Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer, the cast and producers of CW's "Riverdale" and Apple CEO Tim Cook gathered at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Friday evening to be honored as advocates for LGBTQ youth at the 15th annual GLSEN Respect Awards ceremony.
Cook, leader of the first company in the world to be worth $1 trillion, dedicated his award to a 62-year-old man who came out to his wife of 26 years after reading the 2014 Bloomberg op-ed where Cook came out publicly. Apple also sponsored the annual event, along with Disney, Wells Fargo, Gucci and Amazon Studios.
"GLSEN knows well and has held as its mission for nearly 30 years, that what we learn and what we're told to value as children can define the course of our lives," Cook said onstage, accepting the Champion Award. "If a teacher, a parent, an authority figure takes time to show kindness, to represent the great diversity of our humanity and to create space for authentic conversations when we're young, it stays in our hearts forever and it builds better people as a result."
"Unfortunately, we still see far too often the consequences of failing our kids. Trans and non-binary young people kicked out of their homes and attacked on our streets. Bullying and harassment in our schools," he continued. "And a broader society that still sends the message, when the going gets tough, it's the least among us who get targeted first. There is so much more each of us can do to change these things and that's what brought me here."
Originated in 2004, GLSEN hosts its annual Respect Awards in Los Angeles and New York to highlight the work of people who have made an impact on the lives of LGBTQ youth. Founded in 1990 by a group of teachers, GLSEN dedicates itself to creating affirming learning environments for LGBTQ students in grades K-12, conducting research and creating resources for educators to use in their communities.
"This is our third time together since our world changed," GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard said in her opening speech, referencing the 2016 election. "Each time we gather, the exact dimensions of what we face become clearer. It is crucial that we are here because two weeks ago, the attorney general of the United States, William Barr, described LGBT issues in schools as ground zero in the secular war on religion."
Things continued to get political during the evening with moments like the crowd's one-minute booing of United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and exasperated references to the country's current state of affairs. Alabama became a recurring butt-of-the joke as both "Hidden Figures" star Spencer and Cook closed out the night with references to humble beginnings in their southern, Conservative home state.
"I can't help but imagine how much it would have meant to me, growing up in a small town, just a few mostly empty miles from the Gulf Coast, to know that somewhere out there was a room like this, filled with people who cared so much," Cook said. The event also celebrated the cast and creatives behind the CW's "Riverdale" with the Gamechanger award. Executive producer and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa explained to Variety how he went from receiving a cease and desist letter from Archie Comics after writing and planning to premiere a play depicting beloved comic book character Archie as gay in 2003 to being honored for his work on the television adaptation of the same character.
"It's such a Cinderella story," Aguirre-Sacasa said. "When that happened, I reached out to the very nice lawyer that sent the cease and desist letter and I said, 'I love these characters and this is a love letter to them. It's my dream to work for Archie Comics and write for Archie Comic books and write the Archie musical.' The guy was like, 'That will never, ever happen.' Times change."
Madelaine Petsch, who plays lesbian character Cheryl Blossom on "Riverdale," also shared what the award meant to her.
"It's such an incredible feeling to be able to bring to life a character on screen that can inspire real lives. It's life changing," Petsch told Variety. "I've had so many people come up to me and tell me they had the courage to come out to their family and friends because my character came out."
Also honored at the event were Amazon Studios CEO Jennifer Salke, introduced by "Transparent" star Judith Light, and Texas high school senior Elle Smith, who was honored as the student advocate of the year.