LGBT Media and the Question of Content
Author: Marcie Bianco
March 28, 2013
“The media has replaced every institution”—Fran Lebowitz is always right, isn’t she? Yet even I think she could not foretell the extent of her accuracy in light of the digital age and the rise of “new media.” Those of us who participate in the LGBT bloggosphere—writers, editors, photographers, videographers, and the occasional journalist—know that while the democratization of new media in the digital age has enabled even the casual online interloper to have a voice, it has become an increasing challenge for many of us (especially for those of us who reside outside the section of the G in the LGBT umbrella) to have our voices heard, and specifically when these voices articulate non-normative, queer concerns or critiques of the capitalist (racist and misogynist) system into which we desperately stuff our pink dollars…for “acceptance.”
If the media has replaced every institution, or because the media has replaced every institution, it is no wonder that the slowly building, yet increasingly noticeable, political fragmentation of the LGBT community finds a corollary in LGBT media—particularly regarding the question of content. This political fragmentation is one typically presented in the binarized model of “gay” versus “queer” politics, with gay politics centralizing around the objective for systemic acceptance and inclusion, and primarily, as we have witnessed over the past twenty odd years, the fight for inclusion into the traditional institutions of marriage and the military. (Now, to invoke Lebowitz’s quip in Public Speaking, we can’t even play the artful dodger to these institutions; being gay was the “easy way out” not too long ago.)
Let me be specific: the question of content is the question of the LGBT political and media communities. Not since the ‘80s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis framed our politics and our dialogue, have we been at a loss for a single, unified message, narrative, or agenda.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing Edie Windsor’s DOMA case (Windsor v. the United States) and the justices will, suggestively, deliver their verdict by the end of June—aka Pride Month. DOMA will be overturned. The mainstream gay agenda—minus the emphatic “It Gets Better Campaign”—will successfully achieve closure on a late midsummer’s night. The mainstreaming of the LGBT community in the media has been arguably more successful: visibility is ubiquitous, from talking heads (Anderson, Ellen, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Don Lemon, Robin Roberts, Andy Cohen) to TV series (Modern Family, GLEE, any show on Bravo). Media has become so gay.
The oh-so-Whedonesque question of “where do we go from here” (“The battle’s done / and we kinda won / so we sound our victory cheer”) was on the minds of many LGBT media types at the NLGJA-sponsored LGBT Media Convening meeting held several weeks ago in Philadelphia. Roughly six dozen people in LGBT media convened over the course of the weekend in late February to discuss the current state of LGBT affairs. I was not invited—but my girlfriend was. So I tagged along and observed the “convening” from outside the conference room, from the comfort of my hotel room and my Twitter account, with frequent personal messages from friends, including said girlfriend, inside the meeting to keep me abreast of ongoing events. I also joined an impromptu gathering of the “women’s caucus” for dinner Saturday night—the Philly girl had to play guide, so to speak.
Of course, there were only a smattering of female-identified, cis and transgendered persons among the sea of older white men. When I mentioned the gender imbalance on Twitter a gay male journalist partaking in the convening said that women comprised over 30% of those in attendance—a number that my Saturday night dining companions contended was a stretch of the imagination, not quite the social desirability bias as an effect of gender hypersensitivity caused by an overestimating of the number of women (or generally any minority) in the room. Even though a gross exaggeration, I retorted that the number of women journalists (regardless of their sexuality, L, B or anything in between) should be over 50%. Period.
My digression is about the continually repressed position of women in LGBT media mirrors mainstream media, for sure, and I mention it not simply to vent my frustration but to reflect on the LGBT movement and to think about a collective future in terms of a political agenda.
