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Cathy Renna

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The State of LGBT Visibility in the Media

Posted: 10/14/11 11:45 AM ET

I approach every October with a sense of pride and dread. For all of the history and progress we celebrate -- and there is a lot to celebrate, especially in the past few years -- there is always sadness in my heart, because October always takes me back, whether I like it or not, to the time I spent in Laramie, Wyo. following the beating of Matthew Shepard in 1998. And while Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day, it was that day in 1998 that I spent in vigil and solidarity with Matt's friends, fellow students and activists on the campus of the University of Wyoming, only to be woken up in the middle of night on Oct. 12 to be told we lost Matt. And every year I take that experience and reflect on it as a marker for how much progress we have truly made.

It is an extraordinary time in many ways. I stood in the room with hundreds of other activists as President Obama thanked the Shepard family for their work and made the hate crimes legislation named for Matt a reality. Open service for LGB troops seemed like a dream in the early 1990s, and yet later this week I'll be at a convention with hundreds of openly LGB service members with Outserve. Next month, to celebrate our anniversary, my wife will legally become my wife, at least on a state level. And every day I am blessed to be part of making more visible so many organizations that are doing good work to advance LGBT equality. Nevertheless, I see so much more that could be done.

Despite all the progress we have made, there are some major lessons we can learn from our successes and failures to propel us forward. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but from my chair, one I've been sitting in for a long time, there are some big issues that are holding us back. Denial, as they say, is not a river in Egypt. Yet many are in denial about some of the most obvious obstacles we have -- or have created -- to moving our entire community forward.

First, we need to realistically look at the cultural climate we are living in. Our culture is one gigantic paradox. We are saturated with puritanical values, but we use sex to sell everything. It's an uphill battle, that's for sure, but if our movement were braver and more open about what actually sets us apart from the rest of the world (they call is sexual orientation for a reason, right?), it would seem more genuine and honest. Talking about sexuality without talking about sex in an honest and appropriate manner often seems to be the order of the day, and it seems like a flawed long-term solution to talking about ourselves. I think it ties in to the age-old debate over whether to argue that we are "just like everyone else" or that we are "more alike than we are different." Personally, I greatly prefer the latter, and having seen it work in places as different as the national media and my daughter's playground, I wonder, why the reticence? And I think the answer lies in our own hearts and minds more than the people we are trying to influence and educate.

For decades, the big complaint about our visibility, on so many levels, from the media to the movement, has been the over-representation of gay white men, those with a lot of privilege and those who fit a few stereotypical categories. And there is a tremendous amount of truth to it -- but simply blaming the media or those who would rather not see us treated as equal or even human is not the answer. Our role in perpetuating or (more to the point) not challenging the situation is something we must look at openly, critically and compassionately.

Let's be honest. It is only recently that we have seen substantive visibility and conversation about the needs of LGBT seniors, just to take one example. It used to seem like after 40, we all fell off the side of a cliff. No more. The stories of couples that can marry after decades together are the ones that are being pushed forward. And many of those couples are women and people of color. The same goes for LGBT parents, although there is clearly a lot more work to do. The demographic information we are seeing is showing us that our community is far more diverse than it looks from the outside, confirming a truism I have said forever: the LGBT community is joined together by our sexual orientation and/or gender identity, something that transcends (or simply has nothing to do with) our age, race, class, geographic location, etc. We are a microcosm of our society, but we are just beginning to look that way in the media and the movement.

The other enormous flaw in so much of the conversation is that we fall into the trap of oversimplification. I am not sure why, exactly, we do not challenge the particularly American cultural convention of "dumbing things down" more often. Is it the path of least resistance that is so appealing? What it all comes down to is that we live in a culture of "either/or" and "black or white," and it is our responsibility to challenge that forced binary, especially given the nature of our issues.

Reinforcing a binary in terms of gender identity and expression is stifling and unhealthy, yet we have done just that, even within our own culture. I often talk about having felt the sting (and impact) of being gender non-conforming more within the community than on the "outside."

I know I am bringing up more questions than offering solutions, but these are big, core challenges. That said, I think there are some ideas I have that can serve as a jumping-off point for a conversation about this -- a long-overdue public conversation.

In my mind, there are a few fundamental things that must happen to really change this dynamic. First, we must, as members of the many diverse and underrepresented groups in the LGBT community, claim and own our power and be as visible as possible. This is happening, but it needs a lot more resources and support to build momentum. We at Renna Communications try to do our small part in the work we do, but we can all do more. Being intentional about diversity is the first step.

Also, we must do a better job of engaging allies. I am not talking about non-gay people here (that we seem to be doing a pretty good job of in our personal lives and in the ever-improving public opinion polls); I am talking about starting at home. I have been in the fascinating position of having people assume I am bisexual, Native-American and Jewish (amongst other things). I am actually none of these. What I am is an ally unafraid to speak up for diverse parts of our community without making assumptions or assertions. We all need to speak up for and demand inclusion of our brothers and sisters who often do not have as much of a voice. And these are the easier of the solutions.

The most important thing we have to do is challenge ourselves. We all harbor the cultural stereotypes and misinformation about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that everyone else has been indoctrinated with, depending on our age and upbringing. Tackling our own internalized homophobia, sexism, racism, etc. is a lifelong endeavor, but like all journeys, it starts with a wake-up call and a first step. We must figure out how to better jump-start these conversations amongst ourselves. Things are changing fast, and the young people I interact with are way past the baggage that so many of the people in my generation carry around. We must look at our own privilege and issues and try and come to a different place. I am not just talking about the wealthy, gay, white men who seem to dominate the organizations, events and visibility of our community. There are many rich, gay, white men I know who "get it." But there are many who do not -- and they have plenty of company that doesn't look like them.

Finally, the biggest challenge for all of us: we must be willing to deal with, talk about and live in what I call "the grey." Sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression all fall along spectra that are rarely acknowledged. And what I hear from others is that it is "too hard to talk about" or "too complicated." That's just BS. Maybe sometimes we need to simplify some; I am not naïve. But I think it's a cop-out that too many people use too often to avoid their own lack of confidence, understanding or self-awareness. Can't we just say "gay" and mean everyone? Well, no. And it will take our saying the words to move the culture; nobody else will do it for us. Maybe it is because of my degree in biology, or simply because of my own lived experience that things are simply not black and white, or because I would like them to be black and white myself, that I carry this message like a torch whenever I speak with journalists, fellow activists, friends and anyone else I interact with -- call me evangelical in that way. I challenge people all the time, my main goal being to elicit a response that is simple, get someone to say, "I never thought about it that way." That is how the journey begins.

Simple answers are the refuge of those who are afraid of difference and unwilling to challenge their assumptions. My hope is that we, as LGBT people, can help the rest of the world become a place where people simply are who they are, without judgment or labels. We should be at the vanguard, and in many ways we are, but we could do better. My hope is that this month we can celebrate, remember and learn, giving us the momentum to do more and better, for everyone in our community. I hope to have the opportunity to use this platform on The Huffington Post to dig deeper into some of the issues I have brought up and engage in a conversation. I hope you join us.

 

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