If you’ve ever met me, one of the first things you find out is that I’m an avowed GLBTQ advocate and have been since middle school. Which is convenient considering that this AdCouncil PSA from GLSEN would have been much more relevant and helpful back then as opposed to now.
First of all, the general ad is very good. It’s clever, clear, and doesn’t degrade a greater gay rights conversation that is necessary in daily life and policy debates but doesn’t really work as a 45 second TV spot. It’s a solid piece, but it has two main problems: 1) why do the two spots only feature girls and 2) why wasn’t this put out a decade ago when we really needed a national campaign promoting LGBT fairness.
Let’s tackle point 1 first – why do the spots only feature young girls? Women are categorically less threatened and cruel towards gay people, while many men are threatened by homosexuality thanks to outdated ideas of what it means to be a man. Onto the second point of contention – when I was the age of these girls (ten years ago or so), coming out was avoided when possible. My friends and I had the safety and freedom to do so since we were at a rather liberal school, but across my school district LGBT groups popped up carefully and often with a mixed reaction from the community.
Basically, this ad tiptoes around the real issue, which is that truly problematic people use the word “gay” as a negative because they fear and hate gay people, not because it’s just a “bad” word. The young girls depicted in these spots are using the word “gay” as a replacement for lame, more or less. They’re the same kind of girls who think that having a gay best friend means makeovers and the word “fabulous” on repeat. They’re not intending to be hurtful – they’re just idiots who will eventually learn when they meet and befriend gay people as they get older.
These girls might eventually turn into the mean girls of high school horror, but that’s not anywhere near as bad as the men who look at gay people as a threat and in turn threaten them, sometimes through bullying and violence. I’m not say that gay-targeted bullying is only perpetrated by young men. In my own life, I’ve more often been bullied because of my preferences by other young women. But taunts and cruelty, while painful, are not anywhere near as bad as physical abuse. When Glee featured a gay bullying storyline, the reason it was so powerful was because of how common such behavior is. Mean girls, by comparison, will take nearly any flaw you have as an excuse to bully and assert dominance.
I’m not worried about the LGBTQ teens of today committing suicide because the word “gay” means that you’re wearing a skirt as a shirt and thus look reasonably stupid. They’re committing suicide because of public harassment, blackmail, being slammed into lockers and receiving death threats daily, and being treated like garbage. Let’s put this into a more sharp perspective - 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ kids. Maybe if the Ad Council and GLSEN had paired up more than a decade before Glee, the Ellen Show, and Tegan & Sara’s seventh studio album, things wouldn’t have gotten so bad (even if serious progress has happened – just look at Hillary Clinton supporting marriage equality).
Couldn’t we have learned our lesson after Matthew Shepard and what happened in a little town called Laramie almost 15 years ago?