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The face of the LGBT movement and the mainstream media: tackling the diversity problem

By pams
Sunday, June 21, 2009 15:23 EDT
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I’ve noticed that there’s a familiar trend of nearly all of the on-air talking heads that represent the LGBT community’s anger with the Obama administration and Congress have been urban gay white men. I have to wonder if this feeds long-held impressions and biases out there that this is a “hissy fit” by a privileged class, albeit a gay one. I’m not saying the representation on-air so far hasn’t been effective; to the contrary, all the interviews and segments covering the issue have been strong.

What I believe hurts our case a bit, from a PR (and strategic) perspective, is that we’ve seen few LGBT people of color on-air as the movement faces off against the first black President and his administration. If you think this shouldn’t matter, well you’re right. But in reality, do you really think it isn’t an issue? You only need to read some of my posts on race and LGBT issues (see “Black, Gay and Reclaiming ‘Civil Rights’” at Huff Post) for a prime example of blowback, and I’m black, for god’s sake.

One of the problems with this is it allows the inaccurate impression that if you’re black and gay, these things aren’t on your radar, or worse, that it’s only white gays who are angry at this President, a black man, something that doesn’t go unnoticed in communities of color. This impression was somewhat exacerbated in a CNN debate between Dan Savage and Stampp Corbin (co-chair of the Obama LGBT Leadership Council during the 2008 campaign). They disagreed on-air about the logistics of DADT repeal in a segment host Campbell Brown framed as “President Obama selling out the gay community” (transcript here).

But what did people see in that segment? It was a black man defending the President (asking the gay community to stop asking Obama to move more quickly on DADT). It’s not that simple of course, since Stampp worked for the Obama campaign. But we’re talking about the visual medium and cultural shorthand/bias telegraphed to viewers not keenly attuned to our community and its issues. It’s easy to imagine someone walking away from the TV and thinking “well black gays are defending Obama, so it’s just these white whining gay men again.” You know what I’m talking about.

BTW, Stampp, who agreed on-air with Dan about the DOMA debacle, later announced he wasn’t going to attend the upcoming gay “10,400-sq.-ft spa” fundraiser (featuring Joe Biden and hosted by the only out members of Congress, Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis, targeting wealthy gays to hobnob with pols and drop big bucks; many are now dropping out like flies over the admin’s inaction), writing “The DOMA brief ruined everything.” The reality is that one can disagree on one aspect of policy but not another, and support the President overall. Those who are unhappy (enraged, pick your word), usually argue that “oh we’d be better off with the Republicans in power” or some such, but honestly, I can’t see how that’s a useful tack to take. That said, overall support for this President does not equal criticism-free governance, something the apologist set seems to forget; Obama himself said to hold him accountable. His administration’s behavior regarding our issues has been abominable and there are a variety of ways to hold him accountable. As a movement we’ll never all be on the same page.

But back to the matter at hand — I’m grateful, that Rachel Maddow, an out lesbian, is on the air discussing these topics (have we seen any lesbian talking head guests of any color?) and that Daniel Choi has been very visible re: DADT. It’s pretty clear that we have a shallow, pale bench to make our cases on the air and it reinforces the stereotype of what “gay” looks like.

The bottom line is that this image problem gives the Obama administration racial and cultural cover it shouldn’t have and doesn’t deserve. When you have POC on the air to represent the grave anger at this administration’s inaction, it shatters the ingrained perceptions of people — and that includes some of our straight progressive “friends”, not just the pols and admin drones — that discussion of these issues affects a broader spectrum of our community. It’s sad that this is the case, but you know we’ve had to deal with this image problem for a long time. Unless it’s right in front of their faces — and that’s the power of the visual medium, for good or ill, people will lean toward their implicit biases.

I don’t have an easy solution for this, mind you, since the MSM is lazy and goes to its rolodexes and picks out people they’ve had on before; it’s not a conspiracy. Oh, and for the skeptics out there eager to think this is self-serving, let’s just quash that straight out — this isn’t a bid on my part to go on-air. I hated the experience the two times I did appear on CNN:
1) I had to do it by satellite, so you cannot see who you’re speaking with, and it’s an art to do it well;
2) I do not live in a major media center like NY, LA or DC – I had to drive all the way to Raleigh to a contract studio;
3) I’m not available at the drop of a hat to do it anyway since I have a full-time, unrelated-to-politics day job;
4) I’m not sufficiently telegenic for the MSM; let’s get real; it’s a cruel medium for non-svelte women .

Radio is a lot easier, though the scheduling problems remain the same. I’ve done Skype before — that is still junior-league broadcasting and is still rife enough with technical problems to be unreliable for live TV.

So let’s get back to building a vibrant, diverse media bench — certainly we need to add more women, T-folk and minorities to be effective on-air advocates (and people from outside gay metro areas of the country, another perception problem out there, but there are the above logistical problems to reckon with). It strengthens our game. If the media would ring up POC LGBT orgs, they certainly would find people to put on the air. If the MSM called up the Women’s Media Center for example, an organization that actually holds training for women to build on-air skills, they might net new guests.

However, as I said, the MSM is lazy and has to be spoonfed. I think one of the things the LGBT movement could do, in terms of boosting its effectiveness, is to build that bench and give the MSM an information guide filled with a slew of people they can bring on air to discuss our issues, including the usual people we see. I do, however, see internal political problems ahead, particularly with our organizations, which will have a hard time with the idea of messaging for the community coming from those not affiliated with the “professional gay” sphere.

What none of us can ignore, however, is that on-air media messaging and advocacy can reach the greatest number of people less well-versed in the issues being discussed, and it can have the greatest impact in a single shot. We need our issues represented by a wide range of well-trained members of the community of all stripes to throw down on the air to counteract the stereotypical image of what it looks like to be LGBT.


Qs of the day

* Do you think that on-air diversity is a problem? If not, why not?
* If so, what can or should be done to help build a deeper bench?

 
 
 
 
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