March 14th, 2012
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has contributed mightily to the way in which gay and lesbian people are perceived and treated in society. Organized to oppose hysterical and defamatory coverage of the AIDS epidemic in the New York Post in 1985, GLAAD soon expanded to address media image in general and through its Hollywood office began to influence television and cinema. And few organizations can claim greater success.
Those who recall the public presentation of gay and lesbian people in the 80’s will recall that the rare gay person included in a news story or entertainment seemed to be a creature to pity or to scorn. Flamboyant – or sinister – this was the murderer, the molester, the schemer, or the freak. You could laugh at him or fear him (lesbians didn’t exist) but to empathize or in any way associate with him was unthinkable.
And every media story about gay people required a counterpoint of condemnation. Homosexuality was an “issue” so while coverage of the Lotus Festival and Octoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day Parade included information about attendance and events, the Pride Parades included the reminders that sin abounded.
Things have changed. Now, media is so careful of responsible presentation that it is rare that GLAAD has to publicly object about a television show or news coverage. In fact, public image of gay people has so shifted that a what might once have been thoughtless stereotyping of a gay man’s flamboyance now, in Eric Stonestreet’s playing of Cameron on Modern Family, is quirky and endearing. And even the Unification Church-owned Washington Times, the last significant hold-out, has agreed to refer to gay people as such rather than “homosexuals” (which, in the United States, had become a code word connoting disapproval).
And no where was GLAAD more successful than in Hollywood. In the 80’s and early 90’s, many a good Hollywood liberal would tell a reporter that they supported gay rights, but well when it came to actually being in the presence of both a gay person and a camera, well… there was their career to consider.
The early years of the GLAAD media awards were not well supported. Awards were given primarily on the basis of who would show up to receive one. And, considering that this was a laudable action, that wasn’t such a bad criterion. But thanks to hard work, committed support from people like producer Gary Marshall and the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor, gradually it because little risk to be seen at the show. By the mid 2000’s the GLAAD Media Awards was a must-show for studios and Hollywood insiders who used the opportunity to not only be counted among the “good guys” but also informally connect and network.
And their success was not accidental or incidental. GLAAD held themselves to an idea that seems to elude so many activist organizations: define your parameters and stay in them. GLAAD did media advocacy; not lobbying politicians, not supporting gay soldiers, and certainly not “supporting our comrades in the struggle”. Just media advocacy.
GLAAD also adopted another tactic that is seldom employed by activists (other than Log Cabin and other duel-identity groups). They were as quick to praise good behavior as to condemn bad. And when they went after a studio or a director or newspaper, there was a road to redemption. The horrible thing you did resulted in you being a “bad guy”; but if you would just meet with gay film students or spend time with lesbian victims of violence or headlined an AIDS event, you could not only stop the criticism but be praised as a hero.
And it worked.
But success is difficult for advocacy groups. What do you do when you accomplish your goals?
If you are a marriage equality group in a Vermont, you might disband. But if GLAAD folded tent then the next television season would have lovely little gems like this year’s “Work It” (which managed to offend both my values and my lenience towards stupid television) with no organized objection. Theirs is not a “mission accomplished” type of work.
Another problem came from GLAAD’s shift from gay activists to Hollywood players. Gradually GLAAD had become the group that you went to with a script to be sure you were not offensive, the organization who helped you be a good guy rather than slapped your hand when you were not. And with the increased profile of the Media Awards, their funding came more from studios and corporations than from gay people.
There is no question that it is better for our community to avoid defamation than to protest it. But to protect gay people, GLAAD needed to be connected to the gay community. And they found this challenging.
They tried to be media advisors to local marriage advocacy groups, but that only goes so far. And the behind the scenes work where they are so effective is invisible to the gay public.
Sadly, the few efforts they made were ill advised. For a while GLAAD became The Word Police but they were so out of touch that they chastised our friends and allies for using ‘bad words’, much to the consternation of the community. And seen as part of “Gay, Inc.”, they have become a group that appeared (wrongly) irrelevant and unnecessary.
Which has made me sad. I have an emotional investment in this group and tremendous respect for the work they have done. But when every dollar and every moment of time is essential, “what have you done for me lately” is not an invalid question.
