Up Close and Personal with GLAAD
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) administers a “Network Responsibility Survey”, which looks at, among other information, how the general public feels about the LGBT community. GLAAD then goes a step further and asks how many of those people’s opinions were influenced by LGBT characters they had seen on TV. Every time that question is asked, the majority of people answer that, indeed, LGBT characters have influenced their thoughts on the subject.
GLAAD, as an organization, bases its goals and projects on the truth and reality that TV shapes public opinion:
“What people see in the media has a huge impact on how they treat others, how they vote and their perceptions. GLAAD bring stories to national audiences and to local communities through the media that build understanding and acceptance. LGBT people are an important part of our culture. By showcasing the common ground we all share, GLAAD helps Americans embrace their gay and transgender family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors.”
The best chance to gain LGBT equality is through fair and accurate representation in the media. GLAAD even has the data to back that up. Every year, to encourage better representation, GLAAD hosts Media Awards in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The purpose of the Media Awards is to honor media entities (TV, movies, music, journalists and other members of the entertainment industry) that have displayed outstanding visibility to the LGBT community.
I was lucky enough to serve as a volunteer at the Los Angeles GLAAD Media Awards on April 20th this year.
Though during the majority of the event I was working the silent auction, I was in a position to both see (and speak with) guests attending the event, as well as hear portions of the presentations during main event. Nearly all of us volunteers were able to listen to the main speeches by Steve Warren and Bill Clinton.
As if it weren’t already clear, witnessing parts of the GLAAD Media Awards was a reaffirming demonstration of the true power mainstream media has on our culture, because let’s face it: What people see on TV is what Steven Stark calls the “pop-culture version of the air we breathe.” Meaning in effect, whatever the public ingests while tuning into their TVs becomes a major part of the fabric of American (and even global) culture.
Let’s take this idea a step further. GLAAD’s work, though it focuses on mainstream media, is inherently political: “What people see in the media has a huge impact on…how they vote.” Over the past three years, support for marriage equality has gained momentum, fast. As evidenced by Gallup’s survey released this week, the scales have finally and permanently tipped in favor of equal rights for the LGBT community. That isn’t an accident.
There is a direct correlation between the positive representation afforded to the LGBT community on beloved TV shows in recent years and a change in public opinion on marriage equality. It’s Santana, Brittany, Kurt, Blaine and Unique on Glee, Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, and others, who have changed the hearts and minds of Americans in even the most conservative areas.
Living in Washington, DC, it doesn’t take long to realize a large majority of the people who work here (not just politicians) have a pretty negative view of Hollywood’s merits. They scoff at the fact that, for example, President Obama attended fundraising campaign dinners hosted by Hollywood producers and actors, or that Michelle Obama presented an Oscar at the Academy Awards in 2013. One comment I saw read something like, “I can’t believe President Obama is slumming it with Hollywood trash.” Ouch.
Sadly, what these Hollywood skeptics fail to realize is that TV and mainstream media are the driving forces behind what people think and care about. After all, more people tuned into TLC’s reality show, “Honey Boo-Boo”, than the Republican National Convention in 2012. Three times as many votes were cast for the ‘People’s Choice Awards’ in 2013 than the 2012 presidential election. President Obama is successful because he routinely meets Americans where they live; in front of the TV. As Lawrence Grossberg says, “No democratic political struggle can be effectively organized without the power of the popular.”
Would Congress or the Supreme Court even look at the issue of marriage equality had it not become such a visible and passionate subject for the public? Of course not. Politicians are reactionary; they respond based on the pulse of the public, not based on simply the right thing to do. Now that the majority of Americans are in favor of marriage equality, it is time for the government to cautiously sidle up to the topic.
That brings us right back to GLAAD. At the GLAAD Media Awards, there was no shortage of politics. To further underscore the political importance of the entertainment industry, the two featured award recipients at the Los Angeles version of the 2013 Media Awards were Steve Warren and former president Bill Clinton. Beyond the obvious political connection with Bill Clinton, long time entertainment attorney Steve Warren took his allotted speech time to a very political place.
Warren (who has represented Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio, among others), unapologetically and eloquently pummeled the Supreme Court about their impending ruling on marriage equality. Warren effectively paralleled his own life as a married gay man with a child to the strikingly similar family life of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts, as a man in a heterosexual relationship, is afforded rights for his family which Warren is not because of the discriminatory nature of the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) and Prop 8 in California, the two cases the Supreme Court will hand a decision down in this summer.
Warren’s speech was followed by equally moving words from former President Bill Clinton, advocating for marriage equality. Though Bill Clinton is the President who signed DoMA into law in 1996, he now calls the law discriminatory and also advocates DoMA be overturned. Former President Clinton attributes his change of heart to his daughter, Chelsea Clinton, who was also in attendance at the GLAAD Awards. (Links for both Steve Warren and Bill Clinton’s speeches are below.)
With a room full of people like Betty White, Naya Rivera, Alex Newell, Darren Criss, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Eric Dane, Lana Parilla, Ryan Murphy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mae Whitman, Fourtune Feimster, (and those are just the people I personally saw or recognized), supporting and championing equality, audiences are bound to change the way they look at the LGBT community.
The faces listed above and their colleagues that populate TV screens (and big screens, or the radio) every day are more recognizable to the general public than former president Jimmy Carter or even their own state Congressional representatives. These pop culture heroes are also; therefore, more influential. The support the entertainment industry displayed at the GLAAD Awards sends an encouraging message not just to LGBT fans, but also to the greater audiences they reach.
GLAAD has understood the power of TV since GLAAD’s inception in 1985, and now, more than ever, the people who work in TV understand how important it is to “get it right” for the LGBT community. While the GLAAD event was fun because I met so other great volunteers, saw a whole bunch of really famous people and shook hands with Glee‘s Naya Rivera, the most powerful statement of the night was this:
As Steven Stark states, “the history of television has become the history of America.” Changing that history, and the strongest opportunity for LGBT equality, starts with positive representation in mainstream media.
You can watch Steve Warren’s speech here.
And Bill Clinton’s, here. (His comment about Jennifer Lawrence was hysterical.)