How GLAAD Won the Culture War and Lost Its Reason to Exist

by James Kirchick on May 6, 2013

The gay-rights group’s baffling award to Bill Clinton is the latest sign that it has outlived its usefulness.

Last month in Los Angeles, former President Bill Clinton was garlanded as an “Advocate for Change,” by GLAAD, one of the largest gay-rights organizations in the United States. This was quite an accomplishment for the man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and forbids the federal government from granting any of the 1,100 benefits to married gay couples that it provides to married straight ones. But aside from a heckler who shouted, “You signed it!” when Clinton mentioned his newfound opposition to the law, Clinton received a rapturous reception from the crowd. “Leaders and allies like President Clinton are critical to moving our march for equality forward,” GLAAD’s “strategic giving officer” Wilson Cruz said.

This is a strange thing to say about a man who, during his presidency, moved the “march for equality” significantly backward, signing not only DOMA but the other, most significant piece of anti-gay legislation to emerge from Congress: the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” regulation barring homosexuals from serving openly in the armed forces. The latter was repealed in 2011, while DOMA is the subject of a Supreme Court case likely to be decided this summer. Like his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose epiphany in favor of marriage equality conveniently arrived just weeks after departing Foggy Bottom (and, one presumes, with an eye toward the 2016 Democratic presidential primary), Clinton changed his tune after leaving office. Yet GLAAD was willing to forgive this damaging record and honor a man whose corrosive actions the gay movement has spent the past 15 years trying to undo.

One might question the usefulness of a gay-rights organization that demands so little of elected officials. And in the case of GLAAD, such doubts would be correct. The best thing the organization could do is dissolve — not because it is actively harmful, but rather because it is a victim of its own success.

Among the alphabet soup of gay-rights organizations, GLAAD is the one that has unquestionably outlived its once-noble purpose (the Human Rights Campaign is a frequent target of criticism — that it is ineffective, too closely aligned with the Democratic Party, mainly concerned with throwing black tie fundraisers, etc. — but as the premier lobbying group for LBGT causes in Washington, the group still serves an important purpose.) Founded in 1985 as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — the group officially dropped this title in March, in recognition of its work on behalf of bisexual and transgender people, though it kept the acronym — a major part of GLAAD’s mission is to combat negative portrayals of gays in the media.* There was certainly a case for such an organization some 25 years ago, when popular portrayals of gays — men in particular — depicted them as decadent, depraved, and disease-ridden. Even ostensibly “progressive” individuals and institutions took part in gay-bashing.

For instance, among its many other absurdities, Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial 1991 film JFK laid responsibility for the assassination of the 35th president at the feet of a sadomasochistic gay-sex ring. And though it is now an undoubtedly gay-friendly (if not obsessed) newspaper, the New York Times was not always so sympathetic. “The NYT was preposterously slow to cover AIDS during [Editor A.M.] Rosenthal’s tenure, and it was widely believed that was because of Rosenthal’s homophobia,” wrote Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On, his magisterial chronicle of the AIDS crisis. According to a brief history of the organization, GLAAD was created at a time when, “representations of lesbians and gay men tended to fall into one of two categories: defamatory or non-existent.”

What a difference 25 years makes. Not only are media representations of gays plentiful, they are almost overwhelmingly positive, which is perhaps why GLAAD curiously removed the above sentence from its website. The entertainment industry, for many years a “celluloid closet” (in the words of the late gay film historian Vito Russo), is exuberantly pro-gay. Being gay isn’t just OK these days, it’s positively cool. From Broadway to Hollywood, the message is one of uncompromising acceptance of gay people. The list of celebrities and television shows affirming a gay-positive message is endless, from Lady Gaga and her mantra of “Born This Way” to hit television shows like Modern Family and Glee. Meanwhile, popular television journalists like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and NBC News’ Pete Williams face no barriers for being openly gay, a far cry from what it was like to work in the news industry just half a generation ago. The media’s reaction to NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out on the cover of Sports Illustrated has been almost exclusively supportive; just witness the hostility heaped upon Howie Kurtz, who was fired by The Daily Beast for a blog post in which he erroneously stated that Collins “didn’t come clean” over his previous engagement to a woman. As far as the mainstream media, movies, television, and popular music — the monitoring of which is GLAAD’s raison d’etre — goes, homosexuality has gone from the love that dare not speak its name to the love that won’t stop talking.

imply put, gays have won the culture war. Social historians can debate when exactly this happened. (Was it Ellen DeGeneres’ “Yep, I’m Gay” Time cover? Or, as Vice President Joe Biden recently suggested, the popularity of Will & Grace?) Rather than being attributable to one instantaneous incident, however, today’s mainstream acceptance of homosexuality came about gradually, assisted by the fact that most people today personally know someone who is openly gay. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may seem like a long time ago, in the full sweep of American history, no other social movement has progressed so far and so fast as that of gays.

