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LGBT Advocacy Groups v. P.C. Police: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Feb 19, 2011

With seemingly more TV shows, films and media taking notice of LGBT Americans than perhaps ever before (Exhibits A & B: the widely celebrated representations offered up by Modern Family and The Kids Are All Right), the explosion of queer visibility in pop culture has also come with a flip side. In recent months, LGBT advocacy groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have been working overtime to respond to a bevy of representations they deem as offensive to the community. Or, as sometimes happens, they appear to play catch-up to a bottoms-up outrage from the community itself.

Earlier this month, GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) both spoke out forcefully against a Saturday Night Life sketch. The admittedly humorless and unquestionably questionable "fauxmercial" endorsed a fake product called "Estro-Maxx," a hormone treatment for transgender women.

GLAAD described the segment as "dangerous." HRC said the skit was degrading. Both groups called for the removal of the segment from the show's website and a public apology.

The Saturday Night Live incident was followed in close succession by a Super Bowl advertisement from daily deal company LivingSocial and a horrendous skit on Craig Ferguson's late night talk show which also were described as anti-transgender by GLAAD. (Ferguson has been notably pro-LGBT -- or at least the L and G; he played a sympathetic gay hairdresser in a film that helped make his reputation here.)

But the biggest controversy occurred in Canada. Earlier this year, the 1985 Dire Straits classic rock song "Money For Nothing" was ruled unsuitable for Canadian radio because it contains the word "faggot" in its lyrics. At the same time, the New York Times published a feature article on the Pussy Faggot dance party, held several times a year at a Lower East club called The Delancey, that managed to completely avoid specifically naming the party.

Late last year, GLAAD called on Universal Films to remove a controversial comment -- "Electric cars are gay" -- from the trailer for The Dilemma, a film starring Vince Vaughn that hit theaters, without much fanfare, earlier this year. (As it was, a lot more people saw the trailer than the movie.)

Is GLAAD Going the Way of PETA -- Or Putting Out Brush Fires?
All of these recent examples have to make one wonder whether perennial gay favorite actor Susan Sarandon's comments about GLAAD's advocacy around contentious media coverage of LGBT people may carry some truth. Have we overdone it, caving to the political-correctness movement?

"What should they have said?" Sarandon asked the New York Post, regarding GLAAD's criticism of the show Glee's use of the word "tranny" in their Rocky Horror Picture Show episode last fall. GLAAD, she added, was "getting like PETA -- way out of control."

When someone as well-known and beloved in ultra-liberal circles as Sarandon raises an issue, that's an instant red flag. But there is also a strong case to be made for squelching questionable uses of language or imagery against LGBT people before the usages become more widespread and, as advocates fear, reinforced in their audiences.

Rich Ferraro, GLAAD director of communications, said his organization's goal in bringing attention to offensive, anti-LGBT rhetoric and jokes is to educate the public about the spillover effect such content in the media can have on the lives of queer people in their day-to-day lives, particularly youth. That benefit, he said, far outweighs any risk of further attention empowering hurtful rhetoric beyond its original impact.

"When parents and educators read about GLAAD and our community's responses to anti-gay jokes, it makes them think twice the next time they hear these words hurled at a LGBT teen," Ferraro told EDGE. "Similarly, as media outlets, networks and studios see these campaigns, they're starting to reconsider stereotypical representations or jokes and slurs that hurt members of our community."

Finding the Line Between Hurtful and Humerous
But where is the line drawn between language and imagery that is hurtful and that which is humorous?

HRC spokesperson Michael Cole-Schwartz said the Saturday Night Live sketched passed his group's litmus test of a character's queer identity being the central basis of a laugh line. Without the transgender reference, in this case, there was no other content of comedic merit present.

Cole-Schwartz said not responding to incidents like the Saturday Night Live sketch would miss a critical opportunity to "help educate the community on how these things are damaging."

"I'm not somebody who wants to shut down speech or humor and I think there's a lot of room for LGBT people to sort of laugh at ourselves and find humor in some of these things that go on in our lives," Cole-Schwartz said. "But not in a way that is denigrating and devaluing of what is an actually difficult experience for people to go through."

