[19 July 2010]
Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner weighed a scant 65 pounds when she died, yet her spirit and personality were as robust as ever. Days before her death, appearing on Larry King Live on 18 July, 2007, emaciated and ravaged by cancer yet still made up in true Tammy Faye splendor, speaking barely above a whisper, she reached out to the one community that accepted her into the fold when no one else would: “You know, when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that,” she said—and this is a sentiment echoed by her son Jay. After her fall from the inner circle of the televangelist conglomerate, Messner reached out to and was embraced by the American gay community, or she was embraced by the gay community due to her outlandish make-up and persona, and so she decided to go with the only ones who would invite her to the party.
The famed evangelist’s relationship with the LGBT community has been the subject of numerous works, most notably the cult classic documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye. There’s no doubting that she was more accepting of the LGBT community than most of her colleagues, being the first evangelist to feature an HIV-positive gay minister on TV. Later, she paired with the flaming Jim J. Bullock to co-host a talk show. Most importantly, she appeared frequently at Gay Pride events and other LGBT celebrations, and spoke openly about her love for the community, even if she never did quite understand what that whole gay thing was about.
Whatever her motivation, there’s no doubt that Tammy Faye liked us. Still, despite all of her proselytizing about the LGBT community, she seemed to have had little effect on the evangelical movement. The New York Times reported in January of 2010 that three evangelists—Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge—flew to Uganda to speak, according to them, about the skills needed to parent children who are gay. During their various speeches to the crowd, they mentioned that “the gay movement is an evil institution”, going on to note that the goal of this evil institution is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”
However, a simple internet search would have provided the ministers with enough evidence to show that the political climate in Uganda didn’t support anti-gay rhetoric without propelling blood-frenzy anti-gay factions. Perhaps, though, despite their objections, an internet search might have convinced these ministers that this volatile place was in fact the perfect climate for their anti-gay rhetoric.
Lively, Schmierer, and Brunbridge are hardly the only evangelists to question the LGBT life. Pat Robertson’s anti-gay remarks have frequently made the news, most notably when he noted that the tolerance of homosexuality, as well as other undesirable demographic groups, was responsible for the events of 9/11, and compared homosexuality to both Nazism and Satanism. Further, American evangelist Scott Holes found himself under arrest in Glasgow, Scotland, for homophobic speech after answering a question during a Q & A session.
In his defense, Holes maintains that he asked the local police about the new homosexuality discrimination law in the UK and was assured that he need not worry about dealing with the subject should it come up. His defenders are right in that the situation seemed like a set-up, but they overlooked that it was Hole’s anti-gay rhetoric that landed him in trouble.
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.
Dozens emerged during the recent fight over Proposition 8 in California, most opposed but a few in favor; is it possible their presence actually contributed to the final outcome of the election, and not in the way most people would expect? We can’t help but bless those entertainers, athletes, politicians, and other celebrities who have welcomed LGBT persons into their legions of fans, and many have taken up the cause of securing our rights. Still, one could easily argue that the participation of big names has actually set the cause of gay rights back.
In the past 20-plus years, numerous celebrities have spoken out in favor of rights for LGBT individuals. Most notable is diva Cyndi Lauper, whose lesbian sister helped propel her into the fight. Two years ago, Lauper launched her True Colors tour, benefitting the Human Rights Campaign, and this past year, announced that she would work with Lady Gaga, Diva Heir Apparent, for Lipstick for Women, a campaign to help women with AIDS.
Also within the last year, Lauper has launched We Give A Damn.org, enlisting a variety of celebrities to help promote LGBT equality and bringing to light the inequities in current US laws. Still, Lauper’s support is nothing new—she’s been speaking out on our behalf for almost 30 years, beginning in a time when gay rights wasn’t even on the table for discussion.
Appearing in videos on We Give a Damn are Jason Mraz, Sharon and Kelly Osbourne, Meredith Baxter, Eric Roberts, Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes, and Elton John, to name just a few. Those who appear on the site are just a fraction of the celebrities who stand beside the gay community in its quest for equality. Most notably, Gaga has followed in Lauper’s footsteps, proclaiming her avid support of her considerable gay fan base, rewriting the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine” to honor Matthew Shephard for this year’s HRC dinner.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have announced that they won’t marry until all Americans have that same right, and Charlize Theron and ex Stuart Townsend made a similar pledge while together. Sean Penn spoke out in favor of gay marriage while accepting his Oscar for Milk, and Eminem, once labeled “homophobic”, told the press recently he supports gay marriage. What’s more, he plans to change the anti-gay lyrics of past songs for his upcoming tour.
Nowhere was celebrity support of gay rights more evident than during the 2008 debate over Proposition 8 in California. Among those who marched in opposition to the proposition, which would overturn the California Supreme Court’s ruling allowing gay marriage, were James Franco and Drew Barrymore, and they were joined in their protests against the measure by Rose McGowen, Kathy Griffin and mother Maggie, Pink, Rob Reiner, and Christina Aguilera. Steven Spielberg and wife Kate Capshaw, as well as tabloid-fave and Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, gave big lumps of cash to the “No on 8” campaign.
Further, both of California’s senators, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, opposed the act, as did Governor Schwarzenegger and President Obama. Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman and director Adam Shankman teamed on a virile video called “Proposition 8: The Musical”, starring Jack Black and John C. Reilly. Millions of dollars were spent to defeat the measure, and both politic and entertainment’s A-List signed on in the effort, yet Proposition 8 passed, and gay marriage became unconstitutional in California.
Kelly Osbourne, Luke Worrall, Perez Hilton, Sophia Bush, Shana Moakler, Emmy Rossum and Katerina Graham joined others at a protest rally to ‘Repeal Prop 8 in 2010′ in Los Angeles, California. INF photo found on Ecorazzi.com
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.
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.