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Is GLAAD Actually Becoming an Effective Activist Group? Or Is That a Punchline?

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When it comes to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, we’re torn between a rock and a gay place. On one hand, we’re seeing signs that GLAAD might be turning a corner in its strategy on how to deal with offensive media. On the other hand, it appears the organization might be playing the same ineffective, and sometimes harmful games it always does. Can you help us figure out whether GLAAD is on the path to becoming … relevant?

This week we contacted GLAAD’s Jarrett Barrios to ask them why we hadn’t heard a peep out of them over a The Onion article that used the word “faggot” dozens of times as a derogatory word used to describe something other than gay people — when just last month GLAAD got all upset with South Park for doing the exact same thing. GLAAD’s public relations chief Rich Ferraro, who is well liked inside the organization, explained in an email (asterisks his):

Words like “f*g” and “fa**ot” promote hate and reinforce historical injuries to the LGBT community. They are often the last words people hear before they are beaten or attacked. For this reason, GLAAD has always opposed their use in all contexts.

In truth, this absolute position paints the portrait of gay America with too broad a brush. While it may typically be the case that such words are intended to hurt, some recent instances of satire — like the recent episode of South Park — have evidenced an intent to ridicule the proponents of homophobia and, thus, are not cut from the same cloth. While the repeated use of the word fa**ot in the Onion piece was concerning, we recognize the history of support from the paper and understand the satirical point of the article.

That is perhaps the most nuanced approach to anti-gay language we’ve heard from the organization of late. Of course GLAAD, like GLSEN, doesn’t like slurs being used, but finally it appears to understand that sometimes slurs can be used in a constructive way — to point out how ridiculous certain language and homophobia are.

As Ferraro pointed out in his email, GLAAD expressed a similar sentiment after its South Park attack. Here, the org actually admitted it was wrong, and reversed its attack on the Comedy Central show:

However, we’ve listened to all of the responses in support of South Park and we believe, upon reflection, that those who have encouraged us to see more in this episode than typical satire are right. The show’s writers were trying to get people to think deeper about this subject.

What this show has done is provoke debate and that’s a good thing. At the end of the day, what many of us here at GLAAD believe is that this word will still be used as hate speech, but we can respect the intention of the writers. The episode ends but the discussion goes on for the many who live with an epithet that taunts them daily and creates a climate of fear and intimidation.

Moving forward, if GLAAD is to go after these instances of gay slurs in the media, they should highlight both sides: Gay slurs are hurtful, but sometimes, when used appropriately and with inclusive humor, they can send a worthwhile message that might otherwise not reach certain audiences. (Evidently, they still think Bruno is bad all around.)

Why, then, are we still so frustrated with GLAAD? Because while the organization’s Jesus moment — realizing not everything that’s anti-gay on the surface is actually anti-gay — is commendable, we fear GLAAD remains an ineffective watchdog.

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The best, and most recent example is Barrios’s handling of the Adam Lambert saga with ABC. Queerty has eviscerated Barrios and GLAAD (repeatedly) for such gross missteps. And while Barrios has publicly acknowledged GLAAD didn’t do its best work with the Lambert situation, there doesn’t appear to be any sign that GLAAD will become the badass, ambitious, results-delivering organization its financial supporters (and the gay community) deserve.

But that begs a bigger question: What sort of results do we expect GLAAD to be able to deliver? When a radio host compares gays to child molesters, GLAAD issues a press release with the word “condemn” in it. When a Colorado state senator called homosexuality “a violation of this natural creative order,” GLAAD “urged media” to highlight his homohpobia. Great. But a one-man blog could do all of that with much less overhead. (The one-man blog Joe My God regularly does this, to often more impressive results than GLAAD’s team of operators.)

What would make GLAAD exponentially more effective, then, is to put some weight behind its “condemnations.” If GLAAD didn’t manage to get the radio station KRXQ to run a segment on transgender issues (after two hosts made fun of transgender children), well, what would they have done? Issued another press release? Demanded an apology? Big deal.

GLAAD’s power is in mobilizing. And that’s what needs the most exploitation. Its network of supporters, and its ability to reach cable news producers, are the org’s greatest assets. And it’s with those assets GLAAD can start issuing ultimatums. As in: Apologize and never do it again, or we will have your advertiser support removed. Or: Make a donation to a homeless LGBT center to show you really support the gay community, or we will have our members register complaints with your industry trade groups and stop buying your products and start tweeting their friends to go elsewhere as well. And: If you don’t institute a policy barring homophobia, we will go on every cable network that will have us to denounce your organization, over and over and over, until you do so.

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But none of that will happen any time soon, because GLAAD’s methodology is cautious engagement and dialogue. We know this, because Barrios just said so. This works, and should be used, to a point. But sometimes, issuing a press release and joint statement isn’t enough. We learned that with GLAAD’s handling of ABC re: Adam Lambert. Aside from some homos lighting up their phone lines, ABC has little reason to reverse course on its anti-Lambert decisions. (It is not, after all, losing advertisers by being anti-gay; the entire reason it’s banned live Lambert appearances is to protect its advertiser relationships.)

And that’s because GLAAD isn’t applying any real pressure.

It makes for great copy to tear GLAAD a new one on this website. But it’s exhausting. And while venting helps us, and asking difficult questions of our gay leaders is worthwhile, it might not be doing much to make GLAAD a more effective organization.

Perhaps that’s because we’re using GLAAD’s own criticizing techniques in criticizing GLAAD: Pointing out where they went wrong, telling them what they can do to make things better (namely: shut up), but neglecting to apply the sort of pressure that makes them listen — like threatening to yank financial support. Given that we don’t write checks to GLAAD, nor do we feel entirely comfortable putting out calls to corporate sponsors to stop supporting a gay organization, we might remain doing the same thing over and over.

But the difference between our version of rinse-and-repeat and GLAAD’s, then, is that we haven’t given ourselves the grand mission of policing the media on behalf of the LGBT community; GLAAD solicits financial contributions to do just that. And so far, it’s doing a mediocre, if not terrible job.