I was privileged to witness actress Sharon Gless receiving the "Gay Icon Award" at the Philadelphia (PA) QFest last Sunday. Although she is neither gay nor old enough to be an icon, the honor is well fitting.
In her acceptance speech, Ms. Gless choked up while humbly acknowledging that the gay community saved her career, not once but twice. The mixed crowd of gay men and women (unusual for what I have witnessed at this festival, the films tending to attract one sex or the other) returned the affection with thunderous applause.
Before the show began a woman sitting behind me confessed that growing up she had a crush on Christine Cagney (Gless' character from the detective TV series Cagney and Lacey (1982-1986). I felt the same way. We didn't have a lot of strong women role models back then (think Charlie"s Angels).
A lot of guys in the audience cheered as a montage of Gless' acting roles ended with her as Debbie Novotny, a beloved and outspoken mother of a gay son in Showtime's Queer as Folk (2000-2005) telling a police officer that he is a "homophobic prick."
In an onstage interview, Sharon shared that it felt quite natural to play her first lesbian role as Hannah in Hannah Free, the featured film of the afternoon with Wendy Jo Carlton, director; Tracy Baim, producer; and Claudia Allen, screenwriter. Her only fear was that she would somehow let her gay and lesbian fans down with her portrayal.
The standing ovation at the end of the movie answered that question. Not one to shy away from challenges, this role may have been the most courageous of Gless' career. She plays an aging butch with white hair and no makeup who is trying to reunite with her lifetime lover while confined to a bed and wheelchair in a nursing home. Not the sexiest of scenarios and not the glamorous Christine Cagney we grew up with.
However, Ms. Gless delivers a stellar performance that is gritty, poignant, and real. Before the screening, Sharon shared that the story was about love and that "God made genitalia as accessories." That sentiment was clearly expressed from the audience back to her for being a compassionate champion for gay rights. Sharon Gless and the gay community: perfect together.