Daryl is a contributing guest blogger from GLSEN.
This probably won’t come as a shock, but sometimes gossip sites try to generate their own news on slow news days. OK, make that any news day. What’s not so obvious is what to do when a gossip entity reaches out to your organization looking for a comment.
A month after the launch of GLSEN and the Ad Council’s Think Before You Speak campaign, designed to raise awareness among teenagers about the derogatory phrase “that’s so gay, ” I received this email:
“TMZ.com here, wondering if GLSEN has any statement about “The Simpsons” episode from last night — specifically when Nelson called The Grand Pumpkin “super gay” and proceeded to make fun of Millhouse because of it.”
Typically, we leave media commentary about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues to our friends at GLAAD, but the insult did fall within the scope of our campaign, albeit in the form of an unsympathetic bully using the phrase in a way that may actually have been a commentary on the frequent use of the term. Alas, we don’t have Matt Groening on speed dial, so if we were going to comment we were going to have to do so without any context beyond what 60 seconds on YouTube could provide.
The way we saw it we had four options 1) No comment, 2) Bland comment in an effort to kill a story that seemed pretty dependent on us, 3) Serious comment calling into question the use of the term, or 4) Have fun with it.
Probably one of the hardest things with advocacy campaigns is to understand the point at which you cross from being passionate about an important issue to taking yourselves too seriously in the eyes of the very people you’re trying to reach.
In this case, it didn’t seem clear cut to us that this was a grossly improper use of the phrase deserving of a harsh response. But this was also an opportunity to get our campaign mentioned on a TV show/website that drives conversation among the very audience we’re trying to reach.
So we went with No. 4: Have fun with it:
Nelson’s use of ‘that’s so gay’ in a negative way is not surprising considering that 90 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth say they hear the term used this way frequently or often at school. Nelson should visit ThinkB4YouSpeak.com where he can send an apologetic e-card to Milhouse. GLSEN would also welcome Nelson’s participation in our next PSA so he can make amends by helping to educate young people about why such language is wrong.
The “story” broke in the early afternoon on TMZ.com with the headline, “Nelson Owes Millhouse Apology for ‘Gay’ Slur.” TMZ being TMZ, the post made it sound like we instigated the exchange.
The “story” blew up from there. E! Online and several other entertainment sites picked it up. TMZ also aired a lengthy segment on its TV show. The “controversy” then made it into several major newspapers and even Wikipedia. Many assumed that we took ourselves so seriously that we angrily wanted a cartoon character, known for being unapologetic, to apologize.
Did we end up accomplishing the very thing we attempted to avoid? After exhaling a bit, we decided maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing – as long as a conversation about the phrase was being had.
The challenge of ours and many public awareness campaigns is to make people think critically about the meaning of something deeply ingrained in their culture, certainly not an easy thing to do. If we had to make ourselves a part of the joke to start the conversation, so be it.