Does 'Gay Inc.' Believe in Free Speech?

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

Does 'Gay Inc.' Believe in Free Speech?

When Siege Busters Working Group planned its "Party to End Israeli Apartheid" in March of 2011 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center, it probably knew it would raise some eyebrows and hoped it would raise some dough.

But it probably didn't predict that its event would lead to ending all discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Center.

The "dance party," a fundraiser for an aid flotilla to Gaza, happened during Israeli Apartheid Week. The Center hosted an Israeli Apartheid Week event in 2008, and Siege Busters had been renting meeting space in the Center—as nearly any community group can—for numerous weeks last year.

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.

But when gay-porn king Michael Lucas got wind of the group's plans, he vowed to keep them (or anyone else) from criticizing Israel within the Center's walls. Lucas is primarily known for his puffy lips, his nine-inch custom dildo in the shape of his manhood, and his shameless self-promotion. Increasingly, he's also known for his Zionism and open hatred of Muslims. And so, Lucas went about getting the Center to eject Siege Busters.

Questions about the situation in Israel aside, the incident forced the Center to consider censoring a group it had previously neither endorsed nor barred. Initially, the Center balked at taking a stand. Sources told me that Executive Director Glennda Testone (formerly of GLAAD) told Lucas—at least initially—not to mess with the Center's "open-door policy." But Lucas, well connected to the Center's board through his marriage to its president emeritus, Richard Winger, went over her head. He sent out a press release threatening "to organize a boycott that would certainly involve some of the Center's most generous donors."

"If someone fucks with Israel, I fuck them back," Lucas later told Gay City News. "And I usually win."

He did. It only took hours, and the Center decided "this event is not appropriate to be held at our LGBT Community Center . . . and the host group will no longer meet at the Center."

A community meeting followed, during which Testone said the problem was that Siege Busters wasn't "LGBT focused" and therefore was distracting the Center from its "core mission." According to multiple speakers, this contradicted decades of the Center's history of hosting meetings on "non-gay" topics like South African apartheid, health care, and the Iraq war. (Also, many people in Siege Busters were LGBT, though that hadn't been a prerequisite for renting space at the Center.)

One of the stranger moments during the Center's only public meeting on the matter: Board member Tom Kirdahy said he didn't want a Siege Busters event because it would make vulnerable people using the center, like those in recovery programs, feel "unsafe." This was odd because Kirdahy is the partner of playwright Terrence McNally.

McNally wrote Corpus Christi, a retelling of the Gospel with Jesus and the disciples as homosexuals. Many involved with its first production received death threats, including the board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which also faced losing its government funding. The New York Times wrote in 1998 that when "the theater received bomb threats . . . it decided to cancel the production. The theater's administrators came under intense criticism and finally put the production back on its calendar. . . . But the episode sent a chill through the artistic world because of a feeling that the theater's reversals emboldened the opponents of free expression, contributing to a climate of fear."

If not for outspoken queers like Tony Kushner (who threatened to withdraw his plays from MTC if McNally's was not produced), Corpus Christi might never have been produced.

Fifteen years later, McNally's partner was voting to keep a discussion of Israel and Palestine out of the Center in a time when free debate is under assault not just from the right but also the institutional left. By the time the Center fracas was over, all discussion of Israel and Palestine was formally banned from its walls.

As Sherry Wolf (a Jewish lesbian critic of Israel) put it, the Center became "yet another occupied, homogenized space that only powerful and, frankly, white people dominate." Transgender activist Pauline Park thought it had "basically given the community the finger" and said to other LGBT people—in her words—"Fuck you. Drop dead. We only care about the bottom line."

Why should gay Americans feel any guiltier about selling speech to the highest bidder than anyone else?

Well, were it not for a poor, chaotic band who bravely defended the First Amendment at the Stonewall Inn 43 years ago next week (and did so without a publicist, Facebook campaign, or committee-approved talking points), there would have been no gay rights movement as we know it. The whole premise of being out has been predicated on free expression of once-taboo matters.

Today's movement is quite unlike ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, or the Mattachine Society. In their use of confrontation, those groups looked far more like Occupy Wall Street than the Human Rights Campaign. Today's gay organizations tend to present queer voices that are well polished and well financed.

And sometimes what they endorse isn't liberating for queers or supportive of free speech at all.

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.