That gays won the culture war may seem paradoxical in light of the fact that, in most states, they still cannot get married or obtain civil unions (something which the Supreme Court is unlikely to change in its pending decision). The victory might also come as cold comfort to gays living in the 29 states where they can be fired due to their sexual orientation. But full legal equality is inevitable, as polls show overwhelming majorities of young people do not hold the same prejudices against homosexuals as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Moreover, such prejudices are practically impossible to find among members of the elite news media and cultural tastemakers whom GLAAD was formed to influence; on the contrary, even the slightest deviation from a strictly-defined “pro-gay” consensus can ruin a career (see, for instance, Miss California Carrie Prejean, who endured a torrent of abuse for stating her belief, shared at the time by at least half the country, that marriage should be limited to heterosexuals).

Moreover, the terms on which the topic of same-sex marriage is debated today indicates a more imperceptible change in favor of gays. Not long ago, the political discussion on these matters was focused almost exclusively on the nature of homosexuals themselves: their libidinous personalities, sexual perversion, political subversiveness. Today, most opponents of gay rights talk about “preserving” an institution like marriage; the debate has shifted from the allegedly immoral behavior of gay people to the fragility of an already weakened social institution. Likewise, as unjust as the imposition of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” might have been to gay servicemembers, its acceptance by conservatives at the time was an implicit admission on their part that gays were perfectly capable of serving in the military provided that they did not talk about it, a concession few Americans of any political stripe would have been willing to make in the middle of the last century, when homosexuality itself was grounds for dismissal. Gay people may not see much difference in these arguments (in that their intended result — continued legal inequality — remains the same), but the change is real, and the fact that opponents of various gay-rights measures can no longer rely on “the ick factor” — an instinctive revulsion to gay sex — to argue their case is a definitive sign of the rapid progress gays have made in shaping the public consciousness about homosexuality.

Aside from raising money to perpetuate its own existence and throwing swanky parties (the event feting Bill Clinton was one of three different media-award ceremonies, with others in New York and San Francisco), GLAAD has no purpose. That is, unless one views it not as a gay-rights organization but rather a partisan liberal one. Last month, after Fox News anchors Kimberly Guilfoyle and Jamie Colby attended GLAAD’s New York Media Awards, the organization condemned their presence and asked Fox employees not to attend further GLAAD soirees — even though the pair had been invited to the event. “If Kimberly and Jamie expect to attend future GLAAD events, they will first need to sit down with us to discuss Fox News’ embarrassing, biased and misinformed coverage of LGBT issues,” GLAAD Vice President of Communications Rich Ferraro said in a statement provided to the left-wing advocacy group Media Matters. While there are indeed voices on Fox whose opinions don’t conform to GLAAD’s agenda, surely the presence of two prominent personalities from the country’s leading cable news network is something a lobby group should celebrate as a sign of its influence.*

GLAAD’s attack on Fox was curious in light of an email sent just a month earlier by the organization’s “director of creative development” Marc Honaker to an unnamed Fox staffer. In the effusive message, Honaker implores his contact at Fox to “ask [Fox News president Roger] Ailes or Suzanne [Scott] to buy a table for FNC to represent….We’d love to have lots of FNCers!” Perhaps GLAAD’s criticism of Fox was based not on its allegedly “embarrassing, biased and misinformed coverage,” but the fact that it did not pony up the requested dough.

The Fox flap illustrates the way in which GLAAD bullies and hands out favors, a practice that sometimes goes to absurd lengths. In 2011, GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios was forced to resign after it was revealed he had written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission in support of AT&T’s purchase of wireless rival T-Mobile. Lest an anti-trust tussle in the cellular-phone industry strike you as not particularly pertinent to the cause of accurate and fair representation of gay people in the media, read Barrios’ bizarre letter: “At the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) the Internet has been an instrumental tool in advancing our cause…Preserving an open Internet is an important goal for policy makers, and important to us because we rely on this medium everyday to accomplish our work.” In 2010 and 2011, AT&T donated $150,000 to GLAAD, one of several non-profit organizations (like the NAACP) that benefited from the telecom giant’s largesse and thereafter lobbied the FCC in favor of the acquisition.

GLAAD is also highly selective in how it chooses its targets. Witness the joke uttered last November on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” by New York writer John Heilemann. Commenting on the replacement of Joe Lieberman with Kelly Ayotte in the senatorial trio (alongside John McCain and Lindsay Graham) known as the “Three Amigos,” Heilemann said, “Now two of the three are women,” a crack at Graham’s bachelorhood, perceived femininity, and rumoured homosexuality. MSNBC was sufficiently embarrassed that it edited out Heilemann’s joke — and Joe Scarborough’s giggling — during a later broadcast. This is precisely the sort of homophobic and misogynistic crudity GLAAD was established to monitor and condemn, yet it said nothing. GLAAD is far more forgiving when it comes to Democrats and liberals than it is to Republicans and conservatives. A real “advocate for change” on the issue of gay rights is the political leader who shows genuine courage by bucking their movement and party — figures like pro-gay-marriage Republican Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman — and not a former president who, while in office, did great damage to the cause only to jump on the bandwagon in his retirement.

Gays continue to face legal inequality, and there exist a variety of worthy organizations — from SAGE, a group that cares for gay seniors, to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is funding the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 — working to fix these disparities. But if there’s one realm of American life that gays have decisively conquered, it’s the media. The continued existence of an organization like GLAAD just feeds into a gay victim mentality that is, thankfully, anachronistic.

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