Gay media coverage -- outside the mainstream (still)
The tabloid industry has long thrived off of rumor, innuendo and scandal. Hollywood has given them plenty of fodder and in recent years the nation has caught up to them. Their livelihood has been to find out the latest news and gossip, sometimes unsubstantiated, before anyone else. And in general the rule is the more salacious the better. While they may not have reputations on par with People, Sports Illustrated or Newsweek, they have the advantage of being able to break big stories first that are latter picked up by the national media. It’s their way of saying we may not be the classiest of establishments we are able to do just as good, if not better, of a job then you.
One of the biggest "gets" for a magazine has long been reporting on the newest of celebrity couples before anyone else; that is, getting the latest on who’s breaking up and making up. But if you flip through the pages of Us Weekly, People or Life and Style you might be surprised to see the disproportionate amount of relationship pictures among the straight couples and their gay counterparts. For the last year, magazines have been had screaming headlines splashed across their covers about the possible relationship between "Twlight" stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. But how many mainstream publications, had headlines about Lance Bass and Reichen Lehmkuhl before Bass officially came out? How many have had stories about Adam Lambert’s exploits off stage? And while the mainstream media feeds on out-singer George Michael’s sexual exploits in public places, they steer clear of Kevin Spacey’s questionable nocturnal visits to a London gay cruising area. No, those stories pretty much only circulated on the web.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem in reporting the relationships of Hollywood celebrities. The lack of media coverage amongst the mainstream media of "normal" gay couples is also a problem in a time when the LGBT community is making a play for equality in America.
The exception, not the rule
The problem facing the gay community is a similar one that has happened to all minority groups in the past. Many times when there is a newsworthy story about a member of the gay community it is because of something special - whether they are getting resistance to adopt, fighting to keep their marriage legal, an unjustified police raid on a gay bar. These stories are the exception, not the rule for the average gay person’s life; but news outlets often make it seem the other way around.
Kelly McBride spent 15 years as a reporter in Spokane, Washington. She is also the author of a column last year that looked at how the legalization of same sex marriages will affect media coverage - specifically the use of kissing photos. The idea for that came from her work as a religion reporter when she turned her attention to how some religious denominations were struggling with sexuality issues.
"We’ve done a really bad job in the media," explains McBride, who now works as the Ethics Group Leader at the Poynter Institute. "We’ve made gay relationships seem somehow different."
During her time as a reporter in Washington DC she saw the problem firsthand. She compares the issue to taking a picture and finding a focal point. Rather than trying to make a gay person part of a larger picture, many times they become the main focus of the article. By doing this, they aren’t incorporated into the fabric of a bigger story, rather the story gets molded to them. Until they become part of the outliers of the picture this problem will continue to persist.
"We don’t see gay couples as normal yet. Either they are the laser target - unusual or exciting or there is something sensational about their coupleness - or they don’t exist at all," McBride explained. "Whenever a gay couple is the focus of the picture, it’s bound to be the unusual rather than the usual."
McBride targets two specific reasons why the gay community is seeing the differential in equal media coverage. The first is because of what she calls pathways to finding willing participants. Participants aren’t always lining up to talk to the media either because they are private or for fear that there might be some kind of repercussion for speaking out. The other is due to lacking a societal narrative that incorporates our stories into those of the context of everyday day news. When dealing with a parenting story, incorporating a gay parent into a handful of comments takes out the uniqueness of having a story about that specific person and makes them a parent just like everyone else.
As with different ethnic groups that have had to go through previous struggles in the past, McBride sees it as just a matter of time before the same equality comes for the gay community. Due to the current state of journalism, it might take longer than it has with other groups in the past because some publications are just trying to stay afloat.
"Journalism has a hard time focusing on anything other survival," McBride said.
Ins and outs of outing
No matter how far we come, there is always someone out there willing to knock you down because it’s different from what they are used to or believe is right. For celebrities, the idea of having to deal with and open themselves up to such opinions comes with the territory. Anyone who wants to gain stardom knows that they are kissing goodbye a piece of their privacy.
But for a private citizen to come forward and be profiled in the media, it can be more than they signed for. it’s still a sad fact that many times whenever something is wrote that does depict a gay couple or person as normal there will be some kind of negative, homophobic reaction in the letters to the editor in a print publication or the comments section on a website.
"[Many are] still reticent to be in the newspaper because they are open to any crazy freak out there," McBride explains adding that "somebody who is hateful to gay people will post it to a blog and have bunch of trolls post comments."
Sometimes those trolls can be members of the media. It may sometimes seem like entertainment news publications don’t have any boundaries when it comes to chasing a story, there is one boundary that many still are hesitant to cross - outing.
