Not So GLAAD Anymore




O

n
January 23, 2005 Joan Garry, the executive director of Gay and Lesbian
Advocates Against Defamation (GLAAD), announced that she will be
leaving her post after an eight year tenure. Garry—who came
to GLAAD after 16 years in the entertainment industry—brought
a new spin to what had started as a grassroots activist group in
1985 to combat negative images of gay people in the news media. 


Activists
such as Jewelle Gomez, Joan Nestle, and Vito Russo intended GLAAD
to be a rabble-rousing watchdog group that would rally community
response to biased, explicitly anti-gay news reporting. Over the
years, however, GLAAD has evolved into a national organization operating
annually on $7 million with a political agenda that is murky at
best—at worst, it is dangerous to free speech, artistic expression,
and the interests of LGBT people.



Under
Garry’s leadership, GLAAD has become far more involved in promoting
and attacking “good” and “bad” images of queers
in the entertainment industry. Given Garry’s background, this
shouldn’t be a surprise. She was vice president of business
operations for Showtime. Before that she helped launch MTV. As director
of business development for MTV Networks she established new channels
and helped create the annual MTV Video Music Awards. Thanks to Garry’s
experience and vision, GLAAD is one of the most visible LGBT advocacy
organiz- ations in the country. 


So
what’s the problem? We can’t expect grassroots groups
from the mid-1980s to stay stuck in a 20-year-old political and
economic mind-set. But GLAAD has essentially become an arm of the
entertainment industry. Sure, it’s an arm that is “promoting”—whatever
that actually means—positive images of LGBT people, but it’s
removed itself from the outsider position of commenting on the media
to an insider position of working with the people who produce those
images. 


This
collaborative relationship has proved problematic on many levels.
On one hand, GLAAD— mostly through its highly profitable annual
award dinners in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York—congratulates
people, television shows, and newspapers for promoting positive
images of gay people. These can range from the sublime—this
year’s nominees for Outstanding Newspaper Columnists, Patrick
Moore

(Los Angeles Times

,

Newsday

) and Frank Rich
(the

New York Times

)—to the idiotic: Oliver Stone’s

Alexander

, which was nominated as Outstanding Film of the
Year, apparently because its protagonist was bisexual. (GLAAD doesn’t
seem to care that

Alexander

was one of the first proto-fascists
with a murderous desire to dominate the world and subject all other
cultures to his.) 


But
along with praise for the “outstanding” productions and
people, GLAAD also tries to bury the bad ones, and this is where
other problems arise. It is one thing for GLAAD—or any group—to
criticize newspapers, magazines, and television news shows for presenting
one-sided and homophobic information. But GLAAD has actively lobbied
to have some shows —such as Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s and
Mike Savage’s—taken off the air and has called for boycotts
of such artists as Eminem. 


Further,
in 2002 GLAAD pressured the Game Show Network to remove a 1972 episode
of the “Match Game” because, in a moment of game show
stupidity, guests Dick Gautier (Hymie from “Get Smart”)
and his wife, Barbara, answered host Gene Rayburn’s question,
“Doris just got married and found out her husband was a ‘blank,’”
with “fag.” Later that year GLAAD decided that Kevin Smith’s
comedy

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

was homophobic. Scott
Seomin, GLAAD’s entertainment-media director, wrote that he
was “overwhelmed by the potential negative impact for the film
with what we would assume is a large share of its target audience:
teen and young adult males.” He added that GLAAD “will
be public and aggressive in our condemnation and will provide substantiation
for our opinions.” 


So
how did GLAAD proceed? They told Smith that he, and the film’s
releasing company, should make a sizable donation—they suggested
$200,000—to the Matthew Shepard Foundation to which GLAAD,
and several of its longtime staff people, have close ties. The implication
was that GLADD would then not publicize their dislike of the film.
Smith subsequently donated $10,000 (Mirimax passed) and GLAAD went
forward with its criticism of the movie. Seomin was quoted in the
August 3 issue of

Entertainment Weekly

, saying of the movie:
“I’ve never seen something so horrific.” 


The
entire incident was pathetically absurd and incredibly injurious
to GLAAD’s integrity.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

is no more homophobic than any episode of “South Park”
and many episodes of “Queer as Folk” (which regularly
gets nominated for GLAAD Outstanding Television Series award). In
addition, the idea that GLAAD would actually try and shake down
—extort is the correct word— money from an independent
filmmaker is not just shocking, but illegal, immoral, and antithetical
to the basic precepts of the gay liberation movement and fundamental
freedoms of speech and expression. 


The

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

incident exposes the heart
of the problem. What is offensive and defamatory to gay people?
Who makes these decisions and who enforces them? GLAAD cannot define
what’s offensive, which isn’t surprising since neither
can the U.S. Supreme Court. But common sense would be useful. Does
saying “fag” on a 1972 episode of “Match Game”
mean that the episode has to be banned from television reruns 30
years later? Why is the film

South Park Uncut

—which
features a love affair between Satan and Saddam Hussein—not
offensive and the silly stoner comedy

Jay and Silent Bob Strike
Back

is? The answer, of course, is that it all depends on who
is asking, who is looking, who is part of the discussion and who
is left out. GLAAD created this problem when it decided to go into
the entertainment business. Judging the accuracy of a news report
is much different than judging art. GLAAD can deal with these issues
by getting out of show business and back into watchdog media commentary. 






G

LAAD’s
original mission was to target inaccuracies and inequities in mainstream
media. Implicit in this was the mission to support alternative and
independent gay and lesbian media and art. It was obvious to GLAAD’s
founders that any representations and depictions of GLBT people
that appeared in the mainstream—no matter how positive and
even complex—were going to be, by their nature, a product of
commercialism and consumerism. Like the Black Power movement and
the Women’s Movement before them, the early Gay Liberation
Movement knew that it was incumbent on them to create new, more
honest images and art from inside the GLBT experience. From 1969
gay and lesbian artists, writers, activists, publishers, producers,
and directors did just that. These efforts not only gave birth to
a wide array of wonderful and great art, but also created a social
context within which mainstream production and promotion of books,
movies, television, plays, and whatever about gay people lives could
also flourish. This has continued—with ups and down, often
buffeted by economics and movements of social change —for more
than 30 years. 


But
GLAAD isn’t interested in any of this. Given the choice between
praising a well written article about gay families in the mainstream
press or the gay and lesbian press, they will always choose the
first. Hell, it seems like they will always choose giving an award
to a straight person over giving one to a gay person. Sure, this
is their mission. But isn’t giving awards to “Queer Eye
For the Straight Guy” or “The L Word” for their “positive”
gay and lesbian images (a debatable case in any event) and not paying
attention to what gay and lesbian artists do, just sort of, well,
insulting. In past years GLAAD— smarting under criticism about
this—has done a little more in recognizing non-mainstream gay
and lesbian art and talent. But they haven’t done much. After
all, it would certainly be more difficult to raise big bucks at
a fundraiser to support your $7 million a year budget by giving
awards to off-Broadway lesbian playwrights or gay male folk-song
writers than by having them sponsored by HBO and Showtime. 


This
is not to say that “Queer as Folk” and “Will and
Grace” aren’t fun (well, sometimes) and certainly they
are culturally important—more people watch “The L Word”
than attend lesbian theater off-Broadway. But a single-minded focus
on praising mainstream companies who make billions producing mostly
junk, a very small percentage of which address GLBT concerns, seems
not just misguided, but downright wrong.





Michael Bronski
is a teacher, activist, and writer. His latest book is



Pulp
Friction.