Transcripts from the 2016 Honors Gala Speeches

We could not believe the amount of love and inspiration that filled the room on October 8th for the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s 15th annual Honors Gala. We also know that there are people who could not make it, but we wanted to share some of the inspiration with you. Below, please see four of the speeches from the evening. Each of them important and powerful.




On behalf of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, welcome. Thank you for making your voice heard in support of human dignity and diversity and for providing the crucial support we rely upon to continue our work to erase hate.

We are together tonight — for the 15th time — to honor people who have shared their stories, their passion, their wit and their intellect, to advance our shared task: inspiring others to create a world without hatred.

We ask people to “Erase Hate” and it is a useful way of describing our task — to remove it from our lives entirely. But hatred is not a stray pencil mark we can easily rub away. In our increasingly polarized and contentious climate, hatred is more like a mountain — a big, angry colossus that has risen up in our way.

That mountain of hatred, of incivility, of discrimination, of bigotry that stands in our way can’t just be left to slowly erode. By itself it does not just “get better.” And time is not our friend.

Our time together is so short. Our young people get one childhood — one — now. If we’re going to give them one that lives up to our values, the time is now. Victims of bullying lose hope every day we delay. Parents die by the hour unreconciled to their LGBTQ children. Every 90 minutes a reported hate crime occurs in America — and so do an estimated 2,700 unreported ones. This work can’t wait.

Last year we celebrated how far our equality had advanced. But our adversaries noticed, and they proved effective at exploiting fear and ignorance about who we are. They’ve cynically exploited our nation’s proud heritage of religious freedom in order to justify the pettiest forms of discrimination. They’ve overruled and disempowered cities that passed landmark civil rights protections. They’ve cruelly targeted and ridiculed transgender Americans, ordering them into the wrong restrooms and endangering their very lives. And then on June 12th, in Orlando, our community suffered a blow like never before.

The attacks at Pulse left us thunderstruck. Forty-nine precious lives wantonly destroyed, countless others shattered and diverted. We suffered the deadliest mass shooting this country had ever witnessed, right there in one of our community’s safe refuges, young people celebrating together what so many of us have been denied — our joy.

Pulse. Orlando. These words will join Stonewall and Laramie and Selma and Jasper on the roster of injustices. But it was more than just a mass murder. It was an attack on our community’s soul, on its hope. How do you respond to such hatred?

We follow Dennis and Judy’s example. We seize every opportunity to stop these tragedies from ever wounding another family, another city, another generation. And then we get up and go out every day looking for a chance to make a difference. We respond to cruelty with kindness, not escalation. We answer anger with patience and resolve. We do that by participating in, not tearing down, our public discourse. And then we keep doing it.

After their unspeakable loss the Shepards answered the public’s call and worked to craft laws to repair the damage hate crimes do to our country. But the laws are not the goal: while we have tools to deliver justice, we do not yet have them in the hands of all who are victimized or all who are sworn to protect them.

The Foundation has distinguished itself this year by urging our lawmakers, our police and our fellow minority communities to rededicate ourselves to stopping bias-motivated violence. We have reached out through local coalitions to the two-thirds of hate crime victims who never report the crime. We’ve conducted research into why one in five police departments don’t provide any reports from their jurisdictions, and why even more submit faulty data. We put a spotlight on the dozens of states that lack hate crime laws altogether or omit our community from their protections. And we trained police and prosecutors all across the country on how to solve these crimes, and, we believe, prevent them.

Hate crimes can only be stopped if we understand where and when and why they occur. Consider this: next year when the FBI releases its 2016 hate crime report, those 49 homicides in Orlando probably won’t be on the list. I spoke to the director of the LGBT Center in Orlando last month. He said there’s no doubt whatsoever in his community that the attack on Pulse was targeted out of hatred. But with the attacker dead and the body of evidence he left behind so thin and so vague, the Bureau quietly announced it could not conclusively label the attack either a hate crime or an authentic terrorist attack. What our common sense tells us, our legal system sometimes dispels.

But this is why the Foundation is still so necessary. Once again, we have a moment that cries out for our voice, to teach our students and sons and daughters how corrosive and destructive hatred can be, and that we must embrace diversity, and value those lives enough to protect them from danger. Hate crimes are rising alarmingly now for Hispanic people, and Muslim people, and Jewish people. We are all part of the same struggle and seeking the same solution.

We have come a very long way since that fateful night in Laramie 18 years ago. We have taken the message of love and hope worldwide. We are leading the emergence of equal rights in schools, in workplaces, in our courthouses and police stations, our embassies and consulates abroad and giving those who felt like they never fit in, a much needed voice.

