Unlocking Closets, Locking Free Speech

A open response to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Open letter to the News Industry on the Don Imus firing.

Dear fellow NLGJA members and others in the media:

While I strongly support NLGJA President Eric Hegedus’s “Open Letter to the News Industry” praising NBC and CBS for firing Don Imus over his offensive racist and sexist remarks, it does seen slightly ironic that a group representing LGBT media people–a group of people that has such a clear history of being banned, marginalized, attacked and censored by the mainstream media — would be so quick to support a firing because of offensive speech. Therefore I was really pleased to see the letter address some of these ironies that we face as people working in the media workers who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual.

As we know, when it comes to censorship, LGBT people are always near the top of the chopping block because there is still a lot of rampant homophobia in the media. The fact is until very recently just being gay was offensive (speech) that mainstream media easily banned our open presence altogether from television and radio. It wasn’t really that long ago that Mike Wallace interviewed palm plants on CBS with homosexuals hiding behind them. As a young man I sat in horror watching my first reference to homosexuality in public even though I was secretly happy that there might be someone like me out there. Larry Kramer has eloquently and forcefully presented the sorry state of mainstream media when it comes to its abysmal coverage of AIDS.

And it continues today, as many libraries in the United States filter out anything to do with the word gay or lesbian on their computers from the public for fear that we might be pornographic. There are constant examples of how LGBT people have had to hold their tongues and thoughts due to the reality that our lives are seen as shrill or proselytizing. And those that didn’t hold back have often paid the price of losing access to mainstream media outlets. Panel after panel at our NLGJA conferences have had as the main topic ways we go about dealing with the realities of marginalization and censorship.

So while we can call for decency and respect in the media for all people and actually praise a mainstream media outlet for firing Don Imus, we who are part of the LGBT media community must also realize that we are walking a very fine line in supporting those who would use the censor’s slight hand or sometimes big hammer in dealing with speech and reportage. We must be constantly vigilant against that hand because our recent past and present is one steeped in censorship and invisibility.

I have personally experienced the back of the censor’s hand many times in my thirty some years of broadcast work even with liberal media institutions like PBS when it comes to covering the gay and lesbian community and gender issues. Our documentary Before Stonewall was “advised” to drop some references to religion because we were told we would lose a number of southern PBS stations during its national airing in 1986.

It is because of those painful experiences that I will continue to look for and help build other less censoring venues and alternative distribution systems.
I would direct you to our sites www.lipstreams.com and www.gogaydvd.com for an example of how censorship works with our first stream of our “NO CENSORS here STREAMS.” In STREAM #1, we go back a bit in history to give you a sense of our earlier censorship trials with an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Armistead Maupin about PBS and his highly acclaimed television series “Tales of the City.” It was done during our interviews for After Stonewall, in 1998, but could never be included in the documentary or broadcast on any PBS station at the time.

While we can understand why Imus might need to go, glbt people in the mainstream and alternative media need to help make everyone aware of how censorship works against us as a minority — a minority I am sadly aware that is still seen as abhorrent by many influential leaders and institutions, including the mainstream media, around the world.

I am thankful we have an organization like NLGJA that can help present clear distinctions between hate speech and free speech. However much more needs to be done if we expect those who control the media not to forget how history is so easily repeated when looking for scapegoats, higher ratings and concern about boosting the bottom line. It was rather amazing to see the same organization, General Electric’s NBC, that fired Don Imus for offensive language a few day earlier, offend everyone with its mad rush to show a obviously mentally ill man’s video suicide diary and pictures with every frame proudly stamped with NBC. One had the sickening feeling we were watching the equivalent of winning the lottery in the news ratings of rubber necking.

It’s clear to me in these days of “shock and awe media” those distinctions NLGJA points to in its letter can easily fall by the way side when it comes to giving the boot to the marginalized people and their issues in newsrooms around the country.

Here is the link to the NLGJA Open Letter to the News Industry: Don Imus Suspension

JOHN SCAGLIOTTI, the Emmy Award­winning documentary filmmaker of Before Stonewall, is director of the Gay Filmmakers’ Consortium at www.gogaydvd.com. He is also the Administrator of the Kopkind Colony. This piece first appeared in the Fairfield County Weekly. He can be reached at john@afterstonewall.com