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Growing pains at

Growing pains at

Under departing executive director Joan Garry, GLAAD has grown into a powerful media watchdog group both respected and feared--with $7.3 million in revenues. Garry's successor faces rapidly changing media, high staff turnover, and calls to return to its grass roots

On a recent Sunday night of television, on Fox, Homer Simpson became a minister and married a long line of same-sex couples, and his sister-in-law Patty came out. Over at ABC, Desperate Housewives ended an episode with Andrew Van De Kamp (Shawn Pyfrom) making out in a swimming pool with a high school buddy (played by Eating Out star Ryan Carnes). On Showtime a new season of the lesbian series The L Word was in full swing. All that, and no concerted protests from the country's conservative activists. Such moments--when U.S. media consumers experience a collective yawn regarding gay and lesbian story lines--give the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reason to celebrate and to note how far the group has come in its 20-year history. Its mission remains the same: to ensure that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans are portrayed accurately and fairly in the media, and its work is far from over. In fact, the past year has had GLAAD operating in high gear. As same-sex marriages were being performed from San Francisco to New Paltz, N.Y., the group was training couples on how to speak to the media. It ripped into the advertising department of the Los Angeles Times for publishing a recruitment ad for the "ex-gay" group Exodus International. And among other battles, it took on the antigay lyrics of dancehall rapper Beenie Man, and the Concerned Women for America for its statements on the "pro-gay" agenda of the movie Kinsey. "I think we are in the midst of one of the most visible, loudest public arguments about our lives and our love that we have ever been in," says Joan Garry, GLAAD's executive director since 1997. "I think that in this climate our visibility can't be taken for granted." Yet this is the moment Garry is stepping down as GLAAD's guiding force. It's time, she says, to spend more time with her Montclair, N.J., family: partner Eileen Opatut, their 15-year-old daughter, and their 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. "I think it's important for people to hear from me that this is not Joan throwing up her hands saying, 'I have had it. I am burnt to a crisp,' " adds Garry, who leaves her post in June. "My oldest daughter is three years away from college, and my twins will soon be teenagers, and we certainly are learning that spending more time with your teenagers--whether they like it or not--is really important." As Garry departs, GLAAD is at a crossroads. On one hand, it is on track to raise a robust $7.3 million in donations in 2005. It is considered a major force in Hollywood. It can afford to send a staffer to a local hot spot--for example, to New Mexico when a county clerk began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004--to meet with local journalists. Garry and other GLAAD spokespeople are regulars on even right-wing talk shows. And the group boasts a membership of 15,000, many of them ready to take action--write letters, cancel subscriptions, attend a rally--at the drop of one of GLAAD's tough-talking "media alerts." Yet GLAAD is also working overtime to catch up to a new era in the media: network news with partisan spin, bloggers breaking hard news, the Federal Communications Commission threatening $500,000 fines for violations of ambiguous "indecency" rules, the growing influence of the Christian right in local media markets--to name just a few current challenges. And its financial success and organizational size--it has 46 full-time employees in New York and Los Angeles--has fueled some dissatisfaction with both the amount of energy spent on fund-raising and a rigid management structure. "GLAAD is like any other nonprofit organization, where some people are going to be happy and other people are going to have challenges," says Monica Taher, people of color media director. "The culture of GLAAD is that we are changing people's hearts and minds and that we are doing a heck of a job." Others charge that the group's luster has dulled in recent years, that it has become better at promoting itself than actually battling media that are increasingly skittish about gay issues--distracted perhaps by the celebrity power of its chief fund-raising events, the three annual GLAAD Media Awards. The Los Angeles event, set for April 30, is perhaps the most star-studded, held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, home of the Academy Awards. All three 2005 shows are being videotaped for broadcast on Logo, Viacom's projected gay and lesbian cable channel, where Garry's partner, Opatut, is senior vice president for original programming.