We get on with it. We persevere. We will go over that mountain of hatred, under it, around it, straight through it, so long as it is forward. We honor the trailblazers ahead of us who have mapped our course. And we will ease the journey of those who are yet to come — people whom we can only hope will know us as a memory from a time when people did what needed to be done.

Tonight, we are those people. Tonight, let’s earn our reputation. Thank you all.


This is incredible. Thank you so much. And thank you for inviting me here tonight. This room is beautiful, the altitude is doing wonders for my sinuses and the Broncos are undefeated. I’m told.

Fun fact about this award: It weighs exactly as much as Kristen Chenoweth. But it actually might be slightly taller.

A lot of you may be sitting there thinking “why Sean Hayes”. “Why did he get chosen to receive this award tonight? I thought you had to do something amazing to get an award”. Well, I didn’t do anything amazing – I did something extraordinary – I took Southwest airlines to get here today. Group B. Not even A.

Seriously, when I got the word that I’d been chosen as this year’s recipient of the “Making A Difference” award, it actually made me pretty nervous. I fear that I may not be deserving of such an honor. Especially when you look at it in terms of Matthew Shepard.

“Will & Grace” was on the air for about one month before Matthew was taken from us. I was very consumed by what happened. I didn’t miss a minute of the coverage. I was devastated by the hate crime that had been committed onto Matthew. At the time, I was a young closeted actor having his first taste of real success. Unfortunately, in my mind, my lucky break was inextricably tied to my thinking that I had to stay in the closet in order for all of it to keep moving forward. Looking back at my choice to stay silent, I’m ashamed and embarrassed. What was I thinking? As if any of you had a doubt about my reality. I mean, could a straight actor ever do this: (AS CHER) “If I could turn back time….”

So when it comes to nights like tonight and honors like this, I am consumed with what I didn’t do. I know I should have come out sooner. I’m sorry for that. Especially when I think about the possibility that I might’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

I would probably be able to sleep a lot better than I do, if I had acted sooner. But such is life. We learn our lessons only when we are ready. I didn’t learn to “make a difference” until a little later in my life. Hopefully life is as much about what we do after we learn those lessons. But I take great solace in the fact that when I was not doing everything I could, you were. And who are you? You are the great men and women here tonight in support of this magnificent and important philanthropy: The Matthew Shepard Foundation. So many of the people in this room stood up and set an example when I couldn’t. By watching people like you make a difference, you taught me how to make a difference.

So, there’s some irony in my receiving this award tonight when you consider the timing of my journey. Today I stand before you a proud gay man and I humbly accept this award on behalf of all of us. Because this award is as much yours as it is mine. Congratulations to all of you for “Making a Difference,” because every time you have stood up for Matthew Shepard’s legacy, you have knocked another brick off the walls of hatred and bigotry and prejudice. You were, and are, helping to tear down that wall. I believe if you keep doing what you’re doing, I will continue to keep doing what I’m doing: making silly Facebook videos with my husband, Scotty – showing everyone that 2 husbands can act as stupid as a husband and wife do, publicly celebrating my husband’s birthday or our anniversary or walking hand in hand down the red carpet, having strong representations of gay characters through projects that I or my company creates – anything that forces the world to learn, understand and accept the normalcy of love and respect.

Together we will have done something very important with our lives. We all will have
made a difference.

Thank you, and God bless you and God bless Judy and Dennis Shepard. I am extremely grateful and humbled.


Judy and Dennis, I cannot tell you how honored I was when you asked me last year if I would accept this award. I cannot tell you how honored I am to be standing here tonight receiving the “Making a Difference Award.”

“Making a Difference.” That’s a phrase I associate with philanthropists and volunteers who give of their money and free time to help people and communities achieve their dreams, fulfill their potential. I never thought it would apply to me, a guy who writes about what he sees.  

I saw myself in James Byrd — the Black man whose murder by white supremacists on June 7, 1998 shocked the nation.

I saw myself in Matthew Shepard — whose murder on Oct. 12, 1998 shocked the nation.

As an openly gay and obviously African American man, I bring my entire self to my writing. And in doing so, I try my best to humanize my two identities for those who don’t know or don’t understand either by giving sometimes deeply personal takes on the separate, but concurrent national conversations on race and LGBT issues.

The goals for each are the same. Compassion. Empathy. Understanding. Civility.

