I’ve been submerged lately in the records of the Gay Activists Alliance, the most prominent gay activist organization in New York City during the early 1970s. From 1971 until the building was heavily damaged by arson in 1974, the GAA was headquartered in a former SoHo firehouse that played host to meetings, dances, film screenings, and a number of other events. Today, I decided to pay a visit.
First, here’s the building in its heyday. (You can also see a color photo in the New York Public Library’s great digital gallery of GAA images.)
And here it is today, bracketed by Crocs and Patagonia stores. The building itself houses an art gallery.
In his 1979 memoir Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, Arnie Kantrowitz, the writer and academic and an early GAA officer, describes the building activists called “The Firehouse”:
The basement held committee meetings. The first floor, where the engines had been stored, was lined with white tile. It made a good hall for general membership meetings. A small spiral stairway led to the second floor, which was used for a snack bar, informal sitting around, and more committee meetings. The top floor was for offices and, of course, still more committee meetings. There was no shortage of meetings. There were so many meetings that, in spite of all the room, space had to be booked in advance.
At the dedication ceremonies in May, 1971, I stood on the spiral staircase and pointed at the new mural that stretched across the tile wall on the first floor in a series of photomontage panels. […] [T]o me it was a family portrait. It was the way we saw ourselves: a homosexual clutching iron bars in anguish (cropped from a picture that revealed the bars to belong to the fence in a public park), Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein and black militant Huey Newton endorsing our cause, Jim Owles at City Hall, Vito Russo in Albany, Allen Ginsberg, men embracing, women holding hands, slogans such as GAY POWER, GAY PRIDE, AN ARMY OF LOVERS CANNOT LOSE, my erstwhile lover Bud and I holding hands in the streets of Washington, D.C. The mural was something for homosexuals to be proud of.
Kantrowitz then highlights the vital but deeply fraught relationship between the political and the social in the gay movement. The mural, he writes, faded into the background on “Saturday nights,” when “the meeting hall became a dance floor packed with a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of dancers undulating to the deafening blast of soul rock, an awesome sight from halfway up the spiral staircases, which was perpetually too crowded to afford more than a hasty glimpse of all that rhythmic homosexuality.” Indeed, as Alice Echols argues in her flawed-but-interesting new book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, “The GAA dances suggest the intimate and synergistic connection between gay liberation and gay disco.”
Yesterday came news of Equality Matters, a new creation of Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog founded by gay conservative-turned-liberal journalist David Brock in 2004. Equality Matters, the Times reported, will be “a ‘communications war room for gay equality’ in an effort to win the movement’s next and biggest battle: for a right to same-sex marriage.” Richard Socarides, the former Clinton aide and current Obama critic and TV pundit who will head the group, writes on its website, “The goal of Equality Matters is to leverage our expertise in media and communications, and politics and policy, to support those who share this belief [in ‘full gay equality’] and help create an environment where policymakers, the courts, the media and the public at large understand that gay rights are human rights.” Kerry Eleveld, the outgoing White House correspondent for the Advocate, will edit the group’s website.
This is a really noteworthy development. In a later post, I’ll write more about the light that history can shed on Equality Matters and its challenge to GLAAD in the realm of gay media activism. Right now, I want to consider why this challenge is emerging now, and in the way it is.
The launch of Equality Matters confirms, I think, a significant shift underway in the structure of gay activism. This shift dates to the moment when, in the wake of California voters’ passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, young people and the Join the Impact movement organized massive, nationwide protests largely over Facebook and other social media. But it has not exactly taken the shape many predicted at that time: a shift toward technologically-enhanced and -enabled grassroots power labeled, famously, “Stonewall 2.0” or “Gay Activism 4.0” by Rex Wockner.
To be sure, frustration with both the status quo and established gay organizations, particularly the HRC, has persisted, even intensified. This has been especially so online, on blogs including Pam’s House Blend and AmericaBlog Gay. The October 2009 National Equality March was arguably an extension of that initial “Join the Impact” moment; possibly, the “It Gets Better” phenomenon is as well.
However, the most notable new activist-esque enterprises to emerge from this environment have included an additional feature not forecast in the heady days of Stonewall 2.0: deep-pocketed founders or supporters. The American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), created in 2009 to sponsor the Ted Olson-David Boies federal court challenge to Prop 8, is backed by Hollywood power players Rob Reiner and Bruce Cohen. The direct action group GetEqual is bankrolled by Progressive Insurance heir Jonathan Lewis. Fight Back New York, the PAC established this year to oust state legislators who opposed marriage equality, is funded by Tim Gill and others. And now, Equality Matters will draw from the largesse of Media Matters’ liberal donors.