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.

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.

Similarly, Ferraro says, "As news was breaking about Roland Martin's Super Bowl tweets, news was also breaking that a young man from Georgia, Brandon White, was brutally attacked and called anti-gay slurs. . . . And if it wasn't for the attention around the Roland Martin campaign, Brandon's White's story—and this is a huge issue of the media today—would not have been heard."

Ferraro was proud that the Stand Up campaign was the "first of its kind." He saw J.C. Penney's subsequent Father's Day ad campaign with two dads as a mark of progress.

Perhaps. But I also wondered about Gay Inc. getting involved with Starbucks. In March, the coffeehouse chain said it supported same-sex marriage. The National Organization for Marriage called for a boycott of the chain, and HRC told everyone to shop there.

It appeared to be a win for both gay rights and overpriced coffee. But that's only if you see gay people just as consumers and not as workers. As Daniel Gross, executive director of the food and retail group Brandworkers, says, "Advocacy organizations celebrating large companies like J.C. Penney and Starbucks, without challenging the impoverishment of tens of thousands of LGBT employees at those businesses, do a disservice to all working families. In our corporate-dominated society, it's certainly easier to get along when it comes to companies that interfere with economic rights, but working-class LGBTers and especially the many queer youth of color in retail deserve better."

Like GLAAD with J.C. Penney, HRC was less interested in LGBT workers at Starbucks.

"As a queer person, I find it upsetting that they tell queer people to shop at Starbucks," says Liberte Locke of the Starbucks Workers Union. "It's one thing to say congratulations to Starbucks, but when encouraging people to support a business, various things should be considered. Unfortunately, HRC felt the need to push queer people to spend money at Starbucks while neglecting other issues—the fact that most of their coffee isn't fair trade, the fact that they routinely fire people trying to organize."

Locke notes, "People actually came in saying, 'Hey, I've never come in here before, but I heard Starbucks supports same-sex marriage, and I want to support you guys!'" But the PR move, she finds, "has nothing to do with Starbucks supporting queer relationships. It has everything to do with [CEO] Howard Schultz finding another group of people to spend their money there. If Starbucks cared about queer relationships, they'd pay their workers a fair wage and give them set schedules, so that queer partners could develop their relationships. They'd pay us enough to pay our rent and to raise or adopt children."

Noting HRC's bling, like its branded credit cards, Locke says, "HRC only sees queer people as consumers." But she wanted to give the group a chance. When she heard of its Starbucks campaign, she "did reach out to them personally, to try to create a dialogue about how Starbucks has abused me as a queer worker and how they have a history of firing queer people trying to organize.

"No one returned any of my messages."

The first and only time I covered an HRC event in person was on the eve of the National Equality March in 2009 in Washington, D.C. President Obama addressed 3,000 donors at a black-tie gala in the Washington Convention Center, but he was only a warm-up act, he joked, for a rising talent named Lady Gaga.

The real stars of the evening for me (a neophyte at such functions) were the ads. There were endless videos promoting various corporations, mostly defense contractors. Like supporting a telecom merger, I wondered naively, "What does peddling the latest hardware in the military-industrial complex have to do with being gay?"

It was a strange thing to see lobbyists lobbying other lobbyists. And that's a way, some critics say, that Gay Inc.'s messages get limited: The president doesn't hear from pacifist gays in such an arena. The community organizer in chief won't hear from the queer organizer of retail workers. The fight for LGBT rights becomes calculated toward and calcified by those who can afford the high price of admission. And the message doesn't reflect the broad concerns of the LGBT community; rather, it's hijacked by military spending, just like everything else.

It's this kind of cycle that dismays Bill Dobbs, a perennial, delightfully cranky activist. A constant presence at nearly every protest in the city (often protesting other gay activists), he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the city's queer activism, which he has been a part of since the 1980s.

I sat down with Dobbs one evening in Zuccotti Park during the height of Occupy last fall. It was a warm, pleasant evening, and Bill was working at the press table. We talked about how Gay Inc. was nowhere to be found, even though there were gay people there (and a queer caucus did form).

But queer groups used to be leading the left, Dobbs noted. In the biggest movement of the left in decades, they were MIA.

