SINCE IT WAS founded in 1985, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has transformed itself from a rowdy, New York–based grassroots gadfly into a slick, bicoastal media operation. When GLAAD speaks, Hollywood listens. In 1992, Entertainment Weekly named GLAAD one of Hollywood’s most powerful lobbying groups. And regardless of what one thinks of each case, it has pulled off a number of high-profile media coups in recent years. In 1996 the group succeeded in getting the Comedy Channel to stop airing the 1982 film Partners (written by Francis Veber of La Cage aux Folles and The Closet fame) because GLAAD deemed it homophobic. In 1999, GLAAD persuaded TNT and World Championship Wrestling to discontinue the aggressively campy tag-team characters Lenny and Lodi. And a few weeks ago, the organization persuaded the Game Show Network to stop airing a 1972 episode of Match Game in which the word " fag " was used.
But a growing number of critics have taken the group to task, questioning many of its decisions and wondering whether its judgment might be clouded by its hand-in-glove relationship with Hollywood — an industry that naturally tends to confuse its representations of the world with the real thing. In 1998, Chastity Bono, then GLAAD’s entertainment-media director, made headlines when she told Variety that she thought Ellen DeGeneres’s self-titled sit-com had been canceled by ABC because it was too gay. In 2000 GLAAD’s sustained attack on rapper Eminem aligned the group with right-wingers such as Jerry Falwell. And last year GLAAD members were attacked by freedom-of-expression activists for their attempts to get " Dr. Laura " Schlessinger’s show booted off television.
Now, critics are coming after GLAAD for charging that Kevin Smith’s new comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is homophobic, and for using its clout to wring charitable donations out of Smith and his distributor, Miramax. The immediate contretemps began after Scott Seomin, GLAAD’s current entertainment-media director, attended a screening of Smith’s new stoner comedy. The movie features Jay and Bob, two of Smith’s recurring characters (also featured in his previous films Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma), who are obsessed with male homosexuality. Seomin fired off a letter to Smith on July 26 describing his distaste for the film, saying that he was " overwhelmed by the potential negative impact for the film with what we would assume is a large share of its target audience: teen and young adult males. " He added that GLAAD " will be public and aggressive in our condemnation and will provide substantiation for our opinions. " (The letter is posted on GLAAD’s Web site, www.glaad.org.)
In a statement posted on his Web site (www.viewaskew.com/newboard/messages287/521.html), Smith explains that he and Seomin had a pleasant conversation about the letter during which the director defended his film. Seomin stated that he was going to ask Miramax, the film’s distributor, to make a substantial donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation (run by the gay-bashing victim’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who received a major award from GLAAD last year) as a symbolic gesture to support the work of fighting violence against gay people. Smith, to show that he was not hostile to GLAAD’s concerns, offered to make one as well (he also placed a disclaimer in the film’s credits that use of the movie’s " anti-gay slurs in real life is not acceptable " ). Seomin suggested that Miramax make a $200,000 donation and that Smith make one of $10,000. (Though Miramax never made the donation, Smith did.) At this point Smith thought that they had come to agreeable terms: GLAAD might not like his film, but he would be seen as supportive of GLAAD’s work. He was shocked, then, to read Seomin quoted in the August 3 issue of Entertainment Weekly, saying of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: " I’ve never seen something so horrific. " Further, the press began to spin Smith’s charitable donation as an apology for making a homophobic film. Smith immediately told the Associated Press that his donation should not be thought of as a form of reparations for the film’s content: " I’m not sorry, " he said, " because I didn’t make jokes at the expense of the gay community. "
Stephen Spurgeon, GLAAD’s director of communications, notes that the organization never intended to go public with complaints about Jay and Silent Bob or its suggestion that Miramax donate money to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. " Kevin Smith placed private correspondence from us on his Web site, " says Spurgeon. " He is in the business of selling tickets, and the best way to do that is through controversy. We did not try to censor or ever intend to call for a boycott. " But then why did Seomin write that line about being " public and aggressive in our condemnation " ?
Whatever really happened, the Jay and Silent Bob controversy clearly shows the dangers of assigning social value to art. There may be special perils in handing that task to Hollywood career professionals, but the same minefield is frequently navigated — often unsuccessfully — by right-wing organizations. Take Smith’s last film, Dogma. The irreverent movie was singled out for condemnation and picketing by the ever-vigilant and theologically disputatious Catholic League, which called it " anti-Catholic. " How is GLAAD’s claim that Jay and Silent Bob is homophobic any different? The bottom line is that GLAAD has more in common than not with right-wing, religion-based groups that have railed against such works as Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In condemning Dogma, a film about two renegade angels who have been kicked out of heaven (played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), the Catholic League was, in essence, saying that there is only one correct way to represent Christian beliefs. GLAAD, in condemning Jay and Silent Bob, is claiming that there is only one correct way to represent homosexuality through art. If the former is religious fundamentalism, the latter is sexual-identity fundamentalism. And if enforcing that is what GLAAD sees as its job, it’s fair to ask whether the organization has lost its way — and its relevance.