Does 'Gay Inc.' Believe in Free Speech?

In the battle over gay rights, dissent during wartime isn't always tolerated

The most startling example of queer speech for sale occurred last summer when GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, sent a letter to the FCC to support a proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile because what "our [LGBT] community wants in wireless phone and Internet service is exactly what Americans in general want: more access, faster service, and competitive pricing. On all three counts, we believe that the facts strongly favor the merger."

What does a telecom merger have to do with fighting gay defamation?

Well, AT&T had donated $50,000 to the nonprofit. Also, Troup Coronado, an AT&T lobbyist, sat on GLAAD's board.

Pui Yan Fong
GLAAD, a nonprofit, launched its “Stand Up for Ellen” campaign on behalf of millionaire DeGeneres.
© Glenn Francis, pacificprodigital.com
GLAAD, a nonprofit, launched its “Stand Up for Ellen” campaign on behalf of millionaire DeGeneres.

GLAAD also stepped in it when the group retracted a letter it had written in support of "net neutrality," the idea that Internet service providers should make all websites equally accessible to any user, seemingly not a controversial idea for the queer community. GLAAD's retraction of the letter caused such a scandal, it nearly destroyed the organization. GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios stepped down and half of the board resigned, including Coronado. Pam Spaulding of the blog Pam's House Blend wrote that it was a case of "institutional rot, where an organization reaches a stage where management goes astray from its mission and focuses on self-preservation."

Long before its Hollywood-style media awards, GLAAD had humble beginnings. According to spokesman Rich Ferraro, it began in the Village in the late 1980s, with an attempt to fight defaming portrayals of gay men in the city's tabloids. By the time it was supporting a corporate donor's telecom merger (a position it would vociferously reverse, and which it strongly denounces today), GLAAD had become, as Ferraro put it, "like a PR firm for the LGBT community."

Does the LGBT community need such a thing?

"Not everyone in the movement are media experts," says Herndon Graddick, GLAAD's new president. In a long interview, Graddick and Ferraro insisted that GLAAD's main focus is not manipulating the media (i.e., attacking or feting Hollywood). They say it's more about helping people who are not famous get their stories told publicly, like Jennifer Tyrell, a mom from Ohio who is not allowed to work with her son's Boy Scout troop because she is a lesbian.

Still, to a journalist, the idea of any PR filter means talking points, propaganda, and pabulum. Does the queer community need more spin than we already get directly from politicians and salespeople, especially from an unelected PR firm?

"We don't need to be elected to know that the story of the trans woman getting beaten in Baltimore was really an opportunity to talk about the growth and really extreme violence faced by trans women and trans women of color," Graddick says, noting such stories are rare in the media.

I first learned the term "Gay Inc." from Lieutenant Dan Choi when I was writing a profile about him in 2010. After coming out on the Rachel Maddow Show in 2009, Choi was a darling of the gay establishment, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and the Courage Campaign. His name was attached to e-mail blasts routinely to raise money or rally activists.

But Choi was so outspoken, he couldn't really be "handled." He chafed at the PR box Gay Inc. tried to put him in and was apt to go "off message" anytime. He described Gay Inc. as "those groups so desperate for a place at the table, they'll do anything to keep their place at the table."

By the day "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was first on the floor of the U.S. Senate in September of 2010, Choi had worn out his welcome. As we got lunch in the cafeteria before the failed vote, a good chunk of Gay Inc.—HRC, SLDN, and various staffers of Democratic legislators—was assembled at one table like a high school clique. Choi was clearly at odds with them.

Almost two years later, I was reporting last week from the East Room of the White House as much of Gay Inc. attended President Obama's LGBT Pride Month reception. There was no denying, as the president affirmed his commitment to a number of Gay Inc.'s issues, that there is a benefit to having a place at the table. But many of the most radical voices that had helped push Obama to that point (including Choi) were noticeably absent.

LGBT Americans are in a war for civil rights, and their battles are admittedly won more often when their "messaging" is disciplined. The first time same-sex marriage went to the New York State Senate, in 2009, it was a mess, as various groups and elected officials undermined one another with sniping.

Last summer, it could not have been more different when the factions formed New Yorkers United for Marriage. Governor Andrew Cuomo took control of the process with his (now infamous) tight lips and iron fist. There were no leaks from the group, only a unified voice or silence. The messaging worked, and the Marriage Equality Act passed.

But such discipline comes at a cost. Gay Inc. plays an increasing role in deciding what is and is not acceptable public speech for gay people to debate, and the points expressed become fewer.

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