GLAAD and the Happy, Shallow Hooker

Sometimes, we hear at NLGJA that our colleagues at GLAAD do all the same stuff we do and therefore maybe we should let the big guys just do the work of monitoring the news. Our argument is that while GLAAD is an activist group focused on how the LGBT world is depicted in the media, NLGJA is focused on fair and accurate coverage in the news media and that there is an important difference.

One example of how the two groups may differ is when journalists let LGBT people depict themselves poorly in the media or journalists run stories that don’t reflect positively on the gays.

Yesterday, GLAAD chastised Huffington Post for a story about gay men who are paying their way through college (and life) by taking on Sugar Daddies.  It’s one of those late summer trend stories that’s interesting in a train-wreck kind of way because it introduces you to terms like “sugar babies” and parties where nubile young people go to parties to meet sugar daddies who will pay for their apartments, baubles, and iPhones.  GLAAD’s objection was that it made gay folks like pretty shallow, allowing “sugar babies” to admit they need the money to keep up with the gay community’s pressure to be materialistic and there’s no real stigma against being an escort in the gay world.

These are not phrases that should appear in any piece of responsible journalism (that’s not debunking them as myths) let alone one published by an outlet that frequently publishes positive and affirming stories about the true diversity of the LGBT community. But this article doesn’t stop at just presenting the “gay scene” as a single-minded monolith – it also claims that this gay monolith supports prostitution.

Let us be clear.

These are the false stereotypes put forth by the staunchest opponents of marriage equality. These are the false stereotypes that were used as rationalization for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and they’re the false stereotypes that anti-gay activists used to fight against its repeal. These are the false stereotypes responsible for the bans on domestic partnership and civil union recognition. These are the false stereotypes put forth as reasons why gay and lesbian couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children.

In response, HuffPost said:

Our coverage of students who sell themselves to manage their college debt has aimed to be sympathetic to their plight — not sensationalistic. But based on our reporting, we found that young women and young gays are part of communities that often view the matter differently. We found that for many gay men, the use of escort services and the exchange of money for sex appear to carry less of a stigma, according to extensive interviews with gay escorts and members of the gay community.

So was it bad journalism? If the reporter had said gays are shallow and materialistic and idealize prostitutes, then there would be a giant red flag. But Amanda Fairbanks didn’t say that. She let one of the “sugar babies” say that himself. Assuming she didn’t put words in his mouth, she did what journalists should do: let the sources speak for themselves. The fact that she found people who said things that may make the “gay community” look bad and perpetuate stereotypes that play into the hands of people who opposed LGBT rights isn’t her fault.

Sure, she went with the best quotes. And maybe there are “sugar babies” out there who are more profound and circumspect about what they are doing and less flippant about the gold-digging. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad journalism. Good journalism about LGBT lives needs to show those lives, warts (and shallow hookers) and all.

But what do you think?

7 Responses

  1. The Huffington Post and Amanda Fairbanks have absolutely nothing to apologize for. GLAAD is objecting to the content of quotes and that group should go argue with the speakers not the web site that published those quotes. That story gives every indication of being solid. Fairbanks interviewed three experts who have studied this subculture, a web site she referred to is real, and the anonymous “sugar babies” appear credible.

  2. Yeah, I was talking with this black dude who said that all black people were ignorant bigots. “Every single black person I know is a bigot and they all voted for Proposition 8,” he said. Then the Asian person I met in the library told me, “All Asians are materialistic and force their kids to do nothing but study so they can grow up to make tons of money.” And then this Muslim guy told me that “All Muslims hate America.” I found a couple of experts who bore them out. What a good journalist I am.

    • You made up a series of quotes that you believe are examples of poor journalism. So what, Jay? None of your fake quotes speak to the quality if the Huffington Post story.

    • But if journalism about LGBT lives is going to mature, we have to be willing to discuss things that sometimes make us look bad. While the quotes in the article may have been hard to hear, they rang true to me. I don’t think the author had to work hard to find someone to say that and likely heard similar comments from others.

  3. One can find a lot of people who will say a lot of stereotypical things about any group, and there are always “experts” available to corroborate almost any slander. The quotes in my comment above are actually quite prevalent, but I doubt any responsible journalist would use them.

    Of course, there is prostitution in the gay community (a small fraction of the level of heterosexual prostitution). It is also true that prostitution is less stigmatized in the gay communities than in most straight communities–at least in part because gay people tend to be more sophisticated about sex and more accepting of stigmatized people in general.

    However, the HuffPo article makes sweeping generalizations based on very little empirical evidence–mostly anecdotes, which are a dime a dozen. There is in fact not a broad trend among gay college students to find sugar daddies, notwithstanding the fact that some students, both gay and straight, resort to prostitution or other arrangements to help pay for their education. This is not a new phenomenon and it is not widespread.

    The whole article is replete with sensationalized images of the gay community. GLAAD is right to protest this depiction. I am happy that they are doing something like that rather than writing letters supporting AT&T’s merger with T-mobile or rescuing the career of homophobic comics or lavishing awards on the very people they are supposed to monitor.

    GLAAD was founded to defend gay people from precisely the kind of shoddy journalism and media representations that we find in the HuffPo article. I find it disturbing that instead of joining with GLAAD in the quest to insure accurate and fair depictions of gay people, some members of NLGJA are defending such a superficial, silly, but damaging article like the one in HuffPost.

    • One more thing. Michael Triplett writes “If the reporter had said gays are shallow and materialistic and idealize prostitutes, then there would be a giant red flag. But Amanda Fairbanks didn’t say that. She let one of the “sugar babies” say that himself. Assuming she didn’t put words in his mouth, she did what journalists should do: let the sources speak for themselves.”

      No, that is not what journalists should do. A good journalist doesn’t just “let” people say what they want to hear. A good journalist evaluates the sources, especially if one is using them to build a case as Amanda Fairbanks does. It doesn’t take much psychological acumen to realize that a “sugar baby” has an incentive to say what a reporter wants to hear and to deflect any criticism that might land on him by making generalizations intended to normalize his conduct.

      Just as psychiatrists build elaborate theories of the pathology of homosexuality by basing generalizations on what a small sample of mental patients said about their sex lives, so journalists can go into a gay bar, talk to a few selected people, and conclude that all gay people are lushes, see other gay people as shallow and untrustworthy, obsessed with sex, or whatever.

      I don’t doubt that in this particular story Amanda Fairbanks found people who said what she said they said. What she didn’t do is evaluate her sources and put them in context.

      If one practiced this kind of journalism with any other group, there would be a hailstorm of criticism, not the tepid protest of GLAAD.

      • Sorry, a correction needs to be made above. In paragraph 3, line one: “builds” should read “built.” I am referring to the psychiatrists such as Charles Socarides in the 1950s who did that. Nowadays the only psychiatrists who would do such a thing are affiliated with NARTH or other anti-gay organizations. Alas, journalists are not bound by the same kind of professional ethics as psychiatrists are.

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