Judging by the instant reports about the 23rd GLAAD Awards in Los Angeles this past April, it might seem as if the most important news was the surprise appearance of Cher to support her son, transgender author and dancing star Chaz Bono, who received the Stephen F. Kolzak Award. Cher had been in the audience cheering Chaz on during his historic stint on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, and many in the GLAAD gala audience looked to see how he’d respond when his mother kept screwing up the pronouns, for which she apologized.
Chaz was the picture of grace and maturity as he allowed for his mother’s full authenticity. But the real surprise—before Cher stole the show—was Republican Rep. Mary Bono-Mack, who shared how much she “loves, respects and admires” Chaz. There was a feeling that something deep was happening, love over politics.
“I love Chaz not only as a son, as a mentor, as a kind, caring human being and as a tireless advocate for equality, diversity and tolerance in America. With all due respect, Jesse [Tyler Ferguson], we were a modern family long before there was a Modern Family,” Bono-Mack said, adding that Chaz’s late father Sonny “was always so very, very proud of you,” as are his younger brother and sister, Chesare and Chianna. “For me, working in a town where tolerance is often in short supply, Chaz has been a true inspiration and guiding light. It’s so easy for any of us to stay hidden in our special safe places, to avoid confrontation, to stay away and fear humiliation or to avoid simply dancing in a spotlight. Change can be incredibly frightening, especially when it takes us into very unfamiliar places where tolerance is considered a weakness, not a virtue. But Chaz had the courage to follow his heart and his convictions, and that’s what true leaders do.”
And there it was on the GLAAD stage, the full range of life for LGBT people: two mothers—one politically conservative, the other a rock star—embracing their shy transgender son whose confident visibility has transformed so many hearts and minds.
But Mary Bono-Mack, Cher and Chaz were actually part of a larger story of LGBT family values that night. Also taking the stage at the Bonaventure Hotel and receiving thunderous standing ovations were Jennifer Tyrrell, the Ohio mom who was expelled as her son’s Boy Scout den mother because she is a lesbian, with her partner Alicia Burns and their four children, and the Rodemeyer family whose son and brother committed suicide, among other ‘real life’ stories of tragedy and courage, standing alongside celebrities such as Betty White and her Hot in Cleveland family.
That night, journalism-trained Herndon Graddick made his first appearance as GLAAD’s new president. It was as if the prodigal son of the LGBT movement who had ‘gone Hollywood’ was returning home to work and fight on behalf of all LGBT people. The real take-away message from that GLAAD gala night was GLAAD is back!
This is no insignificant development. For the past several years, under the directorship of two former gay politicians, GLAAD came to be perceived by many LGBT activists as an organization too caught up in its own self-importance, too arrogant, too quick to take credit for work done by others, sexist, bordering on racist and essentially discounted as a Hollywood social club without political relevance. However, in the months before Graddick was officially appointed, the organization seemed to have returned to its roots as a watchdog of news and entertainment coverage, rather than a media sycophant.
Graddick’s first appearance itself seemed to embody change. Standing straight, unadorned, humble with his hands in his pockets, Graddick exuded a quiet confidence steeped in his larger sense of purpose. The ‘new’ GLAAD intends to go on the offensive, not just to change hearts and minds, but to change the culture.
“It’s 2012, and we’re sick of this shit—and GLAAD is going to do something about it,” he said, eschewing the teleprompter to speak candidly and spontaneously from his heart.
Graddick described what it was like to grow up gay in Alabama, remaining closeted until he was in his 20s. “I pretended to be straight,” he said. “I even had a plan if I was ever to be found out—that, as sad as it is to say—what I was going to do was get drunk and drive my car into a tree so no one would ever know the real reason I was doing that. And like so many other LGBT kids, I had a very tough time dealing with it alone. Until I was 19, I had never met another openly gay person. And luckily for me, I picked up and moved to California. And when I was there, I learned that everything I’d been taught was essentially bullshit. And I got pissed. Kids across the country are making themselves miserable, and frankly leading themselves to the brink of suicide because of the bullshit they learn from a bigoted society. And it’s the role of GLAAD to fix that.”