Socarides himself addresses this context–sort of–in his initial statement on the Equality Matters website:
Another important factor in the evolution of where we are today is the democratizing impact that “new media” and the Internet have had on the equality movement. […] Partially as an outgrowth of all this information, new gay rights groups like Get Equal and Fight Back New York, formed just this year, were able to demonstrate that you could get results by being tough on friend and foe alike (a fact almost no one in Washington seems to get).
It’s a bit submerged in this account, but it seems evident that the democratizing power of new media and the discontent with established gay organizations among the LGBT grassroots have also made it much easier for gay, lesbian, and allied elites to challenge these established organizations while giving their efforts a grassroots, insurgent cast. Many existing gay organizations lack the credibility to stand in the way of well-off donors who decide to create new activist initiatives and hire legal, political, and media experts to staff them. Social media allow these new groups to offer, at minimum, the appearance of accessibility and transparency—like us on Facebook! read our tweets! embed our videos! And widespread anger with the status quo provides them a ready base of support.
Still missing, however, is anything approximating an actual grassroots alternative to organizations like the HRC and GLAAD.
Also missing, significantly, is any hint of real substantive differences with these organizations’ agendas. As Socarides’ statement above suggests, most of the loud discontent voiced over the last two years has focused on matters of style and strategy: a need for a more aggressive stance, greater pressure on allies, less compromise, immediate progress, and (sometimes) more direct action. But these preferred approaches still serve a similar agenda: open military service, employment non-discrimination, and marriage equality. These new, vocal challenges to the gay organizational establishment have not, so far, done much to broaden or diversify its agenda, as queer and radical critics have long sought. The Times article ends with a quote from David Brock: “We believe the big battle is full equality, which is gay marriage.” Indeed, if anything, the agenda of these new groups is more narrowly focused on the important, but ultimately limited, military-employment-marriage trifecta.
This post accompanies a talk I’m giving today about my current research at Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection. I’ll be speaking about my dissertation, with a focus on its gay and lesbian history component and how LGBT archival collections will help me to answer the questions I’m asking.
This will be the first extended archival research I’ve done since I’ve started blogging and tweeting regularly, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share some first impressions from the archives.
Balancing new and old modes of scholarly communication, I’ll also be doing an informal presentation on my research during each trip. So if you’re in the neighborhood and so inclined, you can find me:
talking about “The Women’s Movement and the Struggle for Fair Representation in Mass Entertainment” at a brown bag lunch on October 15 at noon in the first floor conference room at the Schlesinger, and
speaking about my research in the HSC’s GLAAD and Gay Media Task Force papers on October 19 at 4:30 pm in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies office in Uris Hall at Cornell.
In this video from Book TV, Brown University historian Gordon Wood discusses his research and writing practices while offering a tour of his home office… and his campus office… and his private study in Brown’s Rockefeller Library.
Caleb McDaniel comments that the video makes him “thankful for the post-notecard era.” I concur—for any number of reasons, but in large part because, between my laptop’s hard drive and its external companion, basically all of my dissertation research can accompany me where ever I go. This is handy, since I don’t have an office to work in.
But the Wood video, in addition to making me long for the day I (hopefully) do, also made me wonder what happens to the real estate devoted to those boxes of notecards when they’re replaced by Zotero, and to those shelves of books if/when they’re replaced by e-readers and tablets. What will academics’ offices become if they no longer need to serve as storage areas for lots of printed material?
This post at Inside Higher Ed by Herman Berliner raises some related questions and calls for “a new model of space utilization,” but doesn’t suggest what it would look like. (The commenters, in defense of the status quo, raise compelling points about privacy, student meetings, and FERPA guidelines.) What should this new model look like? And how should it address perhaps the most vital issue of all: enabling professors to impress and inspire their students without the aid of intimidatingly—but tantalizingly—crowded bookcases on every wall?
Last week, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released its 2009-2010 Network Responsibility Index, “an evaluation of the quantity, quality and diversity of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people on television.” In the report, GLAAD gave CBS a failing grade, citing a lack of “LGBT series regular characters on any of its scripted programs.” Only seven percent of CBS’s primetime program-hours were deemed “LGBT-Inclusive.”
Yesterday, presenting CBS’s fall schedule, network president Nina Tassler declared, “We know we will do better.” Specifically, Tassler promised, “We’re going to meet Alicia’s brother on The Good Wife as a gay character. We’re also going to be adding a new character to Rules of Engagement. Jeff and Audrey’s surrogate will be a member of Jeff’s softball team and she’s a lesbian. We’re also going to be recurring a gay character in Bleep My Dad Says. The character Tim Bagley played will be returning this season.”
