Why We Still Need GLAAD

Flickr/Steven Damron

Sharon Stone at the 2008 GLAAD Media Awards

If journalists threw parties the way they write stories, you'd arrive right on time and the hosts would be scooping used solo cups into the garbage. "Party's over," they'd announce, coaxing you back out the door. 

Any regular consumer of media will know what I mean: Like a zealous mortician, journalists love to pronounce things dead, especially before they've run their course. Last fall, New York magazine declared Brooklyn "over"; 2010 heralded the "end of men," according to The Atlantic; and Facebook's been killed off and resurrected by journalists more times than one can count. 

Last week, it was GLAAD (formerly the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)11. In March, GLAAD announced it was dropping the full name to more accurately reflect its work on behalf of bisexual and transgender rights. The organization now simply goes by "GLAAD." that got the journo-death panel treatment. In a piece on The Atlantic website, James Kirchick argued that the organization, which was founded to combat negative portrayals of gays and lesbians in the mainstream media, has outlived its purpose. The culture war is over, Kirchick says, and therefore "GLAAD has no purpose." At the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan is careful not to proclaim the fight for gay acceptance complete, but assails the group for its "pious policing of speech" and says society "has moved on so swiftly that it has made this kind of organization increasingly irrelevant."

It's true that portrayals of gays and lesbians on national television today are overwhelmingly positive—Kirchick cites Modern Family and Glee as examples—and that the culture does some of the policing itself (since support for gay rights has become widespread, it's no longer just gay people taking exception to homophobia). We have celebrities like Madonna and Lady Gaga on our side, as well as major political figures, not the least of whom is the president himself. But it's hard to take the idea that the culture war is won seriously when about half of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, over 40 percent think gay relationships are immoral, and you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states. 

From the comfort of my or Sullivan's apartments in Washington, D.C. and New York City—where same-sex marriage is legal, LGBT people are protected from discrimination in employment or housing, and gays enjoy considerable political influence—it may be tempting to think the fight is over (saying we're there already, I'm also convinced, is motivated by the desire to make it so). But to say it's over is to write a huge number of people out of the movement. "There are more gay white men on TV, but that isn't the only measure of whether we've won the culture war," says Rich Ferraro, GLAAD's vice president of communications. "We have a long way to go before the media really represents correctly LGBT people of color, trans folks."

When I spoke with representatives of GLAAD a few days ago, they pointed out that their mission—which Kirchick misstated (The Atlantic ran a correction)—is no longer limited to policing the media. "It's evolved since 1985 because our culture has evolved," Ferraro said. The organization, its leaders explained, now acts as a larger PR machine for LGBT rights, training members of the gay community who've faced discrimination to tell their stories and elevating local stories to national attention. Most recently, GLAAD worked with lesbian Cub Scout mom Jennifer Tyrrell, who has become the face of the fight against discrimination in the Boy Scouts. GLAAD has also begun to work with Spanish-language media outlets, where representations of and attitudes toward LGBT folk are far behind what they are at, say, Bravo. 

But the dramatic shift in the public’s feelings toward gay rights does raise an existential question for organizations like GLAAD, and for the movement: Once gays and lesbians achieve legal equality and the most privileged among us can live and work without fear of discrimination, are we done? Or, as GLAAD Chief of Staff Dave Montez put it: "Do we want to be a movement that is inclusive of our entire diversity—one that includes transgender people or people of color—or do we really only want to be a movement that only cares about a few issues?"

The question is particularly relevant when it comes to trans folks. Just a decade or two ago, gay and trans people were equally despised. We were in the same boat. But now the gay-rights movement has surged forward, leaving trans people in their dust. While GLAAD may have won many a battle in the cultural tirade against gay and lesbians, the mainstream media has a long way to go before it accurately represents trans people, who are more often than not portrayed as mentally disturbed deviants. There are currently only two regular trans characters on national TV (on Glee and Degrassi). While there is little to no data on public attitudes toward transgender people—a fact that itself attests to trans issues getting the short shrift—trans people are disproportionately the victims of anti-LGBT violence; despite being a significantly smaller proportion of the LGBT community, they account for 20 percent of murders committed against LGBT people. The National Transgender Survey put out by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality shows transgender people experience employment discrimination at alarming rates, which helps explain why unemployment among transgender people is almost twice what it is for the general population; transgender people experience homelessness and poverty at disproportionate rates as well.

The change in fortunes has led some gay-rights supporters to stop seeing the fight for trans equality as their own. It's the "I got mine!" attitude. In private—in public, they passively accept the "T" in LGBT—some of my gay friends will say, "Why should I care about trans people?" Setting aside the goal of being one big, happy family, here's why: At a deep philosophical level, the ideas that motivate anti-gay and anti-trans prejudice are the same. Both are born of discomfort with violating gender norms. Despite the fetishization of masculinity among some members of the gay community, homosexuality is, at heart, gender nonconformity. The discomfort some gay people feel in seeing a transgender person is the same discomfort homophobes feel when seeing two people of the same sex holding hands. Research shows attitudes toward gay people and transgender people are strongly correlated. In other words, anti-gay attitudes will never fully be wiped out until trans people enjoy full equality as well.

More immediately relevant for the Ls and Gs in LGBT, we haven't achieved anything resembling equality, and our opponents are not going away. Even now, every Sunday the major networks regularly play host to anti-gay firebrands like the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, who has said gay people are "vile" and has compared them to terrorists; Bryan Fischer, who has called for an underground railroad to deliver children from same-sex households; and Candi Cushman, Focus on the Family's education analyst, who regularly describes gay people as "broken." Every week, GLAAD receives piles of incident reports about local instances of discrimination against LGBT people, both in the media and off camera. One recent example includes the story of Dominic Sheahan-Stahl, who was disinvited as a graduation speaker at a Catholic high school in Michigan because he is gay. With the help of GLAAD, this local scrap became a national story; while the school didn't back down, Sheahan-Stahl held a widely attended, separate graduation ceremony. As long as there are stories like this to tell, we need GLAAD.

But as the continued existence of the Anti-Defamation League, which acts as a watchdog for anti-semitism, attests, the battle for LGBT equality will never fully be over. If, as social psychology seems to show, prejudice is built into our biology—a maladaptation of the drive to create like-minded groups working toward the same goals—we will always need gay-rights organizations and spokespeople to keep it in check.

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