Graddick noted how important it is to tell LGBT stories. “Because of the media, because of Hollywood, because of the people in this room, because of the difference all of you make,” he said, “we’re changing America, bit by bit, story by story. And because kids can see Glee and Modern Family and hundreds of frankly positive stories on the news, they’re not like me. They know there’s another alternative. And for once in America, there’s optimism. I’ve been doing this job for two years at GLAAD, and what I feel for the first time—really, for the first time in my life—is wind at our back. The tide is changing. America is sick and tired of gay people being treated like a punching bag, and so are we.
“And so the new GLAAD is going on the offensive—not just sitting back and waiting for somebody to say something negative about us, but really fighting back, because we’ve got America on our side,” he said. “People know that it’s not OK to fire somebody for being gay or transgender. Hard-working people should have the opportunity to support themselves. And before the laws can be changed—because, frankly, in the majority of states it’s OK to put on the dismissal paper that ‘He’s gay. We’re getting rid of him.’ And that’s completely legal. Most people don’t know that. Our campaign about Ellen [DeGeneres as JC Penney spokesperson] was supporting Ellen, but it was also pointing out to the rest of America that our laws are antiquated and they’re out of step with how people feel about America.”
Graddick told Frontiers that at age 38, his personal mission is “about making America better for LGBT people.”
The ‘new’ GLAAD, he said, will act “as the PR agency for the movement. The agency isn’t putting their stamp on it, getting credit for everything. It’s about the client. In the LGBT movement, with GLAAD acting in a similar capacity, it’s about the issue, it’s about the people, it’s about the real stories. It’s not about GLAAD. If we do it enough, news cycle after news cycle after news cycle, the culture changes, because people will have gotten to know us. I see in my role that the single biggest priority is changing things for LGBT people.”
One of Graddick’s most effective new programs is the Accountability Project, which he describes as a resource for news producers and show bookers who don’t have time to research their anti-gay guests such as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins or the National Organization for Marriage’s Maggie Gallagher. Indeed, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews went from essentially complimenting FRC’s Perkins on one episode of Hardball to grilling him hard about gays more recently.
“My belief in doing this is to provide a very accurate account of who anti-gay activists really are and what they really believe, because it’s one thing for somebody to go on TV and say, ‘Oh, I think gay people shouldn’t get married.’ It’s another thing when you realize that same person has said that gay people should be put in prison,” Graddick told Frontiers. “They might have a moderate view of one thing, but if you dig a little deeper you find they have completely hideous views that dehumanize gays in a way that we haven’t seen since World War II, at least in Western society.”
Many people, including LGBT journalists, who heard over-the-top rhetoric during the Prop. 8 battle tended to slough it off as being so extreme, no one really believed it. But for Graddick, such language is itself very dangerous.
“When somebody says a minority group is going to lead to the ‘down fall of society,’ that’s the kind of language that we’ve seen be incredibly pernicious in the past, as recently as 60-70 years ago in Western culture,” he said, noting that in some places in Africa, such language is being used now. “That’s really dangerous, dangerous language. So if NBC News or ABC News or CNN is going to be elevating the profile of people who hold these beliefs, they should at least let the audience know that they have those beliefs, because it speaks to their character broadly that they’re dehumanizing other Americans in such a way. Americans know that gay or trans people shouldn’t be put in jail simply because of who they are.”
One concern among journalists about the Accountability Project is the idea that it might look like gays are trying to censor anti-gay people or inhibit their First Amendment rights.
“The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee someone the right to be on a TV show. So when people talk about GLAAD trying to prevent their First Amendment rights—no,” Graddick said firmly. “News organizations have a responsibility of putting on people who are true experts on something, and frankly, hate is not an expert opinion. Hate doesn’t make you an expert. And if you do book that person, you have to give the audience the totality of who they are. I think that’s an obligation of journalists. The First Amendment protects an individual against the government legislating their silence. GLAAD exists because we, as Americans, have the right to say anything we want, and therefore groups like GLAAD can point out when the things people are saying are lies. So the notion that people can just go around speaking defamatory statements about LGBT people—and that LGBT people are going to sit silent about that—is utter nonsense. We should stick up for ourselves. This organization is about not sitting back and letting people pepper other people with lies about LGBT people.”
