GLAAD Has Lost Its Way
Since it was founded in 1985, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has transformed itself from a rowdy, New Yorkbased grassroots gadfly into a slick, bicoastal media operation. When GLAAD speaks, Hollywood listens. In 1992, Entertainment Weekly named GLAAD one of Hollywood's most powerful lobbying groups. And regardless of what one thinks of each case, it has pulled off a number of high-profile media coups in recent years.
In 1996 the group succeeded in getting the Comedy Channel to stop airing the 1982 film Partners (written by Francis Veber of La Cage aux Folles and The Closet fame) because GLAAD deemed it homophobic. In 1999, GLAAD persuaded TNT and World Championship Wrestling to discontinue the aggressively campy tag-team characters Lenny and Lodi. And a few weeks ago, the organization persuaded the Game Show Network to stop airing a 1972 episode of Match Game in which the word "fag" was used.
But a growing number of critics have taken the group to task, questioning many of its decisions and wondering whether its judgment might be clouded by its hand-in-glove relationship with Hollywood -- an industry that naturally tends to confuse its representations of the world with the real thing. In 1998, Chastity Bono, then GLAAD's entertainment-media director, made headlines when she told Variety that she thought Ellen DeGeneres's self-titled sit-com had been canceled by ABC because it was too gay. In 2000 GLAAD's sustained attack on rapper Eminem aligned the group with right-wingers such as Jerry Falwell. And last year GLAAD members were attacked by freedom-of-expression activists for their attempts to get "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger's show booted off television.
Now, critics are coming after GLAAD for charging that Kevin Smith's new comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is homophobic, and for using its clout to wring charitable donations out of Smith and his distributor, Miramax. The immediate contretemps began after Scott Seomin, GLAAD's current entertainment-media director, attended a screening of Smith's new stoner comedy. The movie features Jay and Bob, two of Smith's recurring characters (also featured in his previous films Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma), who are obsessed with male homosexuality. Seomin fired off a letter to Smith on July 26 describing his distaste for the film, saying that he was "overwhelmed by the potential negative impact for the film with what we would assume is a large share of its target audience: teen and young adult males." He added that GLAAD "will be public and aggressive in our condemnation and will provide substantiation for our opinions." (The letter is posted on GLAAD's Web site, www.glaad.org.)
In a statement posted on his Web site (www.viewaskew.com/newboard/messages287/521.html), Smith explains that he and Seomin had a pleasant conversation about the letter during which the director defended his film. Seomin stated that he was going to ask Miramax, the film's distributor, to make a substantial donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation (run by the gay-bashing victim's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who received a major award from GLAAD last year) as a symbolic gesture to support the work of fighting violence against gay people. Smith, to show that he was not hostile to GLAAD's concerns, offered to make one as well (he also placed a disclaimer in the film's credits that use of the movie's "anti-gay slurs in real life is not acceptable"). Seomin suggested that Miramax make a $200,000 donation and that Smith make one of $10,000. (Though Miramax never made the donation, Smith did.) At this point Smith thought that they had come to agreeable terms: GLAAD might not like his film, but he would be seen as supportive of GLAAD's work. He was shocked, then, to read Seomin quoted in the August 3 issue of Entertainment Weekly, saying of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: "I've never seen something so horrific." Further, the press began to spin Smith's charitable donation as an apology for making a homophobic film. Smith immediately told the Associated Press that his donation should not be thought of as a form of reparations for the film's content: "I'm not sorry," he said, "because I didn't make jokes at the expense of the gay community."
Stephen Spurgeon, GLAAD's director of communications, notes that the organization never intended to go public with complaints about Jay and Silent Bob or its suggestion that Miramax donate money to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. "Kevin Smith placed private correspondence from us on his Web site," says Spurgeon. "He is in the business of selling tickets, and the best way to do that is through controversy. We did not try to censor or ever intend to call for a boycott." But then why did Seomin write that line about being "public and aggressive in our condemnation?"
Whatever really happened, the Jay and Silent Bob controversy clearly shows the dangers of assigning social value to art. There may be special perils in handing that task to Hollywood career professionals, but the same minefield is frequently navigated -- often unsuccessfully -- by right-wing organizations. Take Smith's last film, Dogma. The irreverent movie was singled out for condemnation and picketing by the ever-vigilant and theologically disputatious Catholic League, which called it "anti-Catholic." How is GLAAD's claim that Jay and Silent Bob is homophobic any different?
