The midtown Manhattan office occupied by GLAAD executive director Herndon Graddick appears sparsely decorated, save for the brightly painted walls. Barely six months into his new role, the former journalist and environmental campaigner has been absorbed with guiding the organization through a period of internal transition while adapting its mission to the rapidly changing political and news landscape.
Graddick, 36, took the helm in April after a two-year stint as GLAAD’s vice president of programs and communications. His appointment followed a leadership crisis in 2011 that saw his predecessor resign after revelations that the nonprofit urged federal regulators to endorse the merger of AT&T, a major donor, with T-Mobile. The perception of impropriety fueled controversy, and the fallout bruised the reputation and finances of the organization. Approximately 25% of the staff was laid off, cuts from which the group is still recovering, but its new leader is optimistic.
“GLAAD faced challenges last year by anyone’s estimation, and in the subsequent months the repercussions were seen on the books,” Graddick says. “Now is the dawn of a new time for GLAAD, a new era, and I think people are seeing that from the work that we’ve been doing.”
Times have changed dramatically since 1985, when GLAAD was formed to counteract relentlessly negative portrayals of gay men during the height of the AIDS crisis. While fair representations of transgender people still lag, scripted TV and movies now regularly contain accurate and multifaceted depictions of lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters. The nation’s digitized political conversation, in contrast, seems vulnerable to the supremacy of volume over facts.
“Our political discourse is full of LGBT people being demagogued,” Graddick says. “Part of our role is of the rapid response PR agency for the LGBT community. Social change takes place 24-hour news cycle after 24-hour news cycle, and that battle is being fought every day.”
GLAAD is officially nonpartisan, a status that restricts its involvement to cultivating progress in a broad sense. A new initiative in this area, the Commentator Accountability Project, tracks the actual words and video of pundits who defame LGBT people. The online resource is the brainchild of Graddick, who previously monitored the energy industry’s rebuttals of climate change science with the Global Observatory.
A former journalist with E! and Current TV, Graddick recognized the demands on reporters and editors scrambling for accuracy on ever-tighter deadlines. The commentator project lets the records of prominent antigay figures such as Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council speak for themselves.
“The idea of the project is to make journalists’ jobs easier to access real information,” says Graddick. “We do not editorialize it.”
GLAAD has also emphasized telling stories about LGBT people that resonate with Americans. The campaign with Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother in Ohio yanked from leading her son’s Cub Scout den, takes a “common values” approach, according to Graddick, the shared value that “every mother deserves the same right to parent her child.”
Another priority is transgender media representation. While GLAAD successfully worked with the Miss Universe Organization to open the competition to trans women this past spring, Graddick wants to achieve more. The organization is working with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition on the “I AM: Trans People Speak” campaign.
“Americans really don’t know who transgender people really are, and that’s obviously a focus of GLAAD to try to get the transgender community where the LGB community is today, which is, most Americans know that LGB people are just another part of society,” he says.
In another development under Graddick’s leadership, actor and activist Wilson Cruz has joined the organization as the strategic giving officer. A GLAAD Media Award winner and former board member, the My So-called Life star will work on fund-raising and advocacy efforts with TV networks and film studios.
An evolving mission and expanding audiences make the organization ripe for a formal name change to simply GLAAD “within the short term,” says Graddick. What started as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation more than 25 years ago is today “a lot more than that.”
Graddick is not one to seek the limelight, but his commitment to GLAAD’s work helped him overcome any reservations about being in the public eye as executive director. A native of Alabama, where his father served as attorney general, he counted George Wallace, the former segregationist governor, as a childhood neighbor. Although his father’s politics were “pretty moderate, for Alabama” and his parents never spoke negatively about being gay, he still grew up thinking it was “more socially acceptable to be a murderer than be a gay person.” He struggled with coming out for a year after he moved to Los Angeles for college.
“I wanted to fight against that, whether that was by really accurately producing and reporting on the news to doing what we do here, which is fighting to make the world a better place,” he says. “Fighting was what I did instead of grieving.”
As leader of one of the best-known LGBT organizations, Graddick acknowledges that the group’s choices about what to tackle will be scrutinized. Like his earlier career in journalism, the work is “full of judgment calls,” with “no science to judging the exact, most effective approach to every issue,” he says. Feedback is appreciated.
“I don’t think we represent every opinion in the LGBT movement, or that there’s not a value in having many different voices in the LGBT community,” he says. “Dissent, from that perspective, is very healthy.”