Does 'Gay Inc.' Believe in Free Speech?

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

GLAAD has been telling straight people what they can and can't say for 25 years. It publishes an annual list of how appropriately LGBT the television networks are and will swiftly condemn anyone it perceives as homophobic. When CNN commentator Roland Martin tweeted last year during the Super Bowl, "If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham's H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him!" they called for Martin's firing before they even met with him.

Martin's tweet and Tracy Morgan's onstage rant about wanting to stab his son if he were gay were widely criticized. But many of GLAAD's choices about what is or is not acceptable are far more subjective. It has vehemently attacked South Park for harming gays, a position woefully out of touch with actual queer people (who, in my unscientific poll, largely see Trey Parker and Matt Stone as allies and appreciate Stan, Kyle, and even Cartman as satire).

GLAAD also critiques work not ready for consumption and gives the viewing public little credit to judge media for themselves. Prior to its premiere last winter, GLAAD took out full-page ads against ABC's show Work It.

"GLAAD has seen the pilot, and while the show's pilot does not explicitly address transgender people, many home viewers unfamiliar with the realities of being transgender will still make the connection," GLAAD wrote. "Work It invites the audience to laugh at images of men trying to adopt a feminine appearance, thereby also making it easier to mock people whose gender identity and expression are different than the one they were assigned at birth." (At the same time, GLAAD promotes the cross-dressing humor of the BBC's Matt Lucas and David Walliams on its blog.)

Similarly, GLAAD objected to Vince Vaughn's character in The Dilemma making a joke about an electric car being "gay." Universal Pictures removed the joke from the trailer, but director Ron Howard kept it in the film and explained to the Los Angeles Times that "it is a slight moment . . . meant to demonstrate an aspect of our lead character's personality, and we never expected it to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or those of us who made it. . . . I don't strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate. . . . This character can be offensive and inappropriate at times, and those traits are fundamental to his personality and the way our story works."

Doesn't GLAAD understand that a good story dictates messy characters? After all, Queer as Folk, which is full of gay stereotyping, won the GLAAD media award for Best Drama Series in 2001 and was nominated six years in a row.

As Graddick explains (after saying that GLAAD's media awards is a separate entity with its own judging process), Queer as Folk was no different from trashy straight soaps like Melrose Place, and both reflect the "state of the marketplace."

"People will ask us, 'Why aren't you protesting The A List?'" he says of Logo's gay answer to The Real Housewives. Well, he argues, that's the market. The bitchy, materialistic queens of The A List are OK because those heterosexual housewives are also shallow gold diggers.

Of course, Queer's characters don't need to be saints to be good characters. But neither does The Dilemma's lead character. GLAAD sees these shades of gray in awfully black-and-white terms and does so with little humility, given its behavior after a $50,000 donation from a telecom company. Its controlling mind-set is pervasive throughout Gay Inc., as GLAAD alumni staff many gay groups (including Testone at the Center, as well as Cindi Creager, the Center's press representative, who refuses to speak to this member of the press).

In April, the group One Million Moms asked J.C. Penney to fire its new spokeswoman, Ellen DeGeneres, because she is a lesbian. GLAAD quickly launched a "Stand Up for Ellen" campaign. Almost immediately, "#standupforellen" cluttered my Twitter feed; when J.C. Penney said it was keeping her, my stream was filled with gays thanking the company.

I couldn't help wondering why GLAAD needed to take on that fight. DeGeneres is a millionaire many times over with nearly 12 million Twitter followers to One "Million" Moms' 1,778. She didn't really need GLAAD's help.

At the same time, J.C. Penney has one of the more miserable records as an employer among the nation's retailers. Just one example: In 2010, a garment factory in Bangladesh that produced clothes for eight U.S. companies caught fire and killed 30 workers. J.C. Penney was one of only two to balk at paying restitution to the killed workers' families. It took 100,000 signatures on a change.org petition to make the company pony up.

I asked Graddick why GLAAD seemed to be more interested in J.C. Penney's spokeswoman than its other workers, and he said that the campaign wasn't about DeGeneres as much as it was about LGBT employment rights. People are not interested in the finer points of labor law, he correctly notes, but they do pay attention to celebrity news. Getting word out that people can be legally fired for being LGBT in most states needed such a celebrity-news peg.

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