20 Years of GLAAD: Leader Applies Practical Politics

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation announced last August that it had found, in Neil Giuliano, a successor to Joan Garry, its popular leader of eight years, eyebrows rose both within the gay community and without.

Those on the outside wondered whether by naming Mr. Giuliano, who was the mayor of Tempe, Ariz., from 1994 to 2004, as its president, GLAAD was signaling its intent to become more politically engaged on the national stage. Those on the inside, meanwhile, bristled at the idea of a Republican, even a clearly progressive one like Mr. Giuliano, at the helm of one of American lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender society’s most important and visible organizations.

Mr. Giuliano, a New Jersey native, talked recently with TelevisionWeek correspondent Dan Allen about the process of settling into his new post, his experiences as an openly gay mayor and his vision for GLAAD’s future.

TelevisionWeek: What have your first few months at GLAAD been like?

Neil Giuliano: It’s been very energizing. It’s been exciting to meet people from the GLAAD family all over the country and to learn how they’re involved. I went from being a mayor who was gay and involved with LGBT issues from a policy standpoint, and now I’m sort of going out to the front lines, dealing with our issues from a media standpoint. It’s been an exciting career shift for me.

TVWeek: Do you think having been a mayor helped prepare you for your current post?

Mr. Giuliano: Well, certainly the level of activity is the same. The last few months as the president of GLAAD has been very similar to being in the final few months of a mayoral campaign. It’s just nonstop. There’s media activities, and people to communicate with all the time. You have to stay on message. You have a lot of activity and a lot of things pulling at you, and yet you’ve got to finesse all of that and keep moving and keep directing and keep things in gear. So there’s actually a lot of similarity. It’s a lot like a campaign. But as Teddy Kennedy said, it’s going to be the campaign that never ends.

The biggest difference is of course that I don’t have a fixed geographical space that I’m responsible for, like a city with set boundaries. There’s a national organization with constituents in every metropolitan area of the country, and we have relationships and partnerships and interactions with media, both entertainment and news, all over the country.

TVWeek: Has anything really surprised you about the job?

Mr. Giuliano: What’s surprised me is the amazing potential we have as an organization to have an even greater role in the movement that we’re engaged in. I think GLAAD’s just now starting to evolve into really being a powerful voice in the movement against defamation.

TVWeek: Why do you think that’s finally happening now?

Mr. Giuliano: Well, until now we just have been building the base. It takes a while for a national nonprofit to build up the kind of base of support and organizational infrastructure you need to be able to speak loudly, so that people will hear. I think that’s the foundation that I’m very fortunate to inherit and be able to build upon with GLAAD. What I have to do now is simply fine-tune it and take it to some new emerging markets, like Miami, like Dallas, like Atlanta and Chicago and so forth, and really just be more vocal about our work so that even more people will know that we’re out there.

TVWeek: While people in the gay community have fixated on your Republican Party affiliation, you were a strong advocate for LGBT rights as mayor of Tempe. Do you have a proudest achievement in that regard?

Mr. Giuliano: I don’t know if there’s any one particular thing that I’m most proud of. I just think to be able to have accomplished what we did in a Republican community, and to have found Republican allies to be able to do and make the kind of advances that we made, is exactly the kind of progress we have to make all across this country. As a movement, we have got to stop talking just to the folks who already agree with us and the folks that we’re comfortable with. So I look forward to that role. And the reality is [that] fighting hate and prejudice and discrimination is not a political party affiliation issue. It’s a moral issue, and that’s the way I’ve always approached it.

TVWeek: What was it like to come out while in office in 1996?

Mr. Giuliano: At the time I was sort of out, to the point that when it was finally published in the newspapers, the lead paragraph was, “Ending years of rumors and speculation … .” So it wasn’t like a big shock.

I already had the religious right breathing down my neck because the city had helped sponsor the gay pride festival in the city, which it had always done. But now there was someone that the religious right knew was gay in the mayor’s chair, and they just didn’t want me being silent about the fact that I was gay. So they just kept putting the heat on.

What really tipped it for me was when they started not just coming after me. They came to a City Council meeting one night and said they wanted to know about the lieutenant in the Police Department, and they had heard there was someone in the Water Department, and it just kind of went on from there. And I thought, you know what, this is just way out of line.

TVWeek: Like a witch hunt, really.

Mr. Giuliano: Yeah. I’m not putting up with this stuff. You guys want to know about me? Yes, I’m gay, end of story, next topic. And it basically took the wind out of their sails.

They still tried to run religious right candidates against me, but we always won. They tried to throw me out of office when I spoke out against funding the Boy Scouts through the United Way campaign. They collected enough signatures to have a recall election, a la [California Gov.] Gray Davis. Mine ended a little differently than Gray’s did, and I had 70 percent of the vote to stay in office. But you know, that’s part of politics. If you’re going to be willing to lead, you’re going to be out front, and there’s going be people who take shots at you. And that’s all part of the job.

When you’re a mayor, you have certain people firing at you. When you’re leading a national nonprofit advocacy group like GLAAD, you’re going to have people taking shots at you from all sides too.

TVWeek: As GLAAD turns 20, do you see yourself taking the organization in any different direction than the previous executive director, Joan Garry?

Mr. Giuliano: I don’t think it’s a different direction, I just think that new leadership is always an opportunity for a stronger voice. And so I hope our voice will become stronger, and I hope we will become even more visible, taking stances against defamation and working with our allies but at the same time reminding people and putting the spotlight on the folks who are our adversaries, and calling them on the fact that they’re using defaming language and portraying lesbian and gay Americans as less than deserving of the equality that we’re all supposed to enjoy.

TVWeek: Do you think the fact that gay people have come so far-for example, that gays now have their own TV networks-changes GLAAD’s mission at all going forward?

Mr. Giuliano: No, I don’t think so. I think the fact that there are so many cable channels now and there’s so much going on in the industry, that just means we have more work to do. There’s only a few gay channels, but there’s more and more channels of all types that are coming online all the time, and that just means we have more people we need to get to know, and more relationships that we have to develop, and more educating that we have to do. So I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.

TVWeek: Which particular TV shows do you think have done the best job of fighting defamation and
helping the general public to better understand gay people?

Mr. Giuliano: There are a number of shows that “get it,” but the nature of television is that shows come and go and you’re left starting over from scratch with fair, accurate and inclusive representations. Daytime television is a genre that hasn’t historically covered LGBT issues well or often, but this year alone we’re seeing gay and lesbian characters on “General Hospital,” “Passions” and “As the World Turns.” “General Hospital” in particular has really done a great job in sending their audience a message about fighting homophobia and encouraging people to be straight allies.

TVWeek: Where does GLAAD have the most work yet to do, and what are its greatest challenges going forward?

Mr. Giuliano: I think the most work that’s yet to be done in the movement is certainly reaching out to the movable middle of Americans, who on the one hand say that they despise discrimination and on the other hand are buying into messages of the far right that we’re less than equal. That’s where our work is cut out for us when it comes to standing up against defamation.

I think when it comes to working with the media, we just have to make sure that we maintain the strong and positive relationships that we have so that we can continue a good partnership, and try to have more fair and inclusive representations of our lives on television.

Television is among the most influential institutions that society has ever seen, and the way that we are portrayed via television is tremendous when it comes to our ability to reach that movable middle who will say they’re against discrimination but who do not yet say that gay and lesbian Americans are equal when it comes to the protections of the law. So that’s our challenge.