20 Years of GLAAD: A History of Activism

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

Operating under the premise declared in its mission statement, “When media images of our lives are fair, accurate and inclusive, we find ourselves increasingly welcome in a society that respects difference,” the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is noting its 20th anniversary this year.

The national organization can claim a lengthy list of accomplishments in pursuit of its goals of shattering stereotypes and providing instruction and information about the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community.

“GLAAD is an activist organization and a good one,” said Ellen Carton, who was the executive director of the New York branch from 1991 to 1994. “It’s become a major player in fighting defamation in all forms of media.”

GLAAD has reached out to every level of media to change perceptions and educate. When icon Bob Hope used an epithet for gay males on “The Tonight Show” in 1988, the organization helped convince Mr. Hope to pay for a public service spot decrying anti-gay violence. He later received special recognition for the PSA from GLAAD at its first Media Awards in 1990.

When CBS sports commentator Ben Wright made homophobic remarks about two male golfers in 1996 GLAAD wasted no time contacting the network. Mr. Wright was fired.

The organization expressed grave concerns about a planned 2004 Fox reality special, “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay,” in which straight contestants would be “trapped in gay hell,” and would have to fool people into thinking they were gay. Fox pulled the show before it aired.

While GLAAD works for the inclusion of LGBT images and individuals in all genres of programs, the organization makes a distinction between positive inclusion and inclusion that it believes to be degrading.

“We were never into boycotting as such,” Ms. Carton said. “That suggests censorship, which GLAAD is very much against. Our goal was not just correcting erroneous or negative images, we were saying, ‘Show more images. Show a variety of images.'”

After years of gay pride parades and “outing” activism, not to mention eight seasons of “Will & Grace” on NBC, it may be difficult for many people to believe that when CBS televised “CBS Reports: The Homosexual” in 1967 the interview subjects were hidden behind potted plants to protect their privacy.

The visibility of LGBT issues, individuals and characters in the media was limited back in 1985, when GLAAD was formed. That was 16 years after the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York, which many consider the beginning of the gay rights movement-at least in the public eye.

Even the acronym LGBT-denoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-had yet to be coined in 1985. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, a period in which President Ronald Reagan and his administration were not referring to the disease by name.

“Rock Hudson had AIDS,” recalled Jeffrey Sosnick, an original GLAAD board member who has served since the board’s inception. “So the public was aware.”

The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was covering AIDS and the AIDS crisis in a way that blamed the gay community for the problem, according to GLAAD.

“The Post was full of misinformation and disinformation,” Mr. Sosnick said. “It was ripe with attacks and homophobia.”

Eight gay men in New York, many tied to academia or media, decided they were mad as hell and were not going to take it any longer. The best-known and probably the most media-savvy of the eight was the late Vito Russo, the author of the landmark book “The Celluloid Closet,” which explored gay characters and images in film. Mr. Russo would become known, Mr. Sosnick said, as “the spiritual godfather of GLAAD,” and a special GLAAD Media Award was named in his honor.

Another one of the original eight, Craig Davidson, left his law practice to become the organization’s first executive director.

“They literally met in someone’s kitchen to discuss what we as a community were going to do about the Post,” Mr. Sosnick said. “What do we do to respond? What can we do to address all misconceptions in the media? This was the initial impulse for GLAAD.”

A month later they held a town hall meeting at a church in Greenwich Village, and it was there that Mr. Sosnick joined them and began his own involvement in what would become GLAAD. He recalls that more than 1,000 people attended the event.

“In December [1985] we demonstrated outside the New York Post,” he recalled. “There were about 100 people. I can’t say that the paper immediately changed its coverage. It didn’t. But what the demonstration did do was get some attention. It coalesced the gay community, who needed an outlet to deal with their sense of outrage. It was a rallying point. It showed why we should launch this organization.”

At first, GLAAD was not a national organization but rather a loosely connected amalgam of local groups in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Atlanta. Each focused on issues and media presentation in its area-with the Los Angeles group taking on Hollywood.

Also, each grew quickly.

Like Mr. Sosnick, Jehan Agrama’s first encounter with GLAAD was not with its initial establishment but rather through a call for support. She saw an advertisement in a Los Angeles-based gay and lesbian publication seeking volunteers for a new organization that would challenge the media’s perception of the LGBT community.

“I responded to that ad,” said Ms. Agrama, who eventually co-chaired the first Los Angeles GLAAD Media Awards. “I had been involved in my family’s film business but was looking to do something more relevant and something in the gay and lesbian community.”

GLAAD’s mission attracted her from the outset. Its outreach to the media, including the studios, networks and production companies of Hollywood, had success almost immediately, she said, because, “We made sense to the industry.”

“We acted intelligently, if I do say so,” Ms. Agrama said. “Our approach was conversation and education, and I think media companies were more at ease with that.”

Celebrities and others from television news and entertainment in particular helped to bring attention to GLAAD. In New York, talk show host Phil Donahue was honored at the 1990 Media Awards, which he attended with his wife, actor-producer and feminist Marlo Thomas. Mr. Donahue made an impassioned address and returned to the ceremony year after year.

“Phil Donahue and Barbara Walters were supporters, and they helped opened doors by simply being there,” Ms. Carton said.

In Los Angeles, GLAAD credits performers Doris Roberts, John Lithgow and Judith Light as well as writer-director-actor Garry Marshall with doing the same.

“GLAAD is a dynamic force in the LGBT community,” said Ms. Light, who has also been involved with many groups concerned with the issue of HIV/AIDS.

“I remember being told about an organization that was going to be a media watchdog,” she said. “I thought this was something badly needed. Anything that takes positive action, that rises to a greater level instead of being bitter, I want to be part of that.”

GLAAD’s eventually became recognized as “a serious player” in the media, Ms. Carton said. But some inside thought the organization had reached a plateau.

During the seminal years, Mr. Sosnick said, “GLAAD was pretty much reactive rather than proactive. We responded rather than moved to educate and change.

“I recall when [conservative commentator] William Buckley wrote that they should tattoo all those with HIV/AIDS on their backsides as a warning. We went to speak with him. He wouldn’t back down, but this is indicative of what we were doing. Someone or some media outlet would say or write something that we found defamatory and we would spring into action.

“We realized that the organization had to move to the next level.”

By the early 1990s it became clear to the various GLAAD chapters that the way to move in that direction was t
o become a unified national organization. “We were still pretty grass-roots,” said Ms. Carton, who headed the New York chapter during this transitional period.

“Things really heated up with our action against the movie ‘Basic Instinct’ [in 1992],” she said. “There were a lot of protests about the movie and its portrayals of lesbians and bisexual women while it was still in production, and then when it was released. We realized then if we were going to launch serious national campaigns, we had to take the step to be a national organization.”

It was not an easy transition. In fact, it took three years. Ms. Carton recalled that the New York and Los Angeles branches each felt they should be pre-eminent because of their locations in a media centers. Finally, in 1994, a compromise was reached in which the headquarters would be in both New York and Los Angeles. The organizational efforts would be focused on five regions within the U.S.

The reorganization has been a success, Mr. Sosnick said. “I think we’re speaking with unanimity, with one voice now,” he said.

Today, GLAAD functions on about a $7.2 million annual budget, raised through grants, corporate gifts, proceeds from the Media Awards and individual contributions.