I don’t watch any of these shows. But I still find this sequence of events interesting and remarkable, for a number of reasons. It seems especially noteworthy to me right now as I plow through primary sources documenting several decades of pressure by African American activists and performers to increase the number of black faces on primetime TV, often to quite limited effect. Indeed, just a year and a half ago, the NAACP identified a “critical lack of programming by, for or about people of color.” CBS’s swift reaction to GLAAD’s report, I think, highlights a fundamental difference between efforts to make television programming more racially and more sexually diverse—the far greater ease, for better or for worse, with which producers seem to be able to tack gay and lesbian characters (usually, white, male ones) onto already-existing pilots and shows.
Yesterday, I came across a 1967 interview in which Charlton Heston, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, declares “we’ve got a long way to go before the Negro image on screen catches up with reality.” Being familiar with Heston’s right-wing, pro-gun politics of his later, NRA years, the interview came as a bit of a surprise. So did, after taking to Google for background, the above photograph from the 1963 March on Washington. Nor had I realized that Heston, still associating himself in King’s legacy, was not only a Second Amendment activist but a committed culture warrior on a number of fronts by the 1990s.
Now, judging by the 1967 interview, Heston was no radical on the issue of black images in film or on racial questions generally. He speaks of progress made, citing Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby approvingly. Pressed on his personal contribution, he mentions a prospective “picture about a professional football team and the girl who plays opposite me will be a Negro,” acknowledging that it won’t “make a shattering impression on the movie industry,” but calling it “a step in the right direction.” (Heston may have been talking about 1969’s Number One; his costar in that film was the fabulous, but white, Jessica Walter.) And he leads off by celebrating the civil rights movement in expressly universalist terms, noting that black efforts to integrate technical unions had undermined their insularity and nepotism in ways that aided whites too: “There’s a huge wave of employment reform surging through the movie industry these days, especially behind the camera, and the civil rights push deserves much of the credit for making the situation better for both races” (Walter Burrell, “NAACP Has Ripped Apart Hollywood’s ‘In Crowd’,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 14, 1967).
Still, I find Heston’s evolution—he might have denied that he’d evolved—from civil rights marching Democrat to “white pride”-defending Republican fascinating. All the more so because it seems to have been part of a broader phenomenon. Ronald Reagan is, of course, the archetypal case. Matt Jacobson and Gaspar González offer an interesting account of Frank Sinatra’s changing politics in their book on The Manchurian Candidate. Are there more examples? Can we think about these liberal-to-conservative Hollywood stars as a group, even if their evolutions proceeded along somewhat different timelines? Is it significant that all three of the actors mentioned here engaged in at least some early-career activism against racial prejudice, or in support of civil rights? Is it possible that changing racial dynamics within the film industry helped—alongside many other factors—to reshape their politics by the 1970s and 1980s?
These aren’t, precisely, questions I’m aiming to answer with my dissertation, which tackles only a slice of a much larger history of the civil rights movement and racial politics in Hollywood. On the other hand, I’m increasingly realizing that the campaigns against film stereotypes that I’m examining are hard to detach from this context. By the 1960s, they had become deeply intertwined with demands for altered hiring practices and, broadly, for greater African American power within the industry. As my research proceeds, Heston’s case prompts me to think more about the reception afforded such demands, and to consider how the growing black presence in Hollywood, the fraying of old interracial alliances, and rightward migrations like those undertaken by these actors might fit together.
For a side project (but ultimately also as background for the dissertation), I’ve just read the media scholar Lisa Parks’s very interesting 2004 essay “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” In one part of the essay, Parks analyzes the early years of the Oxygen cable television network, which debuted in 2000 as part of an ambitious TV-internet hybrid. I’m not a regular Oxygen viewer, but it was striking to note the differences between networks’ initial programming and the fare it offers today. At its debut, Oxygen promised to “superserve the needs and interests of women,” and its schedule included a Candice Bergen talk show, a yoga program, a web-integrated talk show for girls, a showcase for gender-themed digital art, and a show where Oprah Winfrey and friend Gayle King learned to use the internet. Whatever the merits of such programming—Parks sees some feminist possibilities in them, while others were more critical—it’s a far cry from Oxygen’s top hits today: Hair Battle Spectacular, Dance Your A** Off, Jersey Couture, Bad Girls Club, and so forth. This lineup of reality and reality-competition series, while clearly aimed at a primarily female audience, would seem to lack any explicit service mission. And it would hardly be out of place on other cable outlets not identified as “women’s” networks: Bravo, VH1, and E!, for instance.
