always scary. When we finally get an LGBT president (22nd-century, maybe?), they will owe a debt of gratitude to the Obamas. We already do.