Interview: They are GLAAD to meet you

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On a recent trip to New York City, PinkNews’ Scott Roberts dropped by the offices of GLAAD – an organisation campaigning for stronger LGBT inclusion by the US media industry.

GLAAD is regularly mentioned by PinkNews when it comes to American celebrity stories: either when someone like Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller decides to go public about their sexuality – or when a star is in trouble due to homophobic or transphobic behaviour.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that just keeping up with celebrity activities is all that GLAAD does – however through meeting their Head of Public Communications, Rich Ferraro, and their Director of News and Faith Initiates, Ross Murray, I learnt that there is more to the organisation than just celebrities.

Ferraro begins by telling me about the organisation’s history. “GLAAD was officially founded in 1985 as a response to the US media coverage of HIV/AIDS. Gay men were really being demonised at the time here in New York City and around the country. The media got a lot of the facts wrong; they sensationalised the stories of LGBT people and GLAAD was founded by activists in New York to change that – to educate the media about the lives of LGBT people and to speak out against anti-LGBT coverage.

“Several years later a chapter of GLAAD was started in Los Angeles by activists who wanted to make the entertainment industry, the TV networks and film studios (Hollywood) inclusive of LGBT people”.

Ferraro adds: “Earlier this year we dropped the full name ‘The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’ as a show of commitment to all the work that we do on behalf of transgender people, bi people and our straight allies. So the organisation is officially known as ‘GLAAD’ right now and we are the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organisation here in the States.”

In Britain we have no direct equivalent to GLAAD. Trans Media Watch operates on a small voluntary basis and is focused on media coverage and reporting of the trans community. Stonewall, Britain’s largest gay rights charity, does conduct research and monitoring of gay and lesbian media representation, but its day-to-day priority remains tackling homophobic discrimination in employment and homophobic bullying in schools.

Some may argue that a remit involving the media may seem superficial compared to other LGBT policy areas  – but GLAAD and its supporters believe harnessing the media industry in the US is a direct way of creating cultural change. It is also a role which arguably someone has to fill if the LGBT community is to get the type of programming it wants.

America does seem to put a great premium on the power of TV to be the cornerstone cultural change-maker in its society. This can be illustrated by US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments of May 2012, when he said the sitcom Will and Grace had done more to change attitudes to homosexuality than “almost anything” else. Mr Biden may have been overstating the power of one show – but the idea that television in the US creates the cultural waves needed to allow a historically reticent and slow political arena to embrace LGBT equality seems plausible. In Britain LGBT rights have been secured primarily by the government of the day deciding to action it – in the US it’s a slow-burning mixture of local, state and federal court advocacy and public referendums (often at times running counter to the cause) – therefore television appears at times to be in the driving seat.

“Today GLAAD is a cultural change organisation that focuses on media advocacy and uses the various channels of media: digital and Spanish language media, the entertainment industry and news media, to get out positive stories of LGBT people that are going to create change – that are going to put faces and stories behind the issues of the day.”

Ferraro believes significant progress has been made by the US media when it comes to LGBT inclusion since the height of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. “GLAAD releases reports on the television industry and at the start of last year’s TV season there were more LGBT characters than ever before – however those characters often don’t go beyond the stereotypes; they’re not reflective of the LGBT community because they are not diverse,” Ferraro continues: “People of colour who are LGBT are underrepresented in news and entertainment media. Transgender people are almost invisible in news coverage in TV and in film. So GLAAD’s mission has evolved with the changing media landscape to now focus on the people in the LGBT community who are underrepresented and to try and get those stories out there and into the national dialogue.”

Ferraro adds: “What we are pushing for now at GLAAD is the next wave. So that LGBT people are not the ‘gay best friend’ – but when LGBT people are represented on television: they are diverse, they are of different social economic backgrounds, they are of different ages, they are raising families and that they are reflective of the actual LGBT community.

“A lot of the work we are doing right now in Hollywood is dealing with transgender issues. We recently met with the President of CBS Entertainment to talk about the transgender community, which is nearly invisible on CBS, and on many of the other networks. When trans people are included they often the victims of crimes or the butt of jokes and anti-transgender slurs. What we did for CBS was to put together a presentation, that was very well received by CBS, on why the trans community is worthy of inclusion, why their stories are powerful, and what some of their stories could look like on some of their shows.