The bottom line is that GLAAD has more in common than not with right-wing, religion-based groups that have railed against such works as Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. In condemning Dogma, a film about two renegade angels who have been kicked out of heaven (played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), the Catholic League was, in essence, saying that there is only one correct way to represent Christian beliefs. GLAAD, in condemning Jay and Silent Bob, is claiming that there is only one correct way to represent homosexuality through art. If the former is religious fundamentalism, the latter is sexual-identity fundamentalism. And if enforcing that is what GLAAD sees as its job, it's fair to ask whether the organization has lost its way -- and its relevance.
There is no question that GLAAD's priorities have shifted over the years. When Vito Russo (author of the groundbreaking The Celluloid Closet), Joan Nestle (founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives), and Jewelle Gomez (author of The Gilda Stories), among other activists, founded GLAAD in 1985, it was in response to the hysterical manner in which the New York media (particularly the New York Post) were covering the AIDS epidemic. Demanding that the media report accurately on the disease -- remember, this was back when people thought they could "catch" AIDS by sharing a glass of water with someone who was sick -- was important, useful work.
But as GLAAD grew from a grassroots organization into a national advocacy group with a $4 million annual budget and a staff of 30, its focus moved from news to entertainment media. It's one thing to lobby the New York Times to start using "gay" in place of "homosexual" -- which the group did, successfully -- and quite another to decide that a character in a film should be condemned as homophobic. This shift in the group's size and focus was cemented in the late '90s with a series of high-profile hires from inside Hollywood. In 1996, GLAAD hired Chastity Bono as its entertainment-media director. The daughter of Sonny and Cher, she had just made headlines by coming out. Although she had almost no political experience, she brought Hollywood connections with her. The following year, Joan Garry was named the organization's executive director. She had spent 16 years in the entertainment industry; for seven of those years she served as vice-president of business operations for Showtime, managing the network's $300 million pay-per-view business. Before that Garry helped launch MTV, and as director of business development for MTV Networks she established new channels and helped create the annual MTV Video Music Awards.
When Bono was fired after the Ellen controversy, she was replaced by Seomin, who had previously worked as the media-relations director for Entertainment Weekly and E! Entertainment Television. As activist and author Michelangelo Signorile notes, "At this point GLAAD is filled with people coming out of the industry, and there are some upsides to that, but there are also many downsides." GLAAD still monitors the news media, and has programs that train community activists to work with the local media, but the group's fundraising, its agenda, and its own high media profile are increasingly focused on entertainment. Although Spurgeon claims that the organization has "been working on entertainment media for 15 years" -- and indeed, Russo kept up his critique of homophobia in the film industry -- the scale and shape of GLAAD's focus on entertainment has clearly changed.
A look at the presenters at the annual GLAAD Media Awards -- there were four such events this past year in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC -- shows just how cozy GLAAD is with entertainment-industry names. Major presenters at the Los Angeles dinner included DeGeneres, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes (Will & Grace), LeAnn Rimes, Bill Brochtrup, Christian Campbell, Tisha Campbell, Margaret Cho, Deborah Gibson, Leeza Gibbons, Ian Gomez (Felicity), James LeGros, Garry Marshall, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Kerr Smith (Dawson's Creek), Bruce Vilanch, Gabriel Romero and James Leary (Los Beltran), Dean Cain, Andrew Keegan and Billy Porter (The Broken Hearts Club), Mitchell Anderson, Diane Delano, Leslie Grossman and Tammy Lynn Michaels (Popular), Michelle Clunie, Thea Gill, Sharon Gless, Randy Harrison, Scott Lowell, and Peter Paige and Hal Sparks (Queer as Folk).
GLAAD's events look amazingly similar to that other well-known industry event: the Academy Awards. And, as at the Oscars, most of the presenters and guests had been nominees and winners in years past. GLAAD may very well have reached a point where it has crossed the line from watchdog to Hollywood poodle.
What's ironic about GLAAD's liberal Hollywood support is that the organization takes a decidedly conservative tack in policing homophobia. The organization's semi-apocalyptic view is that any artistic expression the activists regard as homophobic will immediately translate into physical violence against gay people. This view is really not much different from former vice-president Dan Quayle's infamous declaration that TV character Murphy Brown's unwed motherhood was a threat to the American family. More to the point, how is GLAAD's belief that teenage boys who watch Jay and Silent Bob will go out and beat up gays any different from William Bennett's claims that violent lyrics in rap music, as opposed to guns and poverty, cause violence?
