Not included in the news that former Massachusetts legislator Jarrett Barrios would taking over GLAAD is that PR bigshot Cathy Renna was also in the running. And in at least one area, she would’ve been a great pick: she might’ve made GLAAD relevant again.
Renna is the name behind Renna Communications, which has sent you a press release if you’ve worked a day in gay media. She’s also responsible for GLAAD’s media training program — arguably the most visible aspect of the organization’s outreach. But when GLAAD’s board was picking the successor to Neil Giuliano, they passed over her. Maybe they shouldn’t have?
Nothing against Barrios (he’s not on the job yet, so we’ll leave him out of this for now), but Renna’s approach to what a gay advocacy organization should be in this era actually sounds like … she has a clue what we need from giant gay activist organizations.
The problem with the GLAADs of the world (read: Gay Inc.) is that their noble purpose fulfilled in decades past (i.e. visibility and media outreach, working with legislators and communities) is expiring. In its place: Grassroots organizations fueled by the web, micro-donations, and a purpose that’s greater than black tie fundraisers and red carpet awards galas. While GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign are very good at handing out awards to folks doing good things for gays (like actors promoting positive images of gays on TV), the only other thing they seem qualified to do these days is issue press releases.
We’ve complained about the tendency of Gay Inc. orgs to “applaud,” “congratulate,” “respond,” and “condemn.” All day and all night, these organizations react to the news cycle, spitting out a soundbite-friendly piece of politically correct … bullshit.
GLAAD is either clapping its hands or furrowing its brow. This is not activism. This is couch potato finger-waving. And it makes you wonder: For all those regular deductions Gay Inc. takes from our bank accounts, why do we get the feeling half of those funds are being used to copy/paste the same tired language nobody responds to anymore?
It’s not just that a statement from GLAAD — about “faggot” bloggers or Adam Lambert — doesn’t even matter anymore. (They’re good for CNN to quote from to get “our” side.) But these statements, increasingly, are devoid of any sense of true activism.
And that’s why we’re crushing on Renna. Having started GLAAD’s media training program and served as its first National News Media Director, Renna (pictured with wife Leah, left, and their daughter) is also atop the org’s list of critics. Though she notes, in an interview with Edge Boston, that she’s not “being critical of the organization’s existence, more of the direction it is heading in,” she knows GLAAD’s faults.
As for that direction, Renna refers to GLAAD’s handling of [Perez] Hilton and Bruno as indicative of their bad habit of issuing “press releases that applaud or condemn” at the expense of acknowledging that “most of what we’re dealing with in the culture is about nuance; that grey area.”
Renna recalls that during her tenure at GLAAD, whenever addressing some kind of controversial representation which could be perceived as homophobic, she was constantly aware “that it is very important to talk about the context of the presentation: the intent. Frankly, the goal is not about squelching speech or in some non-subjective way saying thumbs up or down. GLAAD is not the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” Its role, instead, should be “to promote conversation” rather than control language.
That “conversation” GLAAD is driving, to be sure, is happening inside the homes of the rest of America — and less and less, the gay community. Where GLAAD excels, and remains important, is in reaching the ninety-ish percent of straight America and reminding them they’ve all got gays among their loved ones, and we deserve the same rights and compassion.
But inside the gay community, its message continues to be lost. GLAAD increasingly grows out of touch, while individuals with Tumblr and YouTube accounts generate growing visibility and mobilization for far fewer dollars. Increasingly, it’s these messages driving the dialogue about equality, not GLAAD’s eye roll-inducing press release factory that is boringly predictable and predictably boring.
As Barrios inherits GLAAD, and Renna watches from afar, we’ll be eagerly waiting to see whether GLAAD continues walking through the tumbleweeds toward obscurity, or pulls a 180 and returns to relevance. We’re wishing-and-a-hoping for the latter.