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Henry van Ameringen

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Making LGBT History, One TV Episode at a Time: Why I Gifted $1 Million to In the Life Media

Posted: 03/23/2012 9:44 am

Being old, I grew up in a very different America for gay people. The Stonewall riots were years away. Almost no one talked publicly about gay people at the time, and when they did, it was usually to denounce us as perverts and a threat to youth. Television, film, radio, and music were as straight as they could possibly be, barring the occasional mocking stereotype or innuendo played for laughs. The absence of images reflecting real gay life made it easy for people to assume we were everything bad that was said about us.

I've never been very political. But in the 1980s the AIDS epidemic began, and staying on the sidelines was simply not an option. The government was doing absolutely nothing to halt the spread of this disease nor help those who were suffering. AIDS was seen as a "gay disease," and with so few positive portrayals of gays in the media, and far fewer gay people being out at the time, most Americans believed all the stereotypes they had heard about us. To many of us, it seemed that gay men were hopelessly stigmatized. Why, then, would the general public, let alone politicians, support saving us from a disease that was just a consequence of our "lifestyle"?

In 1987 I began funding LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations, with the goal of combating the stigma that had cost the lives of many people I knew. I donated to organizations that provided health and legal assistance to people with AIDS and groups that advocated for us.

It was in 1992 that I first became aware of In the Life Media, when a friend invited me to see the first episode of In the Life. At the time, the show was more focused on entertainment; it wasn't until a few years later that it became a newsmagazine. But the simple fact that there was a television program, airing on public television stations around the country, that represented LGBT people in such a genuine and accurate manner was stunning, and even more so that it had been produced by a tiny staff on a threadbare budget. I immediately realized the potential for such a program: if people got to know our community -- really know us, in all of our diversity and humanity -- it would be much harder to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their LGBT family and friends, or to vote for anti-LGBT laws at the ballot box. So I joined forces with In the Life Media, becoming one of its key funders. And in the past 20 years the stories that have been told have had a tremendous impact, creating the social change and momentum we now see toward full equality. From both a reporting and a historical perspective, In the Life Media has been an integral part of educating America, first on television, and now via the website. We now offer Web exclusives to complement our programming, and the website allows for far more community engagement and action then ever before.

In the Life has always been far ahead of the curve, telling stories both before the mainstream media did and before the public (often both LGBT and straight) took notice. We covered an openly gay mayor in the Midwest, years before the Victory Fund was founded. In 1994 we covered the court decision that called for same-sex marriage in Hawaii, at a time when marriage equality becoming a reality in any state was dismissed as impossible. In 1996 we aired an episode that focused on how binational same-sex couples were being torn apart by discriminatory immigration laws, years before mainstream media reported on it. We were the only broadcast media to cover the brutal hate-crime murder of Fred Martinez, a 16-year-old Navajo transgender youth in Cortez, Colo. In 2004 we aired our first story on homophobic bullying and teen suicide, now a front-burner issue finally getting attention around the country, from small-town school boards to the White House. And this month, we'll look at families with transgender children in a segment that delves deeper into their day-to-day lives than any mainstream media outlet would.

By telling these stories with sophistication, journalistic integrity, and depth, we put a human face on communities that most people knew little about or, worse, saw as some abstract stereotype. And by doing so, In the Life Media has changed lives. We know of gay youth who have been dissuaded from suicide by watching the show, PFLAG chapters in rural areas that gather to watch In the Life together, individuals who are closeted and see the series as a lifeline to other LGBT people, and allies who are constantly awed by the diversity and resilience of our stories and moved to action in their families and communities.

But more broadly, In the Life Media has achieved a crucial goal: bringing visibility to the LGBT community in a way we could only have dreamed of in 1992. Today, LGBT people are everywhere in entertainment. In the news, issues like LGBT youth homelessness -- grossly underreported when we first covered it in 2004 -- are now the subjects of national headlines.

We still have a long way to go to overcome homophobia and discrimination. In the Life Media will keep fighting the good fight: exposing those who would deny us our equality, chronicling our lives, and reporting on the issues that are critical to LGBT people.

The more people see us for who we really are, the more supportive of equality they'll become. Whether on public television, on our website, or via Facebook or YouTube, In the Life Media will always tell the stories that advance our equality. I have been committed to making that happen for the past 20 years and always will be. In the Life Media has made more of a difference in my life than I could ever describe or quantify, and it is my privilege to be part of their success. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, I urge you to join us.