Let's face it: art -- in the form of movies, television, or books interprets reality. It is frequently symptomatic of cultural change. But it is not in itself, in any way, reality. If GLAAD executive director Garry actually believes that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back will increase queer-bashing against young gay men and lesbians, one wonders what she thinks about the years she spent with MTV, a network that did more than most to promote brainless, dehumanizing, and insulting portraits of women.
Making matters worse is GLAAD's seemingly capricious standard for what and who is homophobic. Take Showtime's Queer as Folk, which was singled out as the Outstanding Drama Series at this year's GLAAD Media Awards -- even as the organization said that Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back posed "a threat to gay and lesbian people." Queer as Folk is a lavishly produced mini-series that portrays gay men as sexually obsessed and promiscuous. The characters are catty and mean-spirited. They lust after teenage boys and care about nothing outside their own little circle.
By contrast, Jay and Silent Bob is a funny look at homophobia in Hollywood. George Mansour, a Boston-based film booker and industry-acknowledged expert on queer films, asks of Jay and Silent Bob: "How is this anti-gay? No one but an idiot is going to think that Jay and Silent Bob are role models and will want to emulate them -- it's like emulating the Three Stooges." In the end, Mansour claims, "the movie goes out of its way to show how gay they really are. If anything, this is the most explicit defense of being queer we've seen in years."
But the politics of representation are riddled with inconsistencies. Take GLAAD's decision last year to award Anne Heche the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her contributions to lesbian visibility. Well, Heche has since gotten married -- to a man. Also last year, GLAAD awarded Elton John the Vito Russo Award for his contributions to gay art and life. Not one year later, at the GLAAD Media Awards dinner in New York, the audience was urged to boo John because of his high-profile performance with Eminem at the Grammy Awards, actions that supposedly "violate the spirit of the award."
If you go further back -- before GLAAD -- you'll find that in the early 1970s three films were singled out by gay activists as profoundly homophobic and dangerous to gay people: William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band, as well as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Fox and His Friends, by openly gay filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. All three films were picketed by the Gay Activists Alliance in New York and by other groups across the country. Today, these films are considered classics of gay cinema, and each is taught in gay-and-lesbian-studies courses at colleges and universities across the country. Asking simplistic questions like "Is this a positive image of gay people?" or "Is this good for gay people?" in the long run gets you very little. "It's weird enough talking about fiction in terms of 'good images' and 'bad images,'" says novelist Christopher Bram, whose book Father of Frankenstein was made into the award-winning film Gods and Monsters. "It's even harder with comedy, where so much humor is based on making you laugh at something you shouldn't laugh at. There is the current crop of straight filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who do South Park, and they are obsessed with homosexuality. But they are not homophobic, they are not scared of homosexuality."
GLAAD was formed to fight "defamation" -- the promulgation of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations of lesbian and gay lives. But are gay people any safer now that an old episode of Match Game is no longer on television? Seen today, the episode qualifies as camp: host Gene Rayburn asks the panel, "Doris just got married and found out that her husband was a ____." Guests Dick Gautier (Hymie from Get Smart) and his wife, Barbara, fill in the blank with: "Fag." When columnist Rex Wockner questioned the advisability of pulling the episode from syndication, GLAAD's Scott Seomin answered: "This was ridicule. I don't think there's a great cultural void because there's one episode of Match Game from the 1970s that won't see the light of day."
Seomin's arrogance would be laughable if it were not so frightening. Is GLAAD going to insist that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye not be assigned in schools because Holden Caulfield uses the word "fag?" Is the group going to condemn Radclyffe Hall's 1928 classic The Well of Loneliness because its lesbian protagonist is doomed and self-loathing? Or James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Another Country because their gay characters are filled with self-hatred?
Those questions might seem like straw men, of course. But when Seomin shook down Kevin Smith for money and GLAAD refused to try to understand Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in anything other than simplistic good-image/bad-image terms, it was in many ways the logical extension of the direction the organization has been heading in for several years. In that case, GLAAD may actually have become what it's supposed to be critiquing -- a caricature, dangerous to queer people and to complex views of queer art and queer freedom. Unless the organization shifts gears -- and fast -- we'll be better off without it.
Michael Bronski is the author of several books about queer culture and has been a media critic focusing on the gay press for 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.