You see, as an Act Up activist and seminal LGBT media figure (who shall remain nameless) explained to me that fine Philly weekend, the LGBT movement unified in the ‘80s because gay men—gay white men—realized they were dying and that they needed help. How To Survive a Plague portrays how men and women united at this time: women, lesbian women, rallied as nurses, as grassroots organizers, and as caretakers, when gay men called upon them. These men—much like the white feminists of the ‘60s and ‘70s who turned to African-American women with activist experience garnered throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s—turned to women for the activist expertise they acquired during the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Fast forward to 2013, the major discourse of the LGBT movement is no longer HIV/AIDS (as the Bilerico Project noted recently), is no longer DADT, and, come this summer, will no longer be DOMA. That is, there is, or will shortly be (depending on how you perceive it), no unifying or unified agenda. In this regard, as many women at the convening suggested, the dynamics of the LGBT community has returned to pre-HIV/AIDS days, with the most noticeable separation existing between the political agenda of the Gs and the LBTs.
How LGBT media has worked this fragmentation, it seems, is as follows:
> The gay media has continued its focus on mainstreaming the LGBT community at large through campaigns about acceptance, from institutional access to anti-bullying efforts.
> A segment of the younger Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are trying to reimagine the LGBT community in terms of nostalgia (in a general, not necessarily positivist, sense) around HIV/AIDS. This reimagining—manifest in documentaries like How to Survive a Plague and texts like Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—take the form of asserting history, particularly asserting that HIV/AIDS is the history of all LGBT and queer people today. While strategies associated with this reimagining are in part applied to other queer political activisms (the BDS movement stateside being the most prominent appropriation), this politics is not wholly future-oriented but is an attempt to create and solidify an “LGBT History.” To be honest, while I understand how the AIDS crisis affected the community at large, it holds very little relevance to me as a 32 year-old lesbian woman, and I do not feel guilty for creating my own history outside of this discourse.
> The bisexual media community, according to activist Faith Cheltenham, who I interviewed recently at AfterEllen, is focused on definition, on creating a political space, and on addressing biphobia on the levels of homosexism and hetersexism.
> Trans media has, in my opinion, done the most feminist work recently and is leading the way on gender equality. From NCTE Executive Director Mara Kiesling to #GirlsLikeUs founder Janet Mock, transwomen have transformed and given new life to the feminist movement. In 2012, as documented at NCTE’s website, this community has seen amazing political and legislative successes. It is my personal belief that lesbians and all queer women should more actively build a coalition with transwomen in order to more effectively tackle gender inequality and discrimination.
> Sensing the completion of the overarching gay agenda stateside, a segment of the US media—in collaboration with a dozen or so famous queer academics (including many academidykes)—has turned its focus outward to international causes, with particular attention being given to pinkwashing by the state of Israel. The apartheid in Israel is indeed a human rights violation, yet a part of me remains confused about the reasons why queers have rallied around this particular issue—simply claiming the US’s financial investment in Israel isn’t a substantive enough cause, considering that the US makes neo-imperialist investments around the globe (and I hear from private sector friends that Africa is the place to “invest” these days).
> Some queers, understanding that significant work still needs to be done within the US, have directed their focus on to issues that have been covered by the band-aids of institutional access (marriage, most specifically), such as poverty, immigration, and employment and housing discrimination. These queers are advancing a kind of Marxist critique of the capitalist system that penalizes non-traditional, non-hetero, ways of living—not to mention that the system perpetuates classism and racism (but, fyi, Angela Davis was telling us this in the ‘60s, folks). The Barnard Center for Research on Women’s A New Queer Agenda epitomizes the effort to refocus and expand the movement around economic issues.
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the end of the LGBT movement as we’ve known it over the last thirty years or so. The media is reflecting this change: mainstream media ventures like HuffPo and Buzzfeed have integrated LGBT content onto their sites, gay weddings are featured in the New York Times. The subsequent fragmentation of the community signals closure, a successful, not unsatisfactory, one. The question of content is not one that implies a dearth of material, not in the least; the question of content only becomes the question when a unified agenda or singular narrative is the objective, when the Ls, the Gs, the Bs, and the Ts decide that a new coalition is in order.
The job of media is not just to reflect its culture. With a certain fingerspitzengefühl we are responsible for articulating a new agenda, a new politics, even a new aesthetics. In this vein, let LGBT media, too, come to a close. Let it—with all its queer tendencies and attention to otherness and difference, and liberty and justice—be reborn in discourses about issues unaddressed.