By Dan Allen
Special to TelevisionWeek
When ABC’s daytime drama institution “General Hospital” broke new ground recently with the announcement by one of its most prominent young characters that he is gay, it came as a surprise to nearly everyone-except, of course, the show’s writers and actors, the network, and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
“I thought it would be a really good idea for us to use GLAAD as a resource because they know the proper way to bring such an important story line like this to light,” said the soap’s publicist, who because of network policy asked not to be named. “We wanted to make sure we were doing everything we should be doing for the gay community.”
Increasingly, one of GLAAD’s most important roles is that of an open font of knowledge and sensitivity for news and entertainment outlets around the country that find themselves in uncharted territory when dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
In the case of “General Hospital,” GLAAD helped on several fronts. “Our first meeting was with actor Ben Hogestyn [who plays the gay teen, Lucas Jones] and the show’s publicist,” said Damon Romine, GLAAD’s entertainment media director. “I worked with them both on how to work with the media when discussing the gay story line, suggested language and terms and discussed issues important to the gay community. We outlined the top gay media outlets for the show to approach and made introductions to the press to encourage them to cover the story line.”
Mr. Romine, a former TV development executive, even met with the show’s head writers to discuss their plans for the Lucas Jones story line.
“I threw out additional ideas, which they seemed excited and receptive to, and I suggested additional resources and facts and figures,” said Mr. Romine, who also assisted the network in creating an anti-homophobia public service announcement featuring Mr. Hogestyn and co-star Lindze Letherman. “GLAAD worked to craft a PSA to reach the broadest of ‘General Hospital’ viewers, encouraging each of them to ‘be an ally and a friend.’ We submitted a script, which [the network] shortened for time purposes but left the message intact,” Mr. Romine said.
Sometimes GLAAD’s resource work is more limited in scale and focus, but no less important. “Our regional team works in some of our nation’s smallest communities, which is also where anti-gay defamation is often the most heated,” said Cindi Creager, the organization’s national news director. Last May, for instance, GLAAD worked with local television stations in Dothan, Ala., following indelicate news coverage of the murder of a transgender resident.
“The media outlets described the murder victim as a ‘transvestite,’ used inappropriate gender pronouns and put the victim’s name, Ashley, in quotation marks,” Ms. Creager said. “GLAAD worked with local journalists, many of whom had no experience reporting on LGBT issues, to ensure more accurate and inclusive coverage.”
Such positive outcomes are par for the course for GLAAD’s regional media team, which works with local media professionals across the United States to expand, improve and diversify coverage of the LGBT community. “Our regional media team travels the country conducting spokesperson training sessions, helping those in our movement, whether they’re LGBT people or allies, to tell their stories clearly and convincingly,” Mr. Romine said. “We also work with local advocates and organizations, training them how to do reporter outreach and story pitches.”
On a national news level, GLAAD has long been a sensitivity go-to organization when news of a wider nature breaks, such as last year when the ESPN show “Outside the Lines” televised a segment on Bloomburg (Texas) High School basketball coach Merry Stephens, who after being repeatedly honored as Teacher of the Year and Coach of the Year was fired for being a lesbian. Before running the feature, the network contacted GLAAD for resources about the proper coverage of homophobia in sports. GLAAD also advised Helen Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, before her appearance on the show’s live question-and-answer segment.
As a testament to GLAAD’s growing visibility and importance on the mainstream media radar, even those who don’t ask for the organization’s guidance are often receptive to it. In a prime example, when reviewing “Brokeback Mountain” early this month, NBC’s “Today” movie critic Gene Shalit called Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Jack a “sexual predator,” igniting a firestorm of outrage within the gay community. Following a GLAAD alert calling on supporters to ask Mr. Shalit for a public apology, the venerable critic gave one.
“I now discover I have angered, agitated and hurt many people,” Mr. Shalit said. “I did not intend to use a word that many in the gay community consider incendiary. … I certainly had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone in the gay community or on the community itself.”
To help journalists and entertainment industry professionals more sensitively report upon and broach issues impacting the LGBT community, GLAAD regularly publishes a Media Reference Guide, available at its Web site. Among the guide’s pointers: Being gay is not a sexual “preference” but an “orientation”; and there is no such thing as a gay “lifestyle,” a term that denigrates gay men and lesbians.
“Every day, GLAAD is a valuable resource in some way to journalists and the entertainment community, be it when a CNN producer calls to locate an LGBT spokesperson, Oprah’s producer calls for LGBT statistics, or we aid the folks at ‘Dr. Phil’ to help them better understand LGBT issues,” Mr. Romine said. “We also get scripts sent to us that may or may not ever get made, but writers want to make sure their LGBT portrayals are up to snuff.”
For the “General Hospital” team, the delicate manner in which GLAAD delivered its guidance was nearly as appreciated as the guidance itself. “They never presented it as, ‘You need to do this with the script. You need to do that,'” said the show’s publicist. “It was more, ‘Here, let’s give you some bullet points of what happens in real life when a teen comes out to their parents and friends, so that maybe in some of the dialogue or situations, we can be more true to real life.'”
So does the soap plan to keep working with GLAAD as the Lucas Jones story line plays out? “I definitely think we’ll continue our partnership with GLAAD,” the publicist said. “I think it’ll be very helpful to us all.”