For more than two decades, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has served as the queer community’s watchdog against biased portrayals of GLBT people in the media.
In 1985, the New York GLBT community, which was embroiled in a debate about closure of the city’s bathhouses, grew increasingly alarmed about sensationalistic AIDS coverage in the New York Post. That November, a group of longtime activists, including Vito Russo, Arnie Kantrowitz, Jim Owles, and Darrell Yates Rist, called a town meeting that drew more than 700 participants. Heeding the exhortation of author Jewelle Gomez to “take responsibility for what is being said about us,” they formed GLAAD.
The group began as a grassroots effort, using phone trees and newsletters to issue alerts about offensive media portrayals of GLBT people. Among its earliest victories, in 1987, GLAAD persuaded The New York Times finally to use the word “gay” rather than “homosexual.”
The following year, Richard Jennings and others started a new chapter in Los Angeles focused on the Hollywood entertainment industry. The bicoastal organization’s clout continued to grow. In 1992, Entertainment Weekly named GLAAD one of the 100 most powerful entities in Hollywood.
Before long, new GLAAD chapters arose in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. In 1995, the local groups merged into a centralized national organization with a single board and staff.
Two years later, former Showtime executive Joan Garry took the helm. Over the next decade, GLAAD initiated projects focusing on communities of color, sports media, faith-based groups, and youth.
GLAAD continued to exert insider pressure, and, when needed, organize larger public protests against biased portrayals—like Sharon Stone’s murderous bisexual temptress in the film Basic Instinct (1992)—or the omission of queer content, such as excising a male-male kiss from the television show Melrose Place.
In addition, GLAAD reacted to current events, such as the murders of Matthew Shepard and transgender teen Gwen Araujo, as well as homophobic outbursts by the likes of the Reverend Jerry Falwell and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
But in keeping with its mission of promoting “fair, accurate, and inclusive representation…as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” GLAAD also sought to shape positive portrayals of the GLBT community.
GLAAD consulted on television and movie scripts; pitched sympathetic stories to mainstream publications; provided spokespersons for talk shows; and trained queer individuals and groups in how to use the media effectively. In addition to wielding the “stick” of protest, the organization also dangled the “carrot” of praise, introducing the GLAAD Media Awards in 1990 to recognize favorable representations.
By 2005, when Garry turned over leadership to Neil Giuliano—the openly gay former Republican Mayor of Tempe, Arizona—the organization had a budget approaching $7.5 million and a staff of more than 40.
Yet, GLAAD’s explosive growth, insider strategy, and increased emphasis on star-studded events did not sit well with some activists who felt the organization had moved too far from its grassroots origins. Further, some were unhappy with tactics they regarded as censorship, such as the successful pressure campaign to cancel conservative commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s television show.
Despite the criticism, however, GLAAD continues to this day with its goal of “changing people’s hearts and minds through what they see in the media.”
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.