We are a better nation when we understand that an epidemic that wiped out a generation of gay men is a national emergency. That the murder of a young man on a lonely stretch of prairie is a hate crime that demands justice. That the television characters who make us laugh and think are also shining light on the unknown and unfamiliar. That the journey of a transgender woman or transgender man is more than the insanity of these bathroom bills. That so-called religious freedom laws are just another way to disrespect and discriminate against same-sex married couples and other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.   

We are a better nation when our compassion and empathy opens our hearts to understand why unheralded, but fed-up people put their lives on the line to sue for their basic civil rights or protest those that are violated.

We are a better nation when we can look in the eye that family member or coworker or neighbor who doesn’t quite get it and argue for ourselves and our humanity — and do so with the civility that brings people along. Not shut them down or shut them out.

That’s what I strive to do with every column and television appearance. That it is my job as a journalist to say exactly what I think is an enormous privilege and responsibility. And I feel duty-bound to speak the truth and to correct the record when I get it wrong.

One of the reasons folks don’t trust the press is because we in the media rarely acknowledge our mistakes or correct them. It also doesn’t help that we, as news consumers, only gravitate to media and sources that reinforce our point of view.

We must break that habit. And by “we” I mean ALL Americans. We have to break out of our ideological and partisan silos to hear what those who don’t share our world view are saying. And we must do this to not only find the weakness in their argument, but also to find those areas of agreement that foster greater understanding and advancement.

This is how we will succeed against so-called religious freedom laws, in securing criminal justice reform, in moving on comprehensive immigration reform and, yes, in doing everything possible to ensure that the next president of the United States is someone who will appoint Justices to the Supreme Court who will protect everything that’s been gained. 

Matthew Shepard Foundation, Dennis and Judy Shepard, thank you, again, for this award. It is just the encouragement I need to keep being my authentic self, to keep telling our stories, to keep making a difference.

Thank you so much.



First my sincerest appreciation to Judy and Dennis Shepard and the board of the Foundation, as well as for this wonderful evening.

My shared and personal congratulations to Sean Hayes and Jonathan Capehart for your contributions to the progressive work across this country and movement and congratulations on your awards.

My appreciation to Jason, Joshua, Brennan and the entire Foundation staff for all of your hard work, for this very special occasion that not only brings together my family and special friends who are like family, but to do so in recognizing me in the name of someone that so many of us in this room remember fondly and someone we miss dearly: Dennis Doughtery.

I have a great appreciation that this occasion celebrates the values of the Foundation in that the people who join me this evening represents the beautiful intersections of my life: family and friends, gay and straight, black and white, young and older, and from near and far.

A collection of people who, despite all of their diverse and beautiful differences, share a common values that Maya Angelou must have had in mind when she once said: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

This is something Dennis not only believed in, but worked for, and when given the chance to expand his circle of friends, lived to make whole and true. There was no person he wouldn’t make his friend and no difference so big that he couldn’t find something in common with them. So much so that Dennis became friends with my father as they spoke of their shared military service, his visits to my parents home and his enjoyment of my mothers cooking that without even knowing it, they were proving that “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Dennis left us three years ago while working every day to leave this world a little better than when he arrived. I remember, one year after his passing, I posted on his Facebook page an apology. An apology that although we had hoped that we would all take better care of each other, make safe those who are younger and vulnerable. Work to honor that we are all “one tribe ya’ll. one tribe”, that we weren’t keeping that promise and slowly forgetting that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

If Dennis was saddened by the senseless disregard for how we treated each other when he was alive, I am all but sure that he would be nothing short of angry to see what we are seeing now. The constant images on our TV screens and taking increased racial tension through social media.

The senseless killing of too many young black men; the hate speech that political candidates are attempting to pass off as protectionist polices and that despite years of effort, we have a long way to go to erase the hate.

Well, there is still time. and as anyone who knows me will share, I am unapologetically my father’s son in that I am a community optimist. I am my mother’s son in knowing that’s its not enough that we change things on paper but rather that real change is how we impact people.

Perhaps the fact that the circle of family and friends who join me this evening, may not have thought to have done so 10 years ago is a sure sign that the work began over a decade ago by the Foundation, in bringing people together, has begun to take hold and the old African proverb is true: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

We are clearly not where we thought we would be given all that we have been through in the long drawn out battle for equality, but we are not as far back as we were when this work began. That being said, I have to believe that like Judy, Dennis and Dennis, and many of you here or you wouldn’t be here this evening, that we are ever optimistic, that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

That to me, this evening is as inspiring as this award is humbling.

To Judy, Dennis, Matthew and each of you, thank you for this incredible honor and the fortune to do so with my father, mother, and family and close friends.