Phil v. The Gays. With which will we side? Or rather, against which will we side? This is the question that society demands we answer. Are we anti-Phil or anti-gay or anti-GLAAD or anti-A&E or anti- … ?
Perhaps no other word sums up the Duck Dynasty fiasco as aptly as the word “anti.”
Whenever I hear that someone is anti-this or that, I immediately think of the old quip about MADD – are there any mothers for drunk driving? – and ask myself if anyone is really in favor of the particular thing being protested. Since GLAAD has recently taken a hard-line stance against Phil Robertson’s “anti-gay” comments, I’ve been asking myself a similar question about defamation: Who among us is for it? Most of us are decidedly against defamation, although we choose not to publicly participate in institutional demonstrations to prove how against it we are. But, of course, GLAAD is an institution, and therefore their criticism reverberates at systemic levels.
Founded in 1985 in the wake of the AIDS crisis, GLAAD was formed to protest skewed coverage of LGBT issues and “to put pressure on media organizations to end homophobic reporting.” The original name was an acronym for “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,” and although the organization has recently rebranded itself by deciding that the letters G-L-A-A-D aren’t actually going to stand for anything any more, their reputation for protesting defamatory speech is well known both within and without the LGBT community.
It goes without saying that GLAAD has done a great deal of good for the LGBT community, and for that they deserve our applause and honor. As they noted in their announcement heralding their name change, their work continues to educate and influence the greater culture. Historically they’ve been a symbol of inclusion and tolerance, and they’ve worked tirelessly to infuse these values into our controlling media discourses. Frankly, though, I don’t think their hasty reaction to Phil Robertson displayed our LGBT community’s best values.
Before many of us even learned that Phil Robertson was interviewed by GQ, GLAAD had already convinced us that Phil’s words were vile and offensive, and called upon A&E “to re-examine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.” (I still wonder how many of us – commentators included – have read the actual story in GQ.) A&E offered its own kneejerk response to GLAAD’s kneejerk response, and placed Phil on “indefinite” hiatus, which then prompted some Evangelicals to offer up their own kneejerk response which had something to do with the freedom of speech and now – did I hear this correctly? – Chick-fil-A. In the end, after carefully reviewing all of the responses, A&E issued a final response explaining their decision to lift Phil’s suspension, which resulted in yet another predictable response from GLAAD. I’m not sure how we do it, but we manage to craft responses to our opponents without ever having actual conversations with them.
It isn’t shocking that a conservative Christian duck-hunter from Louisiana has opinions that GLAAD deemed “anti-gay,” and it isn’t shocking that A&E immediately kowtowed to GLAAD at the first drop of the word “homophobic.” What is shocking, however, is that A&E lifted Phil’s hiatus in spite of the fact that they knew GLAAD wasn’t going to be happy about it. A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine a network disregarding GLAAD’s recommendations. A&E is certainly setting a precedent – which makes me wonder about where we are today with queer politics.
In the ’80s and ’90s, GLAAD was necessary, if only because top media outlets needed to be reminded that journalistic ethics applied to AIDS coverage, too. But in 2014, how necessary is GLAAD? I don’t mean to suggest that the organization isn’t doing some good for our world – as I’ve already noted, they are! But as America edges closer and closer to unqualified and full inclusion of LGBT persons, I wonder if an organization whose raison d’etre is to find and shame instances of discrimination isn’t just a bit archaic.
If our goal is to progress beyond defamation against LGBT persons, then that means GLAAD has a sell-by date. To put it in a different, albeit cheekier way: Defamation is good for GLAAD’s business. To bankrupt our society of LGBT defamation would certainly put GLAAD out of work. It’s hard for me to imagine I’m the only one who’s wondered about this. In fact, GLAAD’s recent name-change only confirms that their leadership has been reexamining and revising their purposes moving forward. Again, I’m not suggesting our world doesn’t need GLAAD: There certainly is a place for them. But A&E’s latest reversal should make us question what exactly that place is.
There’s a famous quote (most likely apocryphal) often attributed to Mother Teresa that I think applies to both the Duck Dynasty/GLAAD fiasco and the greater political context which frames it. After declining an invitation to an anti-war rally, she is said to have explained, “If you have a pro-peace rally, invite me.” Whatever the true origin of the quote, the idea is that rallying against war is pointless, but doing the difficult work of promoting peace is a better way to effect lasting and seismic changes.
In the same way, speaking out against defamation is a noble thing to do. But gracing our conversation and behavior with the compassion that is sometimes lacking from our loudest political battles – that is more than noble. It’s kind.
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore.