Forty years after the Stonewall riots sparked the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, sexual orientation remains a taboo for many in the media, all too often serving as a focal point for hate, ridicule, and misinformation.
In early May, National Public Radio, a supposed bastion of liberal media bias, found itself in the crosshairs of the lesbian and gay community over an online review of Outrage, a documentary chronicling the hypocrisy of prominent, purportedly closeted politicians with staunchly anti-gay voting records.
What sparked the controversy was not the documentary itself, but the fact that NPR's review failed to name names. In fact, while Nathan Lee, the review's initial author, had included the identities of those fingered in the film, NPR editors took it upon themselves to censor the review prior to publication.
Would a review of a film exposing the hypocrisy of politicians on any other subject fail to identify the politicians in question? Not likely.
Alas, NPR's skittishness seems to be reserved only for those who may be gay and enjoy positions of power to legislate on matters directly affecting the gay community. NPR has shown no such hesitation speculating about the sexuality of celebrities like American Idol's recently out-and-proud Adam Lambert.
Such is the sad state of affairs that is the modern media landscape when it comes to issues of real substance and importance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Forty years ago this week, LGBT patrons of New York City's Stonewall Inn, long tired of police harassment, took to the streets in protest following yet another raid of the Inn. The uprising is widely credited with sparking the modern gay civil rights movement.
And yet, 40 years later, despite increased public acceptance and the passage of some basic legal protections, not only is sexual orientation still a taboo for many in the media, all too often it serves as a focal point for hate, ridicule, and misinformation.
Tens of thousands of same-sex couples are now legally married in the United States. To many, this represents real progress toward increased equality; to Fox News' top-rated host Bill O'Reilly, the simple act of two people in love making it official could open the door to people marrying "a turtle," "a goat," "a duck," or "a dolphin." This coming from a guy who once famously said, “I think everybody's got to relax on all this gay stuff.”
Perhaps riffing on Fox News' tune, the Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson recently suggested the “ultimate conclusion” of legal same-sex marriage is legal polygamy, bestiality, child molestation, and pedophilia.
As Congress took up debate this year over legislation to enhance the federal hate-crimes statute by including gay, lesbian, and transgender people among its protected classes -- race, color, religion, and national origin have been protected for years -- media conservatives became absolutely unhinged.
O'Reilly said of the hate-crimes bill, which included new protections for the disabled as well, "[Y]ou could make an argument that a pedophile has a disease, and because the disease is there, he's a target or she's a target," later adding that pedophiles could be included because "[d]isability is included. They have a mental disability." He's dead wrong. Pedophilia is not considered a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; in fact, the ADA specifically excludes pedophilia.
Once again, O'Reilly wasn't alone attacking the hate crimes legislation with easily debunked misinformation. Focus on the Family's James Dobson, radio host Rush Limbaugh, and Robertson marched in lockstep, all essentially reading from the same set of patently false talking points.
In addition to being relentlessly maligned during policy discussions, LGBT Americans remain the butt of jokes in conservative media circles. Take for example, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough applauding a viewer's “wit,” saying to political analyst Mike Barnicle, “They've started calling you 'Brokeback Barnicle' because of how close you and [co-host] Willie [Geist] sit.”
Then there's the in-your-face bigotry of people like Michael Savage, the third-most-listened-to radio voice in America, who once likened gay parenting to “child abuse” ; called a member of the transgender community a “sick degenerate” ; and warned his listeners that "[w]hen you hear 'human rights,' think gays. ... [T]hink only one thing: someone who wants to rape your son."
Filling the ranks of every media outlet, including those with a conservative slant, to be sure, one would certainly find at least a few gay, lesbian, and transgender employees -- some in positions of real power. It's long past time for these employees to stand up, take a page from the Stonewall uprising, and unflinchingly say, “Enough is enough.” To remain publicly silent would be an outrage.
Karl Frisch is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.