"I do think to a respect, no one wants to be painted with the brush [of outing a celebrity]," said Kirthana Ramisetti, managing editor of Predicto.com, a leading mobile service where users are able to take surveys predicting what will happen in the world of pop culture and celebrities. "I think the press, more than ever, realizes this is a private matter. No one gets hurt over Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. If speculating about Anderson Cooper, the press wants to shy away."
Cooper remains a celebrity whose private life has been scrutinized on numerous websites over the years as to his sexuality and just whom he is dating (as this recent report from The Gawker can attest). But you won’t find the women on the View talking about Anderson’s gay sitings or read about them in People.
But the problem also comes that once the gay celebs are a couple, where does the coverage move to next? Part of why straight couples, even the D-list, are able to garner so much magazine coverage is because there is more to the story than just boy meets boy, then boy loses boy or boys live happily ever after.
"The narrative can live on for awhile. There’s so much meat there to cover; so much to talk about," Ramisetti explains, using former "Girls Next Door" star Kendra Wilkinson a s an example because she went from being just one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends on a reality show to dating Indianapolis Colts’ wide receiver Hank Baskett and subsequently getting married and pregnant - all of which has helped to keep her on the cover of Us Weekly.
It’s not just gay couples who want to keep their relationships private. Cherie Kerr, who founded KerrPR over three decades ago, says that it’s all type of celebs who sometimes want to keep their lives private. After all, not all press is good press anymore.
"They pay me to keep them out of the press. They don’t want that kind of exposure," explains Kerr.
Celebrities may not want it, giving a little bit of their privacy up to the masses has become part of the package when it comes to gaining fame. The same cannot be said for the regular, everyday people who speak to a reporter for an article and may unexpectedly begin to feel an invasion of privacy come over their lives. But if a celebrity comes out to the media, it’s not a momentary invasion - rather it could affect the rest of their career.
Even as recently as a decade ago, coming out of the closet by yourself was a questionable career move. There were some musicians who had successfully been able to maneuver the waters and not let it affect their careers. The key to striving is to become more than your sexuality. To be known as a performer first instead of who you are dating.
"American Idol" runner up Adam Lambert suffered a hiccup after his recent performance on the American Music Awards recently when he saw ABC cancel performances on many of their shows. Singers though don’t necessarily always have as much on the line as an actor due to a long line of performers who have come out or been ambiguous about their sexuality. In contrast, there is yet to be an out A-list action star.
"They don’t want to be pigeonholed," said Kerr. "It can hurt a lot of actors."
It isn’t surprising to see the double-standard on mainstream reporting on gay couples also hit Lambert, whose relationship with with designer Drake Labry was all over celebrity and gay-centric websites, but not in the mainstream media. Instead they feasted on the singer’s award show indiscretion, which again presented an out personality in a sensational manner.
Kerr, who doesn’t have any gay clients on her current roster, agrees with Ramisetti about the media not want to speculate on celebrities. However, she says if the publication is able to verify the facts of the story all bets are off.
"Most of the media wants a story," says Kerr. "If they have a credible source, they will jump on the story."
Not all publications are created equal when it comes to breaking a news story about a celebrity coupling. Both Ramisetti and Kerr cited TMZ as an outlet whose business is to break the story. A member of the Philadelphia paparazzi agreed that if he saw a closeted actor out with his boyfriend holding hands, he would snap the pictures without a second thought.
The Rock Hudson syndrome
Kerr refers to the fear of coming out as the "Rock Hudson syndrome," referring to the actor who didn’t come until the twilight of his career and his days as a viable romantic leading man were over. But times have changed in the two decades since that happened, as evidenced with examples of actors who have come out with little repercussions on their careers: Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris have gone on to become the gold standards of what an out entertainer can do in Hollywood.
Both of the comedians have been in longtime relationships. DeGeneres has been dating actress Portia De Rossi since 2004. The two wed last year. Harris, who came out in 2006, has been dating actor David Burtka since 2003.
While there hasn’t been a backlash for Harris, DeGeneres spent many years in career purgatory before coming back with her successful talk show and winning rave reviews for her role in Finding Nemo. But as Ramisetti explains there is a difference with these two - while they don’t hide their relationships and will talk about them, neither of the entertainers makes their relationships the main focus. Unlike someone like Lindsay Lohan, who gets as much press for her relationship with Samantha Ronson as for her floundering career, they keep the main focus on their professional pursuits.
"Ellen and Neil Patrick Harris do such a good job of protecting their private life," commends Ramisetti.
Kerr also sees how much the country’s mindset has come in the last decade or two. She notes that there isn’t as much of a stigma attached to being homosexual. But there is something missing between the DeGeneres’ and Harris’s of Hollywood who are only occasionally seen out together and the Lindsay Lohan types making their relationship the focal point of their career.
DeGeneres and Harris are shining examples to what McBride talked about in terms of finding people who can create a narrative that makes the couple more than just their sexuality. There may be people out there who see gay couples as different, but in the words of Us Weekly, we are getting closer to being "just like us."