“There have been plenty of gay contestants on Survivor, a very popular show on CBS, but there’s never been a transgender contestant.” Ferraro goes on to say it’s constantly about “pushing Hollywood to go further”. GLAAD recently released its first report on the film industry and it found that they were very few LGBT characters from the six largest studios: 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Sony Columbia, Universal Pictures, The Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers. The studios which did include LGBT characters, were either very brief mentions, or were not full characters. “They were stereotypes or just there to have a gay person on the screen” Ferraro says, “They weren’t diverse or integral to the story.”

Following the release of the report, GLAAD has had meetings with two of the six big studios, in order to look at ways they can include LGBT people on screen. Ferraro believes Hollywood is learning lessons from the success of Behind the Candelabra, the film about iconic gay pianist Liberace, which last weekend won three Emmys. Despite starring A-listers Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh’s directorial project was shunned by the main studios for being “too gay.” It didn’t get a screen run in the US but was shown at cinemas across the UK and in other countries.

When the film debuted on HBO in May, it achieved the highest ratings for a TV film in the US since 2004. The reality has been that more people have seen the film on the small screen – than probably would have ever been the case on the big screen in the US.

“That film is a good example of how critics and audiences respond to gay stories – and it’s positive”, Ferraro says. “A lot of the shows that are popular right now such as Glee, Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family have LGBT stories included in their TV world. I think show runners are starting to realise it’s not controversial to have LGBT characters anymore – in fact it’s embraced by the public.

Fox News is bucking the trend

Whilst many of America’s TV news networks have made efforts to become more responsible in their reporting of the LGBT community, Fox News, officially the country’s most-watched cable news network continues to buck the trend. In August, Fox News was criticised after it decided to play the Aerosmith track “Dude Looks Like A Lady” in an item about Chelsea Manning – the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning – who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her involvement in leaking large numbers of secret documents to Wikileaks.

“Fox News gives a platform to anti-LGBT activists to speak out on issues such as equal marriage or about transgender people,” Rich Ferraro says before adding: “GLAAD believes anti-LGBT people “can be included in news coverage” but he stresses vocal social conservatives such as Brian Fischer and Tony Perkins “should be put into context” when they appear on national news. “Tony Perkins is not an expert on my life as a gay man; he’s not an expert on gay families or marriage in general, he’s really an anti-LGBT activist who wants to make a pay cheque and does that by painting LGBT people in an inaccurate light.

“I think Fox News does a terrible job at correcting him when he goes on their airwaves and says false things about our lives. CNN, MSNBC and other national outlets are doing a better job and their also open to discussions with other organisations like GLAAD.”

Ferraro says: “We have sat down with very senior producers and newsmakers at CNN and MSNBC specifically to speak about these ‘experts’, who they were booking from anti-LGBT organisations, so that they can be put into context because when mums are out there watching TV news it’s important that they know that this person is not someone who is an expert on these issues but someone with a very clear bias.”

At which point GLAAD’s Ross Murray breaks into the conversation. “I would say there’s probably been an overall shift in US culture and there are people on the leading edge of that and there are folks who are on the trailing end of that – I think Fox News are that platform – but because the overall culture is shifting it does mean eventually really extreme anti-gay voices, or people like Bill O’Reilly, who’s hosting his own Fox News show, do shift somewhat as well; they are still not where the majority of Americans are – but they are probably not in the same place that they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

“We would love it if they could catch up to where everybody else is – but we know that there is always going to be a trailing end and most of our focus is on reaching as much of the mainstream American culture as possible and to influence that – because the whole conversation shifts when the majority of Americans are on the side of marriage equality or on the side of LGBT inclusion.”

Working with celebrities 

Attention then moves on to discussing how and why GLAAD interacts with celebrities. Rich Ferraro answers: “In incidents where athletes, celebrities or people in the public eye make anti-LGBT remarks or actions, we do reach out to their managers and their reps because GLAAD is a watchdog organisation as well.”

