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Portrait of Tammy Faye Baker (partial) by mosaic artist, © Jason Mecier. See more of his work at Jason Mecier.com

A Blessing and a Curse

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Of course, there were those who spoke with equal fervor in favor of the proposition, most famously the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), who spent hefty sums to ban gay marriage in California. However, the number of “big names” who spoke in favor certainly drew the most attention. In the days following the election, numerous theories to explain the results, and the one that got the most traction was that the surfeit of out-of-state celebs motivated “Yes on 8” conservatives to get to the ballot box.


It’s not an unreasonable theory, and one that actually has support in research. While no major studies have been published on the effectiveness of celebrity endorsements in the Prop 8 vote (although it is safe to assume some are in the works), previous research has studied whether celebrities help the gay movement, specifically focusing on the passage of Colorado’s Amendment 2, which insured the denial of LGBT rights. Numerous stars, including Barbara Streisand and Reggie Jackson, spoke against the passage, and many called for a boycott of the state.


Tammy Faye’s inability to convert many of her fellow TV preachers to her way of thinking about the LGBT community could easily be excused as a consequence of her new role as outsider, the disgraced woman cast from the fold. Still, her embrace of us raises questions concerning the effectiveness of other celebrities in defense of LGBT rights.

In their article “The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements”, published in Sociological Inquiry in 1995, authors David S. Meyer and Joshua Gamson argue that the participation by celebrities brought much-needed attention and focus to the drive to overturn the amendment. Consequently, though, those who had a legitimate stake in the campaign’s outcome—local and state officials and Colorado’s LGBT citizens—found themselves pushed to the side, overlooked and ignored as the more famous stayed in the spotlight. Meyer and Gamson conclude that the involvement of stars and athletes “may indeed trigger not only a shift in movement claims, but a conversion of publics’ responses to movements and their claims: from consideration of public issues to playing with famous selves.”


Author Jennifer Brubaker reports in the Ohio Communication Journal that only 15 percent of adults claim to have been influenced by a celebrity political endorsement. While Brubaker’s study focused on election-based campaigns as opposed to social movements and issues, her conclusions are nonetheless telling. Celebrities have little to no effect on those who support a candidate; however, voters believe that celebrity endorsements of supported candidates’ opponents are effective in galvanizing the opposition. In other words, a voter who supports candidate X will not be affected when X garners celebrity endorsements, but will worry that candidate Y is gaining more support from undecided voters when Y gets celebrity endorsements. (“Best Supporting Actor: The Third-Person Effects of Celebrity Political Endorsements”, 2008)


Clearly, Brubaker’s conclusions can be extrapolated to the fight over Prop 8. The multitude of famous persons speaking against the proposition didn’t get sufficient numbers of “No on 8” voters to the polls. However, fearful that these star endorsements would be effective, even larger numbers of those in favor of the proposition made an effort to get to the polls.
Thus, it would be easy to argue that all these well-meaning stars should just shut up while we still have any chance of advancing the cause of gay rights.


However, that would be an erroneous conclusion. Brubaker’s study also reports that 40 percent of 18-24-year-olds have been influenced by a celebrity endorsement. Further, the influence is much greater than on older adults, according to “Celebrity Endorsements and Their Potential to Motivate Young Voters”, published in Mass Communication & Society in 2008, which argued that “celebrities who appeal to youth can help motivate engagement in civic affairs as their fans emulate attitudes and behaviors supportive of public affairs participation”. In this digital age, the authors maintain, younger voters take notice of an issue once a favored star speaks out about it, then further inform themselves via the web. Most importantly, this effect significantly lowers levels of complacency, subsequently increasing active participation in social movements. (Erica Weintraub Austin, Rebecca Van de Vord, Bruce E. Pinkleton, and Evan Epstein)


Ultimately, celebrity participation in the fight for LGBT rights is a blessing and curse. To the extent that they help galvanize forces that oppose gay rights, they can be detrimental to the cause. Further, their good intentions distract from the true core of the fight: gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual persons who are most vested in the fight. In the end, they are likely to change the minds of most adults, particularly those who have taken a position on the issues involved.


On the other hand, their support helps to inform the public by drawing more attention to rallies, legislative acts, marches, organizations, and elections than the average citizen can. In so doing, they draw crowds, and a strong public presence shows policymakers the power of our votes. Beyond that, this strong public showing speaks to young LGBT persons, assuring them that they are not alone, that others care about their place in this world, a valuable assurance to those growing up in homophobic households or neighborhoods.


Celebrities also educate the classmates of their fans, as the young are more likely to emulate the thoughts of their celeb heroes. Thus, while Barbra Streisand might not convert anyone to become a supporter of LGBT rights, Lady Gaga probably will, as will other artists who appeal to younger fans.


The same can be said for those celebrities who engage in homophobic speech and acts, such as Isaiah Washington, Paris Hilton, Shia LaBeouf, Jerry Lewis, Jason Wahler, and NBA star Tim Hardaway have all been criticized for using gay slurs. In one of her first songs “Picture to Burn”, Taylor Swift can think of nothing worse to slander her ex with than to tell all her friends that he was gay—not that he was an abuser, liar, pedophile, or serial killer. Further, numerous rappers have been criticized for anti-gay lyrics. Just as young people learn from pro-LGBT celebs that homosexuality is a normal part of the fabric of society, young bigots learn from homophobic celebrities that their hatred is warranted.


Ultimately, celebrities speak out because they care. Tammy Faye may not have influenced many in her former evangelical circle, but others do make a difference. Still, what effect celebrities have on the movement is a secondary concern, as the primary importance of their public support is the exercise of their right to voice their opinions about the direction of the country in which they live. It’s truly appreciated, but it’s kind of a shame, too, that they have to use their celebrity to help us secure our basic human rights.


Cheers, Queers - to Chicago Blackhawk defenseman Brent Sopel, who participated in Chicago’s gay pride parade carrying the team’s new Stanley Cup and representing the team. Boos for the GOP parties in Texas and Montana, who included the criminalization of homosexuality in their party platforms this year.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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