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Making Out in the Mainstream: GLAAD and the Politics of Respectability

by Vincent Doyle

There are few groups so prominent in the LGBT mainstream as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. In this historical and ethnographic study of the organization, Vincent Doyle, a Canadian living in Spain, explains how that came to be, and examines the effects of a shift in queer activism toward a PR approach and away from something more outré and confrontational.

MarchReviews_MakingOutintheMainstreamDoyle identifies GLAAD as a key actor in changing the stakes of American gay and lesbian organizing from “the dismantling of the closet” to deriving “maximum … advantage from the legitimation of homosexuality within mainstream institutions.” In short, the media-lobbyist organization has become a champion of assimilationist rather than liberationist goals, and has proven adept at negotiating a division that has been playing out inside the LGBT community just about forever.

Employing 18 months of field research conducted in 2000 and 2001, Doyle illustrates how the instalment of corporate-trained executives in the late 1990s transformed GLAAD from a confrontational activist group that even included a militant direct-action committee called Terrible Retribution into a mostly play-nice lobby group, fighting to fit into the existing institutions of American neoliberal capitalism and live up to its informal motto, We Want In.

At the centre of the book is Joan Garry, the executive director who more than tripled GLAAD’s budget during her tenure from 1997 to 2005. A self-declared minivan driving, white-picket-fence lesbian mom, Garry comes across as a complex and likeable figure. The book presents a few key case studies: the glitzy social politics of the GLAAD Media Awards; the somewhat flailing attempts to counter the homophobia of radio and TV host Dr. Laura Schlessinger; and the mixed messages around race and representation that marked GLAAD’s responses to controversial white rapper Eminem and the groundbreaking TV series Queer as Folk.

Doyle’s unprecedented access to the inner workings of a mainstream gay rights organization makes for fascinating reading. Each case on its own highlights distinct tactics employed alongside the organization’s developing principles. However, Doyle is clear that neither the ethics nor intentions of the group’s well-
meaning leaders are clear cut.

The case studies Doyle analyzes are 15 years old, and, it must be said, their age shows at times. But the author plugged into GLAAD at just the right time to witness the mechanics of a long-term political shift. He peppers his research with interesting theoretical entry points, from the affect theory of Lauren Berlant to Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, but these frameworks require more space than Doyle affords them to properly grasp their importance or application. Though he considers it with a skeptical eye, Doyle is careful not to castigate the notion of “mainstreaming” as a whole, and concludes with nuanced, if somewhat predictable, recommendations for the future.