Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, discussed the difference between equality and acceptance in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in a lecture on Thursday.
“Regardless of our generational differences or our life experiences, there are things that bind us together. One of the things is the need for acceptance,” Ellis said.
Ellis explained that acceptance does not mean changing who you are, assimilating or going along to get along.
“Acceptance means Americans come to understand us, value us, for exactly who we are, for our uniqueness,” Ellis said. “Acceptance should be innate, a birth right, no different from life, liberty and happiness.”
Ellis drew the line between equality and acceptance, and claimed that there is a stark difference between changing the law and truly changing the hearts and minds of Americans.
Although Ellis agreed that the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality was a win that gave the community a sense of accomplishment and protection under the law, she also said that it was merely a benchmark, not the finish line. She used the attack that happened in Manhattan a month ago as an example, saying that a pair of women – mother and daughter – were insulted with homophobic slurs because people assumed they were gay.
She agreed that while there was more LGBT representation on higher corporate positions than there used to be, only one “out” CEO was named on the list of Fortune 500 companies. She also noted that 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT.
Among other statistics and examples, she noted that nearly 50 percent of Americans and one in five allies felt uncomfortable about LGBT people.
Caitlyn Jenner came out in front of 20 million people on MTV, she said, yet 20 transwomen were murdered this past year. Just last week, a transwoman named Ashley took her own life, she added.
“You cannot legislate acceptance,” Ellisexplained."What [GLAAD does] is we build acceptance through telling people stories. What our job at GLAAD is to shape a national and often global narrative through the media."
For example, in dealing with Jenner’s coming out, GLAAD worked closely with the media, from her interview with Diane Sawyer to the premiere of her E! Docuseries, she said.
Ellisnoted that one of the United States’ greatest cultural exports, Hollywood blockbuster films, perpetuates discrimination. She said that the only LGBT content in films reaching countries where LGBT people are criminalized are defamatory and treating members of the LGBT community either as the butt of the joke or the punching bag.
She said the homophobic attitude reflects one of the models that the Hollywood studios follow to attract moviegoers. GLAAD is putting in effort in driving storylines and practicing “casual inclusion” of LGBT people in television series and Hollywood films, to add nuances and depth to the characters, Ellis said.
She also explained the dangers of social complacency and defined it as the “enemy of social progress.” GLAAD is commissioning a study on complacency, she noted.
“Did Loving v. Virginia end racism? Did Roe v. Wade end the attack on women’s reproductive rights? Did the Supreme Court ruling on marriage ruling end homophobia or transphobia? It didn’t … Our complacency study will help to keep our allies engaged and involved,” she explained.
Now, GLAAD is looking at solving job discrimination and the issue of gendered bathrooms, Ellis said. GLAAD will continue to do proactive work, creating campaigns like Freedom for All Americans, because unlike in the past, the community has a voice and a platform, she added.
“The community must take on a new frontier, to the possibility of true acceptance,” she said.
The lecture took place at 7 p.m. in Betts Auditorium and was co-sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts, the LGBT Center, the Program in American Studies, the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Program in Media and Modernity, and the Women’s Center.