Of course, this is not a trend confined to Oxygen alone. History—long, and still, the bane of academic historians—has branched out from war documentaries and features Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. On A&E, middle- and high-brow arts programming has been pushed aside by Dog the Bounty Hunter, Growing Up Twisted and, as Pandora has been reminding me all day, Gene Simmons Family Jewels. At VH1, music coexists, sort of, with “Celebreality.”
Yet, while Oxygen and Lifetime have become less distinguishable from their cable counterparts, it’s interesting that other identity-based niche cable channels, like BET and Logo, seem to have retained a brand identity far more rooted in their original missions of programming distinctively about and for African American and gay and lesbian audiences, respectively. This divergence may be another manifestation of a question I’ve confronted repeatedly in conceptualizing my dissertation project. How do demands for better images of women in the movies and on television fit alongside similar calls for better images of groups, from African Americans to gays and lesbians, that have not only been historically marginalized within and outside the entertainment industry, but have also been distinct demographic minorities? I’ve tended to fudge this issue so far by talking about feminist, rather than women’s, campaigns for improved media representations. But while I do think this distinction is important, it’s certainly not by itself an adequate answer to the question.
I realize that this is all, being generous, semi-coherent. Please think of this as a brainstorming post.
Addendum, 7/21: After letting this marinate for a day, I think I have a somewhat better idea of the idea I’m trying to develop here. Because “women” is a far larger slice of the demographic pie than, for instance, “African American” or “gay and lesbian,” it’s inevitable that many channels on an increasingly fractured cable landscape will try to deliver that demographic to advertisers by scheduling at least some programming that features and appeals to female viewers. As a result, an explicit mission of service to women or an express assertion of some brand of feminism would offer ways to differentiate a “women’s” channel from a channel for general audiences that appeals to women. But both Lifetime and Oxygen seem to have rejected such differentiation. In contrast, although BET and Logo have sought to broaden their appeal (e.g. Logo’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race), and although other channels have sought to appeal to both black and gay audiences (e.g. Bravo, in the latter case), the focus of their programming remains more distinctive.
If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I’ve plunged back into the voluminous microfilmed papers of the NAACP. Lately, I’ve been exploring the organization’s records of its interactions with the entertainment industry in the 1950s and the first part of the 1960s. Yesterday, though, I ran across a small cache of 1970s-era material that documents the early years of the Image Awards put on, at that time, by the NAACP’s Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch. Here are some samples. (And if any readers have leads on other sources on the Image Awards’ history, please get in touch.)
Above is the cover of what looks like a souvenir program distributed at the sixth-annual awards, in 1972. It depicts Cicely Tyson, the “Honorary Chairman,” star of and Oscar nominee for that year’s Sounder. The inside of the program is chock-full of advertisements from film studios and record labels, suggesting that it didn’t take long for the industry to embrace this particular form of politicking for improved media representations.
Below is an excerpt from the script for the fifth-annual awards, in 1971, featuring an exchange between host Bobby Darrin and his “assistant,” the television actress Denise Nicholas. Judging by this, it also didn’t take long for the Image Awards to adopt an important feature of the awards show genre: awkward dialogue and strained topical humor.
I’m currently working on synthesizing a number of existing accounts of minority protests against films of the silent and early sound eras, of the first social scientific accounts of the influence of film stereotypes on audiences, and of the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency as the primary external constraints on film content. The result will serve either as a first chapter or as part of a long introduction.
Conveniently, each of the three most important players throughout this story—African American, Jewish, and Irish-Catholic groups—campaigned prominently against a different film of this period, and did so in a way I can use to illustrate the nature of their broader role in the story. So the fulcrum of the chapter will be African American protests against D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Jewish protests against Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), and Irish and Catholic protests against The Callahans and the Murphys, a 1927 MGM comedy.
The last of these three cases is the most obscure but, I think, the most fascinating. First, because aside from its offensive stereotypes of brawling, drinking, ditch-digging Irish, the film’s story of two women, Mrs. Callahan and Mrs. Murphy, who are at once friends and bitter rivals, sounds potentially entertaining and intriguingly modern (Mmes. Bluth and Austero, anyone?). Second, because protests by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Catholic Church, and the Irish American press worked—the film was withdrawn from circulation—and intimated the success that a core of Catholic clergy and laity would have in shaping the regulation of film content in the years that followed. And finally, because the film is lost—a sobering reminder that, notwithstanding the website promising to let you “Watch The Callahans And The Murphys Movie Free,” even in the digital age not every source is at your fingertips, after all.