Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Swimming in the mainstream


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Making Out in the Mainstream: GLAAD and the Politics of Respectability by Vincent Doyle; McGill-Queen's University Press, $34.95

It may have been the climax of GLAAD's (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) prestige. GLAAD presented its 2000 Vanguard Award, given to a member of the entertainment or media community who has significantly promoted equal rights for LGBT people, to actress Elizabeth Taylor. In her acceptance remarks, after declaring "any home where there is love constitutes a family, and all families should have the same legal rights," she added, "What it comes down to is love. How can anything bad come out of love? The bad stuff comes out of mistrust, misunderstanding, and from hate and ignorance. Thank God GLAAD works to fight this!" But as Vincent Doyle, a Canadian assistant professor of media and cultural studies at IE University in Spain, contends in his new book Making Out in the Mainstream, this moment may have been the tipping point between GLAAD's old activist political strategy and its new market-oriented public relations approach.

Based on 18 months of field research including participant observation, in-depth interviews, and archival analysis carried out at GLAAD's New York and Los Angeles offices from 2000-01, Doyle's work is as much a history of GLAAD as a study of its LGBT media activism, including a profile of its awards ceremony and organizational responses to controversial public figures such as Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Eminem. GLAAD was formed in New York City in 1985 to respond to negative AIDS reporting and incendiary attacks on gay men written by the New York Post. Beginning as a militant grassroots organization with direct-action demonstrations against homophobia, within two years GLAAD was shifting its approach to insider strategies to gain access to media companies so it could be transformed into a national media-advocacy lobbying group, complete with a corporate-trained executive board and director. Doyle features extensive interviews with lesbian Joan Garry, who was executive director during the pivotal years of 1997-2005, when this shift in principles occurred, as well as a vast budget expansion reflecting its popular success.

Doyle argues that "earlier coming out strategies – the dismantling of the closet, the right to sexual privacy – were largely supplanted by the politics of making out: promoting representations of gay and lesbian people compatible with a social order that defines good citizenship in terms of self-betterment through consumption, middle-class respectability, professionalism, and entrepreneurialism." In short, rather than dismantling oppressive structures, closer relationships are formed with dominant corporate entities by deploying a cultural politics of respectability, promoting the idea that LGBTQ people feel the same about "life, God, and country" as heterosexual Americans. GLAAD gladly entered the world of big-money politics, publicity consultants and litigators, complete with splashy awards and celebrity endorsements, all promoting the new homonormativity, meaning dominant hetero assumptions and institutions are upheld. As for GLAAD's mission, this meant "representations that would not offend white, middle-class, conventionally gendered, mainstream norms of respectable behavior."

As Doyle notes, critics question whether such sanitized positive images promote real social change, and might actually promote new kinds of exclusions, as radical elements were pushed aside. This is why the Queer as Folk cable series, with its gay promiscuous sex and recreational drug use, created an identity crisis for GLAAD. Relying on corporate funding led to the 2011 scandal where GLAAD lobbied the FCC on behalf of AT&T, one of its financial backers, severely questioning its credibility as an independent critical tool.

With the huge advancements in LGBTQ civil rights secured since 2001, many have questioned whether GLAAD should dissolve, a victim of its own success. Doyle rejects this view but does repeat the queer critique of the politics of respectability, that such gains come at the cost of reinforcing exclusions on the basis of race, class, gender, and sexual norms. Doyle says we need to be more critical of mainstreaming. Mainstream integration is needed, but so is challenging the heteronormative status quo by allowing possibilities for self-definition.

While geared towards an academic audience, especially in the jargon-laden opening and closing chapters, Doyle's case studies giving him access to the inner workings of GLAAD are quite readable, even compelling in places. Doyle also updates, with very recent interviews with Sarah Ellis, the new executive director, the now-dated 2000-01 material, the core of the book. By using GLAAD as an example of the need for "non-dominant sexual and gender iconoclasts living in a hyper-mediated, hyper-consumerist world to think for ourselves and form alliances with others," Doyle has already delivered one of the most thought-provoking books of 2016.

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