How GLAAD Won the Culture War and Lost Its Reason to Exist

The gay-rights group's baffling award to Bill Clinton is the latest sign that it has outlived its usefulness.
Todd Williamson/Invision/Associated Press

Post corrected and updated below.

Last month in Los Angeles, former President Bill Clinton was garlanded as an "Advocate for Change," by GLAAD, one of the largest gay-rights organizations in the United States. This was quite an accomplishment for the man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and forbids the federal government from granting any of the 1,100 benefits to married gay couples that it provides to married straight ones. But aside from a heckler who shouted, "You signed it!" when Clinton mentioned his newfound opposition to the law, Clinton received a rapturous reception from the crowd. "Leaders and allies like President Clinton are critical to moving our march for equality forward," GLAAD's "strategic giving officer" Wilson Cruz said.

This is a strange thing to say about a man who, during his presidency, moved the "march for equality" significantly backward, signing not only DOMA but the other, most significant piece of anti-gay legislation to emerge from Congress: the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," regulation barring homosexuals from serving openly in the armed forces. The latter was repealed in 2011, while DOMA is the subject of a Supreme Court case likely to be decided this summer. Like his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose epiphany in favor of marriage equality conveniently arrived just weeks after departing Foggy Bottom (and, one presumes, with an eye toward the 2016 Democratic presidential primary), Clinton changed his tune after leaving office. Yet GLAAD was willing to forgive this damaging record and honor a man whose corrosive actions the gay movement has spent the past 15 years trying to undo.

One might question the usefulness of a gay-rights organization that demands so little of elected officials. And in the case of GLAAD, such doubts would be correct. The best thing the organization could do is dissolve -- not because it is actively harmful, but rather because it is a victim of its own success.

Among the alphabet soup of gay-rights organizations, GLAAD is the one that has unquestionably outlived its once-noble purpose (the Human Rights Campaign is a frequent target of criticism -- that it is ineffective, too closely aligned with the Democratic Party, mainly concerned with throwing black tie fundraisers, etc. -- but as the premier lobbying group for LBGT causes in Washington, the group still serves an important purpose.) Founded in 1985 as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation -- the group officially dropped this title in March, in recognition of its work on behalf of bisexual and transgender people, though it kept the acronym -- a major part of GLAAD's mission is to combat negative portrayals of gays in the media.* There was certainly a case for such an organization some 25 years ago, when popular portrayals of gays -- men in particular -- depicted them as decadent, depraved, and disease-ridden. Even ostensibly "progressive" individuals and institutions took part in gay-bashing.

For instance, among its many other absurdities, Oliver Stone's conspiratorial 1991 film JFK laid responsibility for the assassination of the 35th president at the feet of a sadomasochistic gay-sex ring. And though it is now an undoubtedly gay-friendly (if not obsessed) newspaper, the New York Times was not always so sympathetic. "The NYT was preposterously slow to cover AIDS during [Editor A.M.] Rosenthal's tenure, and it was widely believed that was because of Rosenthal's homophobia," wrote Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On, his magisterial chronicle of the AIDS crisis. According to a brief history of the organization, GLAAD was created at a time when, "representations of lesbians and gay men tended to fall into one of two categories: defamatory or non-existent."

What a difference 25 years makes. Not only are media representations of gays plentiful, they are almost overwhelmingly positive, which is perhaps why GLAAD curiously removed the above sentence from its website. The entertainment industry, for many years a "celluloid closet" (in the words of the late gay film historian Vito Russo), is exuberantly pro-gay. Being gay isn't just OK these days, it's positively cool. From Broadway to Hollywood, the message is one of uncompromising acceptance of gay people. The list of celebrities and television shows affirming a gay-positive message is endless, from Lady Gaga and her mantra of "Born This Way" to hit television shows like Modern Family and Glee. Meanwhile, popular television journalists like CNN's Anderson Cooper and NBC News' Pete Williams face no barriers for being openly gay, a far cry from what it was like to work in the news industry just half a generation ago. The media's reaction to NBA player Jason Collins' coming out on the cover of Sports Illustrated has been almost exclusively supportive; just witness the hostility heaped upon Howie Kurtz, who was fired by The Daily Beast for a blog post in which he erroneously stated that Collins "didn't come clean" over his previous engagement to a woman. As far as the mainstream media, movies, television, and popular music -- the monitoring of which is GLAAD's raison d'etre -- goes, homosexuality has gone from the love that dare not speak its name to the love that won't stop talking.

Simply put, gays have won the culture war. Social historians can debate when exactly this happened. (Was it Ellen DeGeneres' "Yep, I'm Gay" Time cover? Or, as Vice President Joe Biden recently suggested, the popularity of Will & Grace?) Rather than being attributable to one instantaneous incident, however, today's mainstream acceptance of homosexuality came about gradually, assisted by the fact that most people today personally know someone who is openly gay. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may seem like a long time ago, in the full sweep of American history, no other social movement has progressed so far and so fast as that of gays.

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James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Ha'aretz, and Tablet.

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