Spurred by his query, I started making calls to the groups that make up Gay Inc. Each one told me they had no plans to participate in Occupy. Even though a great deal of the Occupy debate involved questions that were once central to the movement that was born at Stonewall and grew up during the AIDS crisis—including prejudice, police brutality, homelessness, and health-care access—it wasn't especially surprising that Gay Inc. wouldn't show. A quick look through its board directories shows many bankers and hedge funders.

And if they're paying your bills, you can't go to Zuccotti Park and tell the 1 Percent to fuck themselves.

A major problem, Dobbs says, is that "too many people have bought into the 'equality myth.'"

"Once upon a time, we were for gay liberation," he explains many months later. "That's a big word. . . . Equality is a small word and a small concept. It's just accepting what little piece everyone else has," inadequate as it might be.

Goldman Sachs, Dobbs says, is a perfect example of how Occupy, Gay Inc., and equality intersected. "If you want equality on the job" as a gay person, Dobbs says, "you should work at Goldman Sachs." In February, HRC honored Goldman, one of the main targets of Occupy, with its Workplace Equality Innovation Award. But Dobbs thinks that keeps the question of "what Goldman is doing to the world, to the society at large" from even being asked by queer people. (At the same event, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the highest-elected lesbian in the city, who has a good shot at being the city's next mayor, presented an award to Morgan Stanley.)

But if equality for professional workers at banks is important to Gay Inc., it isn't for retail workers, according to Locke. "Working-class queers are walked all over by gay organizations," she says. "We are not treated as equals by the organizations that are supposed to be supporting us. It's as if they believe that all gay people are upwardly mobile professionals with a lot of disposable money to spend, when in fact most queer people in this city are poor, working class, or even homeless."

And if the point is just that someone queer "can be a soldier in the U.S. military," Dobbs says, it keeps people from questioning militarism and U.S. foreign policy. The "equality myth" can "put blinders on people," Dobbs says, even with the fight for marriage. The marriage debate sucks the oxygen, he thinks, out of bigger questions.

Take health care, for example, Dobbs says. Same-sex marriage is an answer to expanding health care for queer people in a limited way: Only those who don't have it and marry someone whose plan can cover a spouse may now get it. Meanwhile, a single-payer health-care option could provide health care for every queer person.

As Dobbs recalls, "When the health-care debate was happening, I don't remember any of the gay organizations, not one, supporting a single-payer option—not even any of the AIDS groups."

He's right.

On June 6, a historic press conference took place at the Stonewall Inn between black and gay civil rights groups. The majority of Gay Inc.—including HRC, the Empire State Pride Agenda, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, GLAAD, and Gay Men's Health Crisis—joined unions, Reverend Al Sharpton, Speaker Quinn, and the NAACP to denounce the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy. They appeared together in a united stand against police profiling, which largely affects black and Hispanic young men in poor neighborhoods.

For a change, it was heartening to see Gay Inc. stand firmly on this. It was good policy (gays are black and brown, and vice versa, of course) and good politics, shortly after President Obama and the NAACP had endorsed same-sex marriage. In walking with the black community in last Sunday's Father's Day police profile march, Gay Inc. countered charges that it works only on behalf of rich white men. They all deserve a lot of credit for this, including GLAAD.

HRC's participation, however, begged some questions. Stop-and-frisk is Mayor Michael Bloomberg's policy, which he could rein in at any time.

Coincidentally, Bloomberg also happens to be the one person in all of America HRC honored with its National Ally Award last summer.

Does Gay Inc. believe in freedom against unreasonable searches and seizures?

The NYPD, which Bloomberg once called his "private army," used stop-and-frisk to search 685,724 gay and straight (mostly black and brown) New Yorkers last year.

Does Gay Inc. believe in the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievance?

J.P. Morgan Chase is a corporate partner of HRC's. Chase made a $4.6 million donation to the New York City Police Foundation last year, shortly before the NYPD evicted protesters from Zuccotti Park last fall.

Does Gay Inc. believe in free speech?

At the end of the hour-long press conference, when reporters were finally allowed to ask questions, I asked Marty Rouse, the HRC representative: "Your organization gave your National Ally Award to Mayor Bloomberg last year. Stop-and-frisk is essentially his policy. How do you respond to him about that?"

"I can't respond to that," Rouse said tersely with an icy look, and the press conference shortly came to an end.

Just like with Starbucks worker Locke, HRC did not respond to any messages from the Voice for this article.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com

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