Last week was a big week for the news media -- the economic crisis, the approaching Presidential debates and a contentious election all grabbed headlines. One particular story, though, brought up some interesting questions about Americans' feelings about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in some unexpected ways.
It was the news that pop singer, Broadway actor and former American Idol contestant Clay Aiken opened up about being gay, which invoked a strong response from his very devoted fan base.
While I can't say that I follow Clay's music career, reading about some of the reactions on blogs and in mainstream outlets got me thinking about how some of those fan reactions resembled the kinds of conversations that can change hearts and minds about gay and transgender people.
Media outlets picked up the discussions on the Clay Aiken message boards, which included a lot of posts like this one:
"I knew in my heart for awhile that he was-- ...but my head was having nothing to do with it. I knew it might come eventually, but again my brain denyed it
My immediate reaction was that it sounded just like my parents, and many parents like mine -- they knew, but weren't quite ready to admit it. For others, however, the reaction was shock:
"Please tell me I'm not the only one who is shocked beyond belief! I feel numb I'm so upset. This can't be real!! How can you guys say this won't change anything? This changes EVERYTHING. I don't even know what to think right now."
It was clear that for many of his most ardent fans, they needed to make sense of how they felt and come to terms with having to think differently about him. That's not an uncommon reaction for people who have a friend or family member come out, and it's a reaction that hopefully leads to conversations that result in understanding and respect.
In many cases that doesn't happen right away. That's why it's important for gay and transgender people -- and our allies -- to talk about our stories and our lives. Many of the people that posted to the message boards spoke about their gay friends or family members, and how important those people were to them. Those types of messages seemed to allow people to speak openly and correct their own misconceptions and doubts.
Clay joins a group of openly LGBT celebrities who have moved these types of conversation forward in big and small ways -- just as Ellen and Portia did last month when the images of their marriage appeared on her show and in the pages of People magazine. And decisions by other celebrities to live openly have helped create new opportunities for media visibility.
When you add that to the growing list of LGBT characters on the primetime networks, we can really see the progress that has been made in recent years to ensure that LGBT people have visibility in mainstream media, a visibility that we celebrate at the GLAAD Media Awards every year.
While we can document tremendous progress, we still have a lot of work to do. Many gay and lesbian couples -- which include a lot of parents like Clay -- across the country are still prohibited from making commitments that would allow them to take care of and be responsible for one another and their children. And many people live daily with the fear of being fired from their jobs because they're gay or transgender, while many don't even feel safe and secure in their own communities.
And though stories like Clay's and like Ellen's create opportunities to talk about our community and bring visibility to these issues, we all have a responsibility to talk about these issues in our homes, our workplaces and our communities. The visibility of LGBT celebrities, and the inclusion of LGBT stories in mainstream media outlets, can help to make those discussions easier to start -- but it is the everyday conversations and personal stories that can have the biggest impact.
And you can start that conversation now. To find out more about how you can share your story, check out glaadBLOG.