Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

With the U.S. Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws nationwide, gay marriages being performed in several cities and the president endorsing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community got a lot of media attention over the past year.
Soon the community will shine under another spotlight, as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation prepares for its annual awards presentations in three American cities.
The social and political ramifications of the GLAAD Awards, which were created to recognize fair and accurate representations of gays and lesbians in the media, were never exactly in the closet.
“The awards have been important because they have allowed exposure for sides of the community that many in mainstream America may not have seen,” said Andrea Swift, executive producer of the PBS series “In the Life,” which this year receives the Barbara Gittings Award for contributions in the development of LGBT media.
Joan Garry, the New York-based organization’s executive director, agreed. “Gay visibility in media is bringing a national debate forward,” Ms. Garry said. “It is through the print media and the images in visual media that people are seeing gays as parents, as tax-paying citizens.”
If people think GLAAD is promoting some sort of gay agenda, that’s OK with Ms. Garry. “I don’t hide from the phrase, `the gay agenda,”’ she said. “The gay agenda stands for equal rights for all. I’m comfortable with the gay agenda.”
Writer-director Jane Anderson, a nominee this year for her HBO film, “Normal,” said she appreciates the inclusive tone of the annual awards proceedings. “The language you hear at the GLAAD Awards is not extremist, and that’s good,” said Ms. Anderson, whose film explores a marriage in which the husband discloses he is transgender. “What is also good about having the awards is they applaud programs that demystify the so-called `gay agenda.”’
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation dates to 1985. Distressed by the negative way Vito Russo thought the New York Post was covering the AIDS crisis, the author of “The Celluloid Closet,” which looked at gay images on the screen, joined with activist Craig Davidson and his partner Michael Valentini to create an organization that would seek to educate the media. Mr. Davidson, an attorney, became the first executive director.
Today GLAAD has 15,000 dues-paying members and many more supporters. When Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” speaking out against gay marriage, 10,000 e-mail messages protesting his unchallenged comments were sent to CNN via the GLAAD Web site.
Five years after GLAAD was conceived, its organizers created the GLAAD Awards “to acknowledge the good things and to address the deprecating stuff,” said Jason Burlingame, director of special events.
“That first year they gave Phil Donahue a special award,” he said. “And Donahue not only showed up with his wife, Marlo Thomas, he returned year after year and became an advocate for the awards and what the organization was trying to do. Having Phil Donahue in our corner gave GLAAD a really good start.”
Similarly, after the Los Angeles awards ceremonies were instituted in 1991 star power from the Hollywood community supported GLAAD’s efforts.
“In the mid-’90s, Gregory Peck, who was a strong supporter of human rights issues, was invited to the awards,” Mr. Burlingame said. “And he came. Typically, when a celebrity is going to speak, you give him some talking points from which to draw. We did that with Peck, but he chose his own words, and they were incredibly moving. To have a Hollywood legend supporting us was very important, as you can imagine.”
Toward the goal of greater inclusion, GLAAD this year has created new categories in which to honor achievement for Spanish-language media.
“There are cultural differences we have to deal with in the Spanish-speaking community,” said Monica Taher, GLAAD’s people of color media director. “There is the culture of machismo and the religious aspects. Separating the awards is a start toward dealing with Spanish media.
“In the U.S., the programs have become more sensitive to our issues because the culture has, but that is not so in other countries,” Ms. Taher said, adding that 60 percent of Spanish-language television shown in the United States is made outside the country. “When we went to speak with the executives at Univision, for example, they said no one had ever walked in their doors to talk about the issue, to tell them that saying the word `faggot’ in a TV program is something that should be addressed.”
Ms. Garry said the GLAAD Awards foster social progress, and she is unconcerned about any potential negative backlash should LGBT issues become hot buttons during the coming presidential election.
“In the late ’80s it was GLAAD who went to The New York Times and convinced them to use the word `gay’ instead of `homosexual,”’ she said. “Fifteen years later GLAAD met with them again, and now The Times is running gay couples on the wedding pages. The GLAAD Awards are about holding the media accountable, and the example of The Times shows they are listening.”