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What is the history of GLAAD?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

For more than two decades, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has served as the Queer community's watchdog against biased portrayals of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people in the media.

Up until the final decades of the 20th century, representations of LGBT people in films, television, popular music, and mainstream publications - if present at all - typically focused on scandal or ridicule. The burst of Gay activism and visibility in the late 1960s spurred a conservative backlash, and by the mid-1980s, the community was staggering under the weight of the AIDS epidemic, as people with HIV faced stigma exacerbated by media portrayals depicting them as a danger to the "general population."

In 1985, the New York LGBT community was embroiled in a debate about closure of the city's Gay bathhouses and grew increasingly alarmed about sensationalistic AIDS coverage in the New York Post. That November, a group of longtime activists including Vito Russo, Arnie Kantrowitz, Jim Owles, and Darrell Yates Rist called a town meeting that drew more than 700 participants. Heeding the exhortation of author Jewelle Gomez to "take responsibility for what is being said about us," they formed the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

The group began as a grassroots effort, using phone trees and monthly newsletters to issue alerts about offensive media portrayals of LGBT people. Among its earliest victories, in 1987 GLAAD persuaded the New York Times to finally use the word "Gay" rather than "homosexual." The following year, the New York group hired its first full-time executive director, Craig Davidson. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Richard Jennings and others started a new chapter focused on the Hollywood entertainment industry. The bicoastal organization's clout continued to grow, enabling it to secure an apology from comedian Johnny Carson for saying "fag" on the air, followed by the suspension of Andy Rooney by CBS for homophobic and racist comments. In 1992, Entertainment Weekly named GLAAD one of the 100 most powerful entities in Hollywood.

Before long, new GLAAD chapters arose in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. But in 1995, the local groups merged into a centralized national organization with a single board, and a staff based in New York and Los Angeles; two years later, former Showtime executive Joan Garry took the helm. Over the next decade, GLAAD initiated projects focusing on communities of color (including Spanish and Chinese language media), sports media, faith-based groups, and youth.

GLAAD continued to exert insider pressure, and, when needed, to organize larger public protests against biased portrayals - like Sharon Stone's murderous Bisexual temptress in the film Basic Instinct (1992) - or the omission of queer content, such as excising a male-male kiss from the television show Melrose Place. Homophobic song lyrics by rapper Eminem and Jamaican dancehall artists Beenie Man and Buju Banton were other targets. GLAAD also reacted to current events, such as the murders of Matthew Shepard and Transgender teen Gwen Araujo, as well as homophobic outbursts by the likes of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

But in keeping with its mission of promoting "fair, accurate, and inclusive representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation," GLAAD also sought to shape positive portrayals. It consulted on television and movie scripts featuring LGBT characters and themes, pitched sympathetic stories to mainstream publications, provided spokespersons for talk shows, and trained queer individuals and groups in how to effectively use the media. In addition to wielding the "stick" of protest, the organization also dangled the "carrot" of praise, introducing the GLAAD Media Awards in 1990 to recognize favorable representations of the community and its issues. After considerable pressure from LGBT media, the organization agreed in 2007 to honor them along with non-Gay outlets.

By 2005, when Garry turned over leadership to Neil Giuliano - the openly Gay former Republican mayor of Tempe, Ariz. - the organization had a budget approaching $7.5 million and a staff of more than 40. Yet GLAAD's explosive growth, insider strategy, and increased emphasis on star-studded events did not sit well with some activists who felt the organization had moved too far from its grassroots origins. Further, some were unhappy with tactics they regarded as censorship, such as the successful pressure campaign to cancel conservative commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger's television show.

GLAAD has "a political agenda that is murky at best - at worst, it is dangerous to free speech, artistic expression, and the interests of LGBT people," wrote activist Michael Bronski. "Judging the accuracy of a news report is much different than judging art. GLAAD can deal with these issues by getting out of show business and back into watchdog media commentary."

Despite the criticism, GLAAD continues with its goal of "changing people's hearts and minds through what they see in the media." According to the organization, "What people see at the movies or read in the newspaper shapes how they view and treat the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender people around them, and we have a responsibility to make sure those images foster awareness, understanding and respect."

For further reading:
Bronski, Michael. 2005. "Not So GLAAD Anymore." Z Magazine (May 1).
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. www.glaad.org.
Gross, Larry. 2002. Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America (Columbia University Press).

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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