A New Top Watchdog at GLAAD

Herndon Graddick, the new executive director of GLAAD, talks about the outlook for the preeminent LGBT media watchdog following some high-profile bumps.

BY Julie Bolcer

October 04 2012 4:00 AM ET

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.

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