Former communications director Steve Spurgeon says GLAAD's responsiveness to negative media images has dulled in recent years. "GLAAD has to be much more laser-sharp in its definition of what's acceptable and not acceptable," says Spurgeon, who left his job in 2002 and has stopped donating money to GLAAD's efforts. "It cannot be afraid to be an activist organization. There's a lot of ground to be gained in regard to this current administration." Any discussion with knowledgeable insiders about GLAAD's current state soon becomes an assessment of Garry's strengths--a sign both of her direct involvement in the group's many efforts and of the herculean task the GLAAD board of directors faces in finding a worthy successor. (A nationwide search was ongoing at press time.) "I'm concerned," says Hollywood producer Lee Rose, who has collaborated with the group on her projects. "Who the hell do you find to follow that? The job is a lot of work and a lot of traveling, and I understand why one has to pay attention to the family and all of that, but I worry that it's going to be such a tremendous loss for GLAAD." Rose and others are quick to note that Garry has secured the future of GLAAD for years to come. They describe the former Showtime network executive as an organizational wizard who inherited a fledgling grassroots group with an anemic budget and turned it into a visible and respected organization with nationwide support and significant media clout. "Joan is truly one of the great motivators, great speakers, and also very on point and clear about what the message of GLAAD is," Rose says. Adds Taher: "I can tell you this: We would not have a people of color media program and we would not be doing the work that we do if it wasn't for Joan's vision and desire to go the extra mile." Jasmyne Cannick, an African-American GLBT rights activist, strongly disagrees. Cannick was the first person to be in charge of GLAAD's outreach to minority media outlets but left after just five months. "GLAAD was the one organization that I thought I could have really excelled in because their mission was exactly the same as my mission. However, the culture was very stuffy, very closed-doors, and very secretive," she says. "I think that GLAAD's mission is a wonderful mission, but I don't think that the management team that they have in place lives up to the mission." Romaine Patterson, now a talk show host on Sirius OutQ satellite radio, took a job as a GLAAD regional media manager in 2000. "I was really brought in not for my skills as an activist but more to kind of be the face of Matthew Shepard for GLAAD," says Patterson, who was friends with the slain Wyoming college student. "When it was time for grant writing and proposals and trying to get extra money, my name was often written into those. Most of that was done without my knowing. I was furious." Patterson, who left GLAAD in 2002, has mixed feelings about her time there. "I really enjoyed the company in which I worked," she says. "Joan Garry is a great person. But there are definitely challenges to working at GLAAD. I really wanted to get the issues facing gay youth into the line of thinking of GLAAD. I was shut down with that time and time again with the line that 'Yeah, we'd love to help gay youth, but gay youth aren't going to give us money to pay the bills.' " For other former employees, the distance the group traveled under Garry is evidence enough of her success as a leader. Cathy Renna, a 14-year veteran of GLAAD who stepped down as its news media director in 2004, remembers the group's lean days before Garry: "We literally stood out in front of Lambda Rising [a Washington, D.C., gay bookstore] and asked people for a dollar, and that's how we paid the rent and the phone bill. Grassroots? It was like seeds." GLAAD was founded in 1985 in New York City by several gay activists who were enraged at how the New York Post covered gay subjects. "They were issuing these incredibly defamatory, homophobic, and AIDS-phobic articles," says longtime GLAAD member Jeffrey Sosnick. "It was inaccurate. It was sensationalist." That campaign made waves in the local and gay media, but GLAAD really registered on the national radar in 1988 when the late Bob Hope appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The aging comedian enraged lesbian and gay activists when he took a look at Ed McMahon's tie and said he would have deemed the sidekick a "fag" 10 years earlier. GLAAD's leaders sent Hope a letter expressing their displeasure, and in a stunning development the comedian agreed to shoot a public service announcement denouncing violence against gays. "It was pretty extraordinary. We can't even get progressive artists to do that," Karin Schwartz, then a GLAAD official, told reporters at the time. Media outlets again took notice as GLAAD protested the killer lesbian portrayals in Basic Instinct during the movie's 1991 filming, the desexing of lesbian characters in Fried Green Tomatoes (released that same year), and the deletion of a male-male kiss from the season finale of Melrose Place in 1994. That fall GLAAD reorganized itself, evolving from a network of local chapters into a centralized national organization with a single board of directors and a staff concentrated in offices in New York and Los Angeles. Garry came on board three years later, just two weeks after Ellen DeGeneres came out and changed the face of network television. "The person who will take over as executive director is coming into a situation that's very different than the one that Joan stepped into," says Renna. "They do have a larger infrastructure. There is a larger budget. There's much better name recognition."

