Not so glad about GLAAD

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 20, 2009

What would you do if you pinned your hopes for safety on a watchdog who strained at the leash and let out a howl every time somebody strolled by? With protection like that, how would you know when there was actual danger afoot?

Now add to the equation the fact that the old dog, effective when it was an enthusiastic pup, has been put out to pasture by a new generation of motion detectors that work harder, faster and cheaper. Would you keep relying on Fido?

Fans of lengthy metaphors, take heart-and rest assured that EDGE hasn't turned into a forum for gay pet owners wondering what to do with their troublesome pooches (quite yet).

Squandering resources?

Replace "watchdog" with "GLAAD"-and replace "motion detectors" with "bloggers"-and you’ll arrive at the meat of today’s matter: Is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, still a relevant, effective organization-or is it spinning its wheels and squandering its resources by picking fights with media personalities (when it’s not busy grabbing headlines and raising funds with an awards show which fawns over media personalities)?

While it’s true that every dog has his day, there’s nothing sadder than the sight of an animal chasing its tail at the expense of keeping its eyes on the prize.

Two recent high-profile scuffles have gained the organization much national attention. A string of GLAAD statements and press releases by staffer Rashad Robinson and new incoming president Jarrett Barrios (available for viewing on their website) recently came out strong and hard against Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical take on homosexuals and homophobia in Bruno. Their statements gained national attention, and led to a spirited debate about the targets and techniques of GLAAD’s media criticisms on CNN (in which a GLAAD staffer Rashad Robinson (pro) debated the editor of OUT magazine Aaron Hicklin (con).

Watch the CNN commentary below. Story continued on next page link below.

GLAAD seal of approval

But what does it benefit a cause to gain the attention of a nation if it means losing hearts and minds in the battle to change, improve and otherwise elevate the cultural perception of LGBTs?

Other recent press releases took on gay gossip blogger (and former GLAAD staffer) Perez Hilton-after he used the word "faggot" when reacting to his physical assault at the hands of the Black Eyed Peas’ manager. GLAAD admonished Hilton for the epitaph, suggested he apologize, appealed to the press to "avoid repetition of the slur in their coverage of this story" and linked Hilton’s use of "faggot" to the damage done to LGBTs victimized by the word when hurled by schoolyard bullies.

That’s an impressive number of suggested behavioral modifications within a single press release-a shame, then, that the appeal for change made by such skilled wordsmiths merely leaves one with the lingering feeling that GLAAD cares more about its role as self-anointed arbiter of what can and cannot be said than it does crusading against defamation in a manner conducive to promoting tolerance and genuine give-and-take conversation.?

Read through two or three of their pious, finger-wagging press releases in one sitting and you, too, may come to instinctively distrust LGBTs as much as the average 700 Club viewer (Pat Robertson’s Christian news/talk show, which never fails to channel the latest polarizing GLAAD statement into a prolific fundraising opportunity).

Cathy Renna, managing partner, Renna Communications, was associated with GLAAD for fourteen years. First, in 1989 as a volunteer; then, in the mid-1990s as a staff member working to monitor the media and coordinate the organization’s volunteer group. She started GLAAD’s media training program and also served as the Director of Regional Media and its first National News Media Director. In the spirit of full disclosure, Renna notes that she was a finalist for the job of GLAAD’s president (recently filled by Jarret Barrios, who’s scheduled to take the reins in September)

That Renna is critical of the organization yet wouldn’t have minded working for them again demonstrates "GLAAD’s mission is still incredibly relevant, if not more relevant than ever" says Renna-who also notes that the organization has stopped short of realizing its full potential amidst a cultural and media landscape which differs radically from what it was when the organization began (thanks in part, she notes, to the work of LGBT advocates such as, and including, GLAAD). Renna emphasizes she is not "being critical of the organization’s existence, more of the direction it is heading in."

As for that direction, Renna refers to GLAAD’s handling of Hilton and Bruno as indicative of their bad habit of issuing "press releases that applaud or condemn" at the expense of acknowledging that "most of what we’re dealing with in the culture is about nuance; that grey area."