Such harmful depictions, he added, can actually "poison the well" of the advocacy HRC has undertaken to work for increased legal protections for transgender Americans who, as of this writing, can still be fired based solely on their gender identity in 38 of the 50 states.

’What should they have said?’ - Rocky Horror star Susan Sarandon, on Glee’s use of ’tranny’ to describe a character.

"I think we're in the middle of a national educational experience people are having around transgender issues," Cole-Schwartz said. "This sort of discomfort people have around gender issues generally really holds us back from having an honest look at our lives as LGBT people and particularly for the transgender community."

William Leap, anthropology department chair and professor at American University, appreciates the work of GLAAD and other groups to confront insulting media narratives around queer issues in recent years. During difficult economic times, he said, such advocacy is particularly important for any minority population finding itself as the brunt of the joke more often than not.

"It does seem to show up more in times of economic crisis," Leap said. "People need something as a foil and a vocal point of anger, and that is something that I think is frankly serious."

"What you need to do is draw attention to it," he added. "Don't ban it, but point out that it's happening and that other stigmatized groups are not being identified and poked fun at in this particular fashion and we have to be in their face and say, 'We saw you do this and we will not tolerate this happening again.' It may not go anywhere, but then people know they're being watched."

The Issue of Context
An important caveat in this argument, though, is the issue of context. Rather than working to repress offensive language, such incidents should be utilized as an opportunity to open up a dialogue around the issues raised by hurtful speech.

David Steinberg, president of the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association, said he hesitates to endorse any action that would resemble censorship, but added that not everything should be printed or broadcast.

His litmus test, like others interviewed for this story, involves whether the surrounding dialogue would stand up on its own were a questionable reference removed. If it does, the reference wasn't needed -- and it would best be avoided altogether. Arguably, under this test, neither the Dire Straits or Glee examples would pass the test, while the Saturday Night Live skit likely would.

The Dire Straits song was supposed to be giving voice to a sad sack salesperson in an electronics store who looks with envy on rock stars. He dismissively calls the star on an MTV video blasting in his store a "faggot." But in the context, it's the man using the word, not the (presumably straight) person being labeled, who's considered the loser.

The point was made by several critics of the Canadian radio commission at the time. The case mirrored another, much more controversial, use of censorship in a creative work.

When a well-meaning Alabama professor recently published a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain's The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn -- widely regarded as the greatest American novel ever written -- he took out the word "nigger" or substituted it for "slave" when describing "Nigger Jim" (in his version "Slave Jim").

A firestorm of criticism greeted the decision, with many pointing out that Twain's use of the hateful word was intentionally ironic: Jim is, in fact, the only noble adult in the novel. Many academics and commenter said that a work had to be taken in context and removing a controversial word wouldn't "improve" a work of out, any more than whitening the black servant in Monet's painting "Olympia."

Many believe that, as the LGBT-rights movement matures, it's going to have to confront more and more cases like Dire Straits. Another example from the rock world is Eminem, who was widely criticized for homophobic lyrics. The rapper responded that he was embodying the persona of "Marshall Mathers" -- and that it was his character who was homophobic. Once again, a rock musician was claiming that (not unlike Twain) he was using homophobic remarks to turn them on the person making them and make them (and the speaker) ridiculous for them.

Having a 'Useful Discussion Around the Issues'
Given the layers of nuance that come with such freighted and coded language, it's crucial to the movement to discuss when criticism is called for.

"If nothing else, it's useful to have discussions around these issues and I think it's a good jumping-off point in terms of coverage: What do these words mean? What effect do they have?" Steinberg said. "I look at dialogue as being a good thing."

Kelly McBride, a Poynter Institute faculty member specializing in media ethics, said it is always important for members of the media -- and people in general -- to pay attention to their use of language, what it conveys and how it may breed intolerance.

"We cut off the possibility of learning, when we suggest that certain words or speech is always unacceptable and never appropriate," McBride added. "Instead, we need to learn that discourse will vary from setting to setting. It's certainly very different in classroom than it is on entertainment television."

While there many not be easy answers to be found in this debate, it's crucial that this debate remains open as the queer movement moves forward, gaining ever more toeholds toward equality. Whereas we may have been cropped out of the American portrait for decades upon decades, our work to ensure we are not only present, as we increasingly are, but that we are also captured in an accurate light and the right angle, is only just beginning.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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