21 Jun 2012

Fighting defamation. With stereotypes?

What’s the difference between a headline that says “Man robs drugstore” and another that says “Man in dress robs drugstore”?

That’s where GLAAD comes in, said Rich Ferraro (right), Vice-president of communications for GLAAD – the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The second headline sensationalises the person’s gender expression. GLAAD would go to the newspaper and ask: Is the person’s SOGI (sexual orientation and/or gender identity) relevant to the story, or was it being used to sensationalise it? 

One might say the dress was a fact. But I would put the issue thus: If another robber wore a large crucifix, would we see a headline saying “Man with crucifix robs drugstore”? Any hesitation with the crucifix version of such a headline should give cause to reflect on how the ‘Man in dress’ version is used.

GLAAD has multiple roles. Originally, its main role was that of media watchdogging. “We hold the media accountable for the words and images they produce,” it said in a statement issued to this and other writers on the occasion of our visit. “When media is used as a platform to defame and stereotype LGBT people, GLAAD takes action.” 

They produce a style guide to help journalists and editors avoid offensive terms. See this and this

Then there’s homophobic music. “We’ve worked with vendors on this,” said Daryl Hannah (left), Director of Media and Community Partnerships. “We go to them and ask: ‘Do you really want to be associated with this?’”

More recently, they also play a storyteller role. “We do the behind-the-scenes work,” said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD’s president. “We share stories about the LGBT community, particularly stories that go beyond white gay men.”

What is not so well known, for example, is that they have been working with Marvel Comics about the new gay superhero. GLAAD helps them shape the stories to minimise criticism, among other objectives.

Sometimes, however, homophobic speech comes not from in-house writers, but from users’ comments on online versions of various media. How should editors deal with this? was a question asked.

“We’ve worked with USA Today, Facebook and others regarding user comments, ” said Ferraro. “A lot of websites have terms of service that bar slurs, violent language and such. Use them,” he said.

That’s provided the media organisation wants to be sensitive and fair. “Addressing these comments in less gay-friendly media – that’s a more long-term project,” he added.

I had a question for them, borne out of an experience working with gay Asian Australians. They had told me they felt somewhat imprisoned by the Australian stereotype of masculinity – white, buffed, sporty, rugby player or beach surfer types. Might gay media themselves, so often full of similar images, be guilty of the same insensitivity, and does GLAAD do anything about it?

“Tell me about it!” said Hannah, conceding that it was a huge problem. “How often do you see these magazines feature short black men?” He himself stood no more than 1.65 metres (and for that matter, neither did Ferraro). That said, the generality of the answer I got suggested it was not a top priority for GLAAD.

* * * * *

I asked a similar question at another meeting, this time with the organisers of New York Pride. Alan Reiff, one of the lead volunteer organisers on the panel, had said something to the effect that every time a successful Pride is held, some people somewhere benefit through self-confidence and morale-boosting, both in the United States and abroad.

While the reality is that at Pride events, there is a diversity of participants, I said in the preface to my question, invariably the mainstream media will use pictures that show the most outrageous ones, the drag queens and the near-naked men. For gay people outside of the United States, such images may reinforce negative views, and hinder rather than help gay people in finding acceptance. What did the organisers think of this downside?

I didn’t get much of an answer, which suggested to me that this was either not a significant concern of the organisers, or that it had never occurred to them before. However, it provoked a healthy debate among the journalists in the group. Some felt that such was part of the process of getting the mainstream public to accept variance and diversity. Others felt the extreme images were misleading: Would one be promoting the right to be gay, or the right to have sex in public?

The journalist from China asked what the New York Pride organisers might recommend for a situation like China’s where a street parade would not be allowed.

Their suggestion was to hold a parade under the banner of human rights or HIV.

Oh dear. They didn’t seem to grasp that in countries like China, any kind of street demonstration would not be permitted.

Between these two sets of answers, one couldn’t help but wonder about the insularity at play. I was reminded too of the answers I got a few days earlier from both Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, and Sarah Blazucki, editor of the Philadelphia Gay News. Both are long-standing LGBT media. I had asked how much international gay news they carried (short answer: almost none), and if they wanted to have some Asian news, where they would go for sources.

Blazucki mentioned Pink News, which is published out of Britain.

“Have you heard of Fridae.asia?” I asked. Neither Naff nor Blazucki had. 

Pride organisation and gay media in the United States may be very good at what they do, but at the same time, we need to be highly conscious that they grew out of their own local context and societal norms, and as a result, they may not always be the best model to follow. Moreover, they themselves generate certain stereotypes that may be quite unhelpful to the American who is in an ethnic minority, let alone to non-Americans. 

* * * * * 

GLAAD’s work is perhaps more enduring, and more replicable. This is because it is not only alert to text and image transgression by others, it is also self-questioning. Ultimately, it appeals to the aspiration to be fair, informed, sensitive and professional. Not only are these ideals eternal and universal, frankly, they are all an LGBT person, anywhere, would ask for.

Alex Au has been a gay activist and social commentator for over 15 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us, Singapore. Alex is the author of the well-known Yawning Bread website.