Renna recalls that during her tenure at GLAAD, whenever addressing some kind of controversial representation which could be perceived as homophobic, she was constantly aware "that it is very important to talk about the context of the presentation: the intent. Frankly, the goal is not about squelching speech or in some non-subjective way saying thumbs up or down. GLAAD is not the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Its role, instead, should be "to promote conversation" rather than control language.

Goal to educate

In this April 7, 2009 Bay Area Reporter article entitled "Critics question GLAAD’s watchdog role", author Matthew S. Bajko quoted Katherine Sender (associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania).

Weighing in on the question posed by the article’s title, Sender acknowledged the good things that come from GLAAD’s knowing "a lot of people in various media industries. They are often involved in discussions on making gay representations better before they come to light. Being on the inside they can head off work that kind of stereotypes, or are real hostile representations, before they can happen... On the bad side, a great deal of their funding comes from national corporations. They do take quite a safe and conservative view on the kinds of representations that are out there. As a result, they are not pushing the envelope in any way."

Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs for GLAAD, admits "Yes, you see so much" GLAAD work "around pop culture, but we work to contextualize the concrete harms and challenges" these events bring to "people in their everyday life."

He emphasizes that often they can use an entertainment event as the launching pad for a conversation about wider cultural issues: "Much of our commentary around Bruno talks about adoption challenges." (The title character, a gay man, and lampoons celebrity adoptions of babies from other countries and of other ethnicities). But the media hook appeal of such points, Robinson laments, pales in comparison to the ratings-friendly controversy which can be gleaned from their criticism of the film’s take on homophobia and its portrayal of gays.

Stopping short of calling this a detrimental misrepresentation, Robinson does note that "very rarely do advocacy groups get stories that say they have a nuanced opinion."

That won’t stop GLAAD, Robinson assures, from speaking out.

"I think it’s important to note that when these high profile instances happen, they create a media moment that allows us to educate people about the concrete harms. Millions of people were further educated about using anti-gay slurs during the Perez Hilton situation-and that’s important for young people who face that type of language in their everyday lives."

As to the question of whether or not the organization’s role has been eclipsed by the multitude of bloggers unencumbered by the corporate chain of command or the whims of big donors, Robinson notes that the presence of a million new voices makes it "incredibly important that we have an organization out there able to provide a voice that’s speaking directly to mainstream America; the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles; the movable middle of the country who are not going to Google ’LGBT issues’ in the morning."

Like the nuanced content of their public stances which are often underreported by the press, Robinson also notes that much of what the organization does flies under the radar-because the message comes not from an official spokesperson, but from those whom GLAAD has trained to interact with the media.

Robinson: "Over the last couple of years, we’ve trained thousands of people to speak to the media." Those people include a lesbian couple who appeared on Oprah to talk about adoption issues as well as the families in Syracuse involved in the Leticia Green case.

Perfect opportunity

Michael K. Lavers, a current EDGE editor and a former media field strategist for GLAAD, believes the appointment of new president Jarret Barrios presents the perfect opportunity to have a "sustained conversation about the need to promote more grassroots work" on the local level.

Although Lavers stresses that "GLAAD has done a lot of good work and has a lot of potential, there’s a lot of room for improvement. If it continues to go after things like Perez Hilton, it’s going to become irrelevant to its constituency and to the folks who may look to GLAAD as a resource."

As is, Lavers says GLAAD is an organization "extremely preoccupied with how it’s perceived in the media. It continues to shock me that their senior leadership is reluctant to do anything tangible to change all those negative perceptions."

Asked what direction she’d be taking the organization in had she been hired as the new incoming president, Renna says she’d shift GLAAD from its emphasis on criticizing pop culture and entertainment to "playing more of a role in hard news coverage, at the national and regional level."

When it does choose to speak out regarding popular culture, "GLAAD should be a strategic media watchdog that is operating in a sophisticated, smart way" instead of critiquing or seeking to
control "subjective things like entertainment and humor."

Although Renna acknowledges that GLAAD "does lots of good work," she notes it "gets overshadowed by their awards and a heavy focused on entertainment-at a time when the vast majority of media attention directed on our community is politically focused."

That’s why Renna’s company is based in Washington, D.C.-the real power base whose ability to bestow legally binding LGBT equality makes time spent on Perez Hilton’s potty mouth or Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical swishing seem like tired, trivial pursuits.

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.