On the downside, the new executive director will also need to address GLAAD's high rate of turnover in key positions. "Turnover in a rapidly growing organization is something that is to be expected," Garry says. "In an aggressively growing organization, positions can outgrow people and people can outgrow positions." The organization is also victim of both its emotionally draining mission--dealing day in and day out with homophobia can lead to burnout--and its own success, Garry adds: Trained as media coaches and crisis managers, GLAAD staffers are highly desirable to corporations that come to them with offers of higher-paying jobs. As one of GLAAD's exhausted veterans, Renna notes that the group's success speaks for itself: "The media respects and/or fears GLAAD, depending on who they are and what they're doing, and that's good." The respect often comes in the form of unpublicized consultations between producers and GLAAD representatives, who read scripts and offer guidance on GLBT portrayals. It's a process that both current and former employees stress is respectful dialogue and not a backroom endorsement of any project. "We do not do intense script analysis for anybody," Garry says. "I don't see that as our role." The group's private access to studios and producers has sometimes raised hackles, however. In 2000 activists incensed at Paramount Television for developing a talk show with antigay radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger accused GLAAD of being too busy negotiating with Paramount behind closed doors to mount grassroots protests. The group learned that lesson quickly, joining with for a number of high-profile demonstrations at Paramount's gates. Hobbled by the intense media scrutiny and by its untelegenic host, Dr. Laura was canceled after a single season. GLAAD's occasional power to mortally wound programs explains the fear Renna cites. Some shows judged to be homophobic never make it to the air. When Fox scheduled a two-hour straight-to-gay satirical makeover special dubbed Seriously, Dude, I'm Gay in 2004, GLAAD quickly criticized both the show's concept and an early press release saying the program dealt with "a heterosexual male's worst nightmare: turning gay overnight." Fox pulled the show before it aired. "I never got a chance to defend [my show]," says executive producer Ray Giuliani, who is gay. To this day he has no idea how much of Fox's decision to scuttle the series was based on GLAAD's pressure. "I don't understand where GLAAD's power comes from to tell someone who is creating the show and producing the show--a group of gay men--that this is politically not correct," he says. "GLAAD does so much good, but in this case you don't even get the discussion of 'this is why this is good, this is why it was important, this is why I did it this way.' That's a hell of a way to make a decision about the show." However GLAAD may evolve after Garry's departure, current and former employees agree that the focus on movies, TV, and other traditional and mainstream media--and mainstream audiences--needs to be broadened. One growing concern is "the power of the Internet" says former board member John Klenert, who served for six years. The new executive director, he says, "needs to have an understanding and a full and total vision of how we can continue to change. This person also has to be ready to address the marriage issue from the get-go." Cannick adds that the group needs to rededicate itself to monitoring and collaborating with media targeted to minority groups, particularly the African-American media, and to building alliances with groups that share GLAAD's goals, such as progressive religious organizations. Minority media outreach is already under way, says Taher. She cites, for example, last year's meeting with Spanish-language TV giant Univision. The network's president and a group of high-level executives attended and discussed their current crop of GLBT characters. They also agreed to media training on GLBT issues "with a Univision training team that goes from affiliate to affiliate," Taher says. "It was a big success. We do the same thing with organizations that are African[-American] and API [Asian and Pacific Islander] focused." As she departs, proud of her accomplishments, Garry says she is looking forward to taking on other roles in the GLBT world. But GLAAD will always remain close to her heart. "My family and I are terribly connected to the organization and will continue to be generous supporters, regardless of who's at the helm, because the organization is incredibly meaningful," she says. "So I don't ever expect to be gone from GLAAD."

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