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GLAAD Reconsidered


After Adam Lambert's now-infamous performance at the American Music Awards led ABC to nix the pop star from at least three subsequent live appearances, you'd think that the bulk of gay anger would be directed at the network and its parent company, Disney. Provocative acts are the currency of pop music, and Madonna and Britney locked lips years ago. Lambert, it seemed, was subject to a different set of rules.

But in the wake of the controversy that erupted, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation emerged as a primary target, criticized throughout the LGBT blogosphere for its feeble, inconsistent response. After first calling the network's decision "disappointing," the group sent out an update that seemed to defend ABC, followed by confusing statements that sought to clarify its position. Suddenly GLAAD's foggy raison d'etre became even less clear. What, exactly, is this group's role, and how do its various missions conflict?

At the heart of the controversy is a simple fact: GLAAD solicits money from networks and entertainment companies and then hands them awards for what the organization deems positive media representation of the LGBT community. (In 2009, ABC actually led rival networks with its number of nominees.) Media companies receiving the awards--many of which often engage in or perpetuate the very bias and defamation that GLAAD crusades against--sponsor the celebrity-strewn benefits and underwrite the performances in return for branding opportunities and choice tables. This fund-raising dynamic developed over time and, according to former staffers, accounts for a large percentage of the group's money--sort of like a drug habit it just can't shake. And also like a drug habit, this setup enormously compromises the group: What kind of effective watchdog takes money from the industry it polices? Imagine the ineffectiveness of a congressional watchdog group taking money from House and Senate members.

GLAAD's board of directors includes veteran film producers, media executives, entertainment attorneys, and other power players--a necessity, some may argue, to maintain relationships with those most capable of effecting change within Hollywood. I don't doubt these individuals' commitments. But while putting insiders on the board may have been helpful in the 1990s, it seems less so in an age when gay people are omnipresent in media and entertainment, often in positions of great influence. From Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow to Neil Patrick Harris and Adam Lambert himself, visibility of out gay people in media and pop culture is at an all-time high. LGBT characters and cast members are common in prime-time dramas like ABC's Brothers & Sisters, daytime soaps, and myriad reality shows. This is no accident; we are, after all, a desirable advertising demographic.

GLAAD's board may be greater, raising the question of whether the group takes its board members' interests into account when criticizing companies. Are GLAAD's inadequate responses to many incidents influenced by conflicts on the board or by just plain incompetence? It's also unclear whether media companies are able to buy GLAAD's silence by bringing reps in for content discussions. Take, for example, the juvenile 2007 Adam Sandler film I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which was filled with cringe-inducing stereotypes and homo-phobic jokes. GLAAD gave the film a stamp of approval after it suggested certain tweaks to the filmmakers during a screening. Whatever positive influence GLAAD had, it wasn't enough to counter the film's ugliness. But GLAAD endorsed the film anyway, seemingly having been bought by the access.

In the case of Lambert, GLAAD hit the right note at the outset, pointing to the double standard of the network canceling his Good Morning America performance one day after the AMAs. But the wording of the response was at best tepid: GLAAD called the decision "disappointing," when it was, in fact, outrageous. The response wasn't front and center on GLAAD's home page, which is often devoted to media award announcements and changes within the organization. If you're looking for news of recent defamation against gays, you may have to sleuth around awhile. Compare its site with sites for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America or the Anti-Defamation League, both of which offer a real sense of urgency about the work those groups are doing.

In November, I watched the bilious and phony preacher Joel Osteen say on The View that "homosexuality is not God's best." He was met with polite resistance by the show's cohosts, not outrage. Frankly, these kinds of statements shouldn't be acceptable on The View--or anywhere on television. Yet I never saw any response from GLAAD. If there was one, it didn't reach me--and that in itself would be another problem.

But the Lambert controversy was more than just a muted message on GLAAD's part. Nearly two weeks after the AMA performance, GLAAD announced that it had met with ABC, which asserted that Lambert's lip lock with his male keyboardist had no bearing on his canceled appearances on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. The "real" reason the network offered--that it was "caught off guard" because Lambert's performance differed so much from his rehearsal--offered little clarity on the matter. But GLAAD seemed satisfied, and soon after the meeting, TMZ posted a story headlined "GLAAD Backs ABC's Decision to Can Lambert."

GLAAD spent the next two days stumbling to explain itself. Eventually, the group's president, Jarrett Barrios--a longtime activist and former Massachusetts legislator who was only three months into his tenure--came on my radio program and acknowledged that the statement was "problematic," refreshingly admitting to a mistake on his group's part. He also said GLAAD would soon be launching a redesign of its website so it could more forcefully condemn antigay attacks. That's certainly great to hear.

But Barrios didn't say much about donations from ABC and other networks, except his assertion that GLAAD keeps its finances separate from the advocacy work that it does (not an adequate answer in my book). He also took credit for what he called a "partial victory," because The View later booked Lambert, though the interview taped before the broadcast. And Lambert still hasn't been invited back to the live-performance shows he was axed from. Perhaps ABC still sees him as an out-of-control homosexual who can't be trusted.

Days later, on Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2009, a girl-on-girl kiss from Lady Gaga's video was aired during her segment, but Lambert's lip lock with his keyboardist was alluded to obliquely as something that could not be shown on that program. So much for ABC's claim that it wasn't the kiss that bothered the network. From GLAAD, there has been only radio silence.

If GLAAD wants to be a real leader in quashing gay bias in the media, it must stop taking money from the companies whose programming it scrutinizes and must speak out quickly and forcefully when incidents occur. If GLAAD is unwilling to do that, a new group needs to take its place, one that is Web-based and one that will galvanize people to aggressively complain to these companies. In many ways that's already happening: Numerous LGBT blogs, from Joe.My.God. and Towleroad to Pam's House Blend, often respond faster than GLAAD, generating pressure on news outlets and entertainment companies. But an organized, focused effort is necessary. Media and entertainment companies will respond to whoever generates sufficient pressure, and if that means an entity other than GLAAD, then so be it.

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Michelangelo Signorile