He adds: “We try and turn those incidents into teachable moments so we can speak about broader issues at hand. I think when celebrities make [offensive] remarks and they are genuinely apologetic, they want to do something to show that – and we can use this as an opportunity to shed light on a broader issue that is not getting media attention.

GLAAD is mindful to make sure it doesn’t become a rapid rebuttal PR merchant for celebrities who become embroiled in anti-LGBT disputes. When stars hit the buffers GLAAD tries to ensure they do more than just release a statement of apology.

Tracey Morgan, known for his role on NBC comedy show 30 Rock, is probably the best example of this. Morgan, a popular African American comedian and actor joked in a comedy performance in 2011 that he would stab his son with a knife if he found out he was gay. LGBT Americans and campaigners reacted angrily to the comments – especially considering that so many gay teenagers are rejected by their parents each year.

Ferraro says: “Tracey Morgan took it upon himself to call GLAAD saying, ‘what can I do? This is not the way I feel; these remarks don’t represent me as a person or how I would treat my children’.

“Tracey went with GLAAD to the Ali Forney Center, a great LGBT organisation here in New York City that focuses on helping LGBT homeless youth.”

“He spoke with and heard from kids who had been kicked out of their houses by their parents. We then worked with those teenagers to bring them to news outlets like CNN, the Associated Press and MTV News – to tell their story of not only meeting Tracey but the bigger issue of parental rejection of youth people.

“We also brought Tracey to Nashville, where he made the remarks originally, and he spoke with activists who are currently fighting the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. The proposed law would mean school teachers would not even be able to mention the word ‘gay’ – much less talk about acceptance.

“We were able to use the celebrity and an unfortunate incident in a way that was going to inspire people to hear about the issues that LGBT people experience in their own communities.”

Ferraro adds: “I haven’t come across incidents where I can point to and say ‘yeah I don’t think that celebrity’s [apology] was genuine’.”

Bill Clinton

Along with trying to show celebrities the errors of their anti-LGBT ways, GLAAD is also best known for its annual awards ceremonies: held in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This year’s decision to honour former President Bill Clinton received much controversy. Clinton has spent much of his life – both in and out of office – apologising. His decision to pass Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which prevented gay US service personnel from being open about their sexuality, and to introduce the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) are the two policies that undermined his standing with the LGBT community.

Having left office in 2001, in recent years, Clinton has apologised for both laws. His decision to speak out against DOMA, a law which federally recognised marriage as between a man and a woman, at this year’s GLAAD awards was seen as a highly symbolic and powerful act: needless to say it received wall-to-wall news coverage. It came at the same time the US Supreme Court was debating whether to overturn the very law which Clinton signed all those years ago.

Whilst admitting that it was a controversial decision to honour Clinton, Ferraro says: “The goal behind that was to really shine the spotlight on the fact that President Clinton, who represented this way of thinking back in the 90s; that DOMA was needed, that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was needed; now he was willing to stand on stage at the largest LGBT event and speak out against those laws. He represents the shift in American sentiment and in public opinion and really encapsulates that. He’s now become an activist for marriage equality”.

Attention then turns finally to the current President, Barack Obama, and his landmark decision to support equal marriage in an ABC News interview in 2011. “I think President Obama’s endorsement was really significant because it was just a few months after he made that statement that we had three states voting on marriage equality and Minnesota was voting on whether to include a constitutional amendment against marriage equality,” GLAAD’s Ross Murray says. “The President’s statement had significance influence with communities that were still very on the fence, who didn’t quite know how they felt, but because they saw an authority figure like President Obama say what he said it gave them permission to say ‘ok if he supports it then I can follow him and support it too.”

“We saw that polling [against equal marriage] change – especially in Maryland but also in Washington, Minnesota and Maine”.

Murray adds: “That kind of endorsement does influence the population and likewise the population is influencing him and other political leaders.

“The nice thing that we have seen [on equal marriage] is that this is not a partisan thing. We have seen people on the more conservative end of the spectrum also coming out in support of marriage equality and I think that is going to continue to grow. It’s good for GLAAD because we are not doing this as a partisan thing; it’s a matter of equality for us and we want to get support whether we can get it.”