The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation often shines the spotlight on a media outlet that has been reckless in its handling of LGBT portrayals. By doing so, the organization can help rehabilitate the outlet's message and image. But now GLAAD is in the position of responding to a media spotlight placed on it, and leading the rehabilitation is new acting president Mike Thompson.
"My job is to kind of refocus the conversation," said Thompson. "Because of some things that have happened recently there might be question about the commitment to the mission, but I want to be very clear that the staff's focus has never wavered."
Thompson takes over for Jarrett Barrios, who resigned during a public flap involving the Federal Communications Commission and a handful of decisions that the group is now trying to undo.
Thompson is perhaps best known for turning the tragedy of California's Proposition 8 into a triumph for Utah. In 2008, as executive director for Equality Utah, Thompson saw an opportunity in the Mormon Church's claim to be against only marriage equality, not other rights for gay people. He took the church at its word and worked with state lawmakers on a package of bills awarding rights to gay Utahns. It was called the Common Ground Initiative.
"He embraced the language they were using and took what they initially perceived to be negative and made it benign," said former Utah state representative Christine Johnson, now the executive director of Equality South Carolina. Though the statewide initiative didn't pass, local antidiscrimination laws did, including in Salt Lake City, where the church is headquartered.
Johnson describes her colleague as an "empathic diplomat" who knows how to talk with opponents such as the religious right. An ability to bring people together could come in handy for Thompson at GLAAD.
Barrios resigned in June after pushing to broaden the scope of GLAAD's influence. Barrios had sent a letter to the FCC in which GLAAD registered support for a proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. Barrios claimed it would help gay people by improving access to the Internet.
But in the first weeks after Thompson became acting president, GLAAD revoked its support for the merger, and is now officially neutral. The group clarified its position in favor of net neutrality, which AT&T opposes. Since Thompson's appointment, GLAAD announced eight board members were departing. The most controversial board member, former AT&T executive Troup Coronado, was among them.
Amid the fuss over the initial FCC letter were suggestions that AT&T may have made donations to curry favor with GLAAD. Gay bloggers debated whether Coronado should remain on the board, and the undue attention threatened to eclipse GLAAD's less flashy, everyday work on LGBT representations in the media. The controversy led one former board member, Laurie Perper, to suggest on The Michelangelo Signorile Show that it might be time to dissolve GLAAD.
Not on his watch, Thompson says. Without GLAAD, groups like Equality Utah wouldn't have had the advice needed to pass antidiscrimination ordinances, he argues. And, remember, it was GLAAD that comedian Tracy Morgan turned to for guidance when an onstage rant deeply offended the gay population.
"Nobody holds that space that we do," contends Thompson. "And if GLAAD weren't here, there would be this void or vacuum, and opportunities would be missed."