GLAAD got some pushback when it called for CNN political analyst Roland Martin to be fired after he tweeted what was perceived as not only anti-gay comments during the Super Bowl game but comments that could incite violence.
“CNN is the most respected news organization in the world by some measures, and if their top election desk analyst—regardless if it’s Roland Martin or Wolf Blitzer or John King—were to say ‘I’m going to whip the shit out of the guy in the pink suit,’ every 15-year-old in America knows what ‘beat up the guy in the pink suit’ means. That person does not deserve to be in such an exalted position if he doesn’t have more consciousness over the impact of his words,” Graddick said. “During the most highly charged testosterone event of the year—the Super Bowl—Roland Martin was tweeting to almost 100,000 people that if there were a guy in your Super Bowl party who liked the David Beckham underwear ad, then he should essentially be the subject of violence.”
Graddick noted that there is a greater expectation of public figures, pointing out that actor Mel Gibson suffered consequences to his career after a drunken anti-Semitic tirade against a police officer in Malibu.
“Along with being given a public platform by a major media outlet comes responsibilities of comportment to the audience,” he said. “For better or worse, celebrities and media figures in our society set the standard for what’s appropriate for the rest of America. We considered it very important that we set a standard that [anti-LGBT rhetoric and behavior] is not OK.”
On June 21, GLAAD and the National Hispanic Media Coalition held a news conference in Pasadena announcing that they will be contacting national advertisers of the show José Luis Sin Censura to alert them about the show’s continued use of anti-gay, anti-women language and situations. AT&T and Time Warner Cable and McDonald’s and Dish Latino have already pulled their support. The coalition also delivered a petition (on Change.org) with over 3,800 signatures asking the show to change.
This has been more than a year-long effort. GLAAD noted in a press release that on Feb. 28, 2011, GLAAD and NHMC filed an FCC complaint about Liberman Broadcasting Inc. demonstrating that KRCA (and all of the stations that air José Luis Sin Censura) are in violation of federal law. The complaint documented over 20 episodes that aired between June 18 and Dec. 7, 2010, that contain images and language that is never displayed or is bleeped out of pre-taped English-language programs of the same type, including the words pinche and culero, anti-gay language, including epithets such as puto, maricón, joto and puñal, anti-Latino slurs, such as mojado and anti-female terms such as piruja and puta. The program also frequently features blatant nudity, and female guests have been shown in violent fights.
The FCC has not yet responded. Additionally, GLAAD and NHMC met with former L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who represents the broadcasters—but the meeting was unsatisfactory.
“We have reached a point where it is necessary for us to take the next step in our campaign so that we can stop this damaging and disgusting material from doing further harm to our communities,” said NHMC President and CEO Alex Nogales. “While we have attempted in good faith to encourage the Libermans to live up to their obligations as broadcasters, enough is enough. These individuals have sat across the table from us, looked us in the eyes and made promises about what they would do to clean up their act. Instead, the show has gotten worse, and we won’t stop until it is off the air.”
According to Monica Trasandes, director of Spanish-language media since 2008 (and former editor-in-chief at Frontiers), Delgadillo never even apologized for the offensive content.
“The fact is, he promised us several months ago [the show] was going off the air, but that proved to be untrue,” Trasandes told Frontiers. “The 6 p.m. show went off their air, but the 11 a.m. show has continued to air. Then Delgadillo said in yesterday’s meeting that the reason they are not taking it off the air is that advertisers support the show. Apparently that’s his position and his clients’, which is surprising. The Libermans apologized for the content, but they are now again allowing anti-gay language to air. And now they claim that they would take the show off the air but advertisers support the show. There’s been no serious effort on anyone’s part to stop this anti-gay, anti-women and anti-Latino content, only to stop the bad PR that results from airing that type of content. If LBI knows that taking Jose Luis Sin Censura off the air in all their stations nationwide is the right thing to do, they shouldn’t wait. They should do it now.”
Under Graddick’s leadership, it appears that the ‘new’ GLAAD is back to its original watchdog mission of taking names, kicking ass and reclaiming family values for LGBT people.