A lot is being written about the CNN documentary airing tonight, kicking off their "Gay in America" series, called Gary and Tony Have a Baby. It premieres on CNN tonight, June 24 at 8pm ET & PT and on CNN International on Saturday, June 26 at 8am ET. As they say, check your local listings.
First of all, some disclosure on my part. I know Gary and Tony. I also know and work with many of the people involved in the production, some of whom are friends as well as producers I work with professionally. This makes for challenges when pitching - and reacting - to stories, but is a by-product of the kind of work I do. And it never stops me from being honest and forthright about all sides of this kind of coverage.
As most Projectors know, Bil wrote a pretty scathing review here and there was a lot of comment and reaction. There have also been a number of complimentary reviews, including one by the Washington Post's Tom Shales, who had some interesting back and forth with readers online.
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between the lit torches and the Emmys.
First, let's look at the actual documentary in proper context. This is by no means an excuse, but the reality is that it is very hard to find a family willing to be followed around for months by cameras, never mind as they go through an stressful, personal and significant time like the birth of a child.
I frankly could not imagine having a camera there the moment Rosemary came into my life. That said, we have been in the media in ways that feel safe and hopefully have had an impact. To be perfectly blunt, my family has more than once been the "last resort" when it becomes obvious that there are not families who want to - or safely are able to - be visible in the media.
The unfortunate result is that those who have more safety and privilege are more able to be visible. And since privilege is about race and class more than anything else we end up with primarily white couples. I, for one, was glad they showed a gay male couple's story, since it offers a perspective on loving fathers that belies the trope of gay men being a danger to children, but that's another post entirely.
Seeing Gary and Tony's story was moving, inspiring and exhilarating, since I watched - as I do all media- not only through my eyes, but the eyes of someone watching who will say "I never thought about it that way" or "I never realized the hurdles gay families face." That is why this is an important story to be told. As are the countless other stories of our community, one that is a microcosm of the entire culture and in that sense so diverse it is a challenge to ever represent any one of us as "all" of us.
As for how the story was told, I believe Soledad O'Brien did a great job trying to bring out the genuine reality of these men, who struggled like so many as young people, grew up in small towns, dealt with religious bigotry and who have a lot in common with many of us. It was made clear that they are not super-rich or even that well off, that they sacrificed to have this child and are indebted to someone they love who left them an inheritance to make it all possible.
But we all know that the bottom line is this: our community is once again portrayed as white, male, economically secure and in a big city. Bil also makes the excellent point about their being "safe" gays in terms of the whole not too butch and not too fey issue. These are deep, sophisticated ways of examine this but to single out this documentary is unfair. Other mainstream corporate media and even our own community media do the same thing all the time.
The questions I think we should all consider are two: what does this opening salvo from CNN (this is a series after all) mean and what is our community's role in reacting/supporting/leveraging this significant piece of news coverage?
The first is easy. Let CNN have the chance to air the other segments. I have confidence that other issues and diverse communities will be covered. Will we still have things to complain about? Of course, but when we expect CNN to be able to cover our diverse community when our own media don't do great job we have lost our grip on reality. Watch this and thoughtfully encourage them to do more. I recently got an email from a major LGBT media outlet that was doing a feature on LGBT families but was - and this is a quote - "as usual having trouble finding families of color." Welcome to my world.
The second issue is much more nuanced and important.
Have we - as organizations and individuals - done all we can to create the kind of community where diversity is celebrated and diverse families (in this particular case) are given the training, skills and safety to allow their stories to be told?
As someone who does this for a living, I can tell you that we have not and the chickens come home to roost all the time. There is no database or bank of diverse spokespeople for organizations, never mind "real people" for the media that is as diverse as it should be, on any level. When I work with media on a story about the LGBT community, whether it is about seniors, youth, families or any other group, I take the issue of diversity as MY responsibility, not the journalists, since many are really not there yet. When a reporter calls asking for people who have "come out" later in life and is really only thinking "gay or lesbian" I advocate to have a transgender woman who came out and transitioned at 75 included and explain why it is important. 'Nuff said.
From where I sit, we all have some responsibility for this and what happens next. Are the larger organizations, especially those that work with the media a lot and are resources to them, working to have a stable of diverse stories? I know many are but are challenged by a historical lack of connection and trust in communities of color, along with the other issues I describe above. No excuse. Are we adequately supporting our LGBT organizations of color to get their leaders out in the media and partnering to create more diverse "real people" for storytelling?
It is not like this cannot happen. The recent work in DC around marriage equality proved that big time. It was about being intentional, aggressive with media and collaborative within our community. And it worked. Seeing African-American couple on the front page of the Washington Post and in worldwide media was a huge "F-you" to every person who has ever told an African-American LGBT child that they would never be happy, should be ashamed of themselves, would not find someone to love or have a family. It was pretty damn satisfying on many levels, but it was that thought that drove me - and the couples who said "not another interview Cathy, really?" - for that wonderful and intense time.
Gary and Tony deserve our thanks for being willing to go on national television and tell their story. What we need is a much larger pool of people like them and we need to create the environment and infrastructure to make that happen. Let's direct our energy - and anger - into that, not at CNN, a wonderful new family that is fighting for our community every day or (trust me) the folks at CNN who worked their asses off to make this happen and be done well.