So it is with pleasure and relief that I can report on a new project of GLAAD: the Commentator Accountability Project.
In what surely was a “duh” moment, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation decided to take on, of all things, defamation of gays and lesbians. Or, more specifically, they had decided that those who defame us and lie about us and take positions that are unconscionable towards us when they are in the safe confines of their own communities should not be free to pretend to be just ‘concerned citizens’ or ‘defenders of religious freedom’ when they go on news shows.
If you can say that gay people are a public health risk and that anti-bullying programs are an assault on religious freedom, then people who see you in a nice suit talking to the pretty lady on the boob tube about “protecting the people’s right to define marriage” deserve to know that you don’t represent their opinions at all. If you tell Aunt Thelma to send you money because gays hate Western Civilization and must be stopped before they enact their evil plan to destroy marriage and bring down the government, then you should explain to CNN just what that plan entails and how you came to know about it before you spout your equally-valid opinions about gays in the military.
Any reporter appreciates a tool that simplifies their research, and who better to track, compile, and report defamation than GLAAD? They already have the inroads with media, and they are seeking a partnership with that collection of unique individuals who – for reasons we will not dwell on – enjoy reading decades-old newsletters from obsolete local religious-right political groups: us bloggers.
This is a project that lies at the heart of their existence. So I commend GLAAD and congratulate them on regaining focus.
But, sadly, I can’t end this commentary there. I don’t think they’ve got a product that is ready for usage. While in time this should become a valuable tool, currently it lacks nuance and perspective.
Unforunately, GLAAD is utilizing the snip-quote method of criticism. They take one sentence out of context, assume that our objection reflects inherent offense, and ignore both motivation, implementation, and impact of that person’s views. The goal appears to be “make this person look bad” rather than an accurate portrayal and little effort seems to have gone into distinguishing credible respected voices from bit-players.
And some of the objectionable material is outdated and no longer reflects the speakers public positions. Does Maggie Gallagher still oppose non-discrimination policies like she did in 1996? Does that matter to why she would be invited?
The result is a listing that presents Scott Lively, who endorses execution of gay people, with Alan Chambers, who opposes sodomy laws. The president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Albert Mohler, who broke ranks recently to question the ‘no one is born gay’ mantra, is there with Joseph Farah, the wacky huckster who runs WorldNetDaily and published a series claiming that homosexuality is caused by soy products. Jim Daly, the president of mega-lobbyist Focus on the Family, is on the same page as two-second-sensation Frank Turek, the guy Bank of America dropped from presenting a ‘team building’ exercise when they found out that gay employees would not easily overlook his assertion that they hate the constitution. Maggie Gallagher, whose high-profile anti-gay activism has for years been limited to relationship recognition is cater-corner from Peter LaBarbera, the go-to guy for an over-the-top quote on all things homosexual who has little impact and less respect.
Each of these has said things that are offensive. Each has engaged in defamatory language. But without context or contrast the uninformed guest booker doesn’t find much guidance here.
I think it would be useful to know that when Dr. Mohler speaks about religious freedom, he does so from his concerns about how proposed changes will impact the abilities for his church or his fellow Southern Baptists to respond in certain ways, while when Bill Donohue speaks of religious freedom, he is using a rhetorical tool in defense of his church’s aggressive pro-active attack on the lives of gay people.
It is useful to know that Gallagher, though wrong, is articulate and presents a thoughtful argument while Brian Camenker is a loon that believes in conspiracy theories and thinks that Mitt Romney secretly supports gay marriage (ignore those legal scholars; Romney could have used an obscure article in the Massachusetts constitution to block it).
It might be important for an interviewer to know that David Barton’s anti-gay position is part of his belief that he is not only entitled but mandated by God to bring about theocracy and impose dominion over government and society, while Bishop Harry Jackson’s anti-gay position is heavily tied to his ideas about what it means to be a black man. This is not an immaterial difference.
This is not to suggest that they are “wrong”, just that while the tool holds promise, it needs further work. In current state it’s a hammer made of plaster of paris, the right shape but not yet functional.
So my congratulations and commendations to GLAAD are, for the moment, tempered. I am delighted to see them going in a direction of usefulness rather than nannyism and I look forward to the time (soon, I hope) when their Commentator Accountability Project is a tool I can use and recommend.
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
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Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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