As someone who identifies as gay and Christian, I see parts of myself reflected in the world around me. When I turn on the television, I get caught up in the drama of gay and lesbian students on ‘Glee.’ I can laugh with a gay couple raising a child and trying to relate to the rest of their relatives on ‘Modern Family.’ I can cheer on a Chaz Bono, the first transgender man to ‘dance with the stars.’
When I sat in Easter worship this last Sunday, I was surrounded by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, as well as supportive and affirming straight people. I heard an Easter sermon that acknowledged my existence and affirmed my faith in the Easter message.
However, I still long for the day that those two realities, my representation in the media and the affirmation from my faith, would become one reality. My desire to hear an affirming message of faith being broadcast over television or printed in a newspaper grows stronger as I see both increasing representation in the media and growing affirmation in religious communities. And I am not alone. Thousands of us want to see the LGBT-affirming voices of faith lifted up in the mainstream media. But so far, the media has done little to reflect the new religious reality in America.
In recent years, several denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have updated policies to be more inclusive of gay and lesbian people. Beyond policy change, a majority of Mainline Protestants support equality for gay and lesbian people when it comes to non-discrimination, marriage, and adoption. Jewish people are the most supportive of any religious group in the United States, now at 81%. And the vast majority of pew-sitting Roman Catholics are highly supportive of marriage equality and adoption for gay and lesbian couples, despite the messages from Roman Catholic hierarchy. In fact, the organization Catholics in Media Associates, an organization of Catholic media professionals, recently gave an award to the ABC comedy Modern Family, which features a gay couple raising an adopted child together.
With all this support among religious people, why don’t Americans get to hear LGBT-affirming messages from some of them? They are crowded out by the same extreme voices over and over again. The voices who claim to represent the religious viewpoint on LGBT people, especially Christianity, are the voice and faces that we see have seen for years on news television – local, national and especially cable.
According to a recent survey by the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, journalists, producers and bookers are far from experts when it comes to religion, which makes them return to the same voices that they have used for so long. They tune to “Christian” television to find what the “Christian” viewpoint is on LGBT people. Anti-LGBT groups use their PR operations and sell spokespeople as representative of the religious voice – when in reality they speak for a very narrow viewpoint that is becoming progressively narrower within religious circles. Add in the fact that the media suffers from a conflict addiction and tends to put stories about gay and transgender people in terms of controversy, and we have a recipe for only extreme religious voices being given platforms in the media to reach millions of Americans.
GLAAD has long recognized the lack of faithful affirming voices in the media among the sea of anti-LGBT rhetoric. We commissioned an independent study by the University of Missouri Center on Religion the Professions entitled, ‘Missing Voices: A study of religious voices in mainstream media reports about LGBT equality‘. The study analyzes religious voices and their message messages in national news outlets when covering gay and transgender equality.
The findings confirm that despite growing public support for LGBT people across faith traditions, the media highlight a disproportionate number of anti-LGBT religious voices in the media. Three out of four religious messages about gay or transgender people come from religious groups that have formal policies, decrees, or culture opposing equality. Unsurprisingly, messages from those sources were overwhelmingly negative. Mainstream media uses far fewer voices from the gay-affirming, or even moderate, religious traditions. The vast majority of gay or pro-LGBT sources are presented without any religious affiliation whatsoever.
We have, for example, Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins has been featured in GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project, which educates the media and the public on the extreme beliefs and messages held by anti-LGBT activists. Perkins has called gay people “pawns of the enemy” and wrote that the anti-bullying “It Gets Better Project” is “immoral,” “disgusting,” and promotes “perversion.” These statements don’t happen when Perkins appears on MSNBC or in the Associated Press, but do happen regularly on FRC’s own site. Perkins uses his Christian identity as a cover for his harmful message.
At the same time, where is the voice of Matthew Vines, a young Christian theologian who uses Jesus’ test for teaching that “you will know them by their fruit” and finding that teachings like Mr. Perkins only leads to despair, and self-destruction for those who have followed it? Where is James Alexander Langteaux, the former 700 Club producer who discovered that “the truth shall set you free” and was freed from the closet that he lived in for so many years? Where is the Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, who leads a vibrant, caring Christian community that welcomes all people and continues to grow? These are the missing voices of faith.
The media needs to stop promoting the false notion that being religious is synonymous with being anti-LGBT. By contrasting anti-LGBT religious voices against pro-LGBT voices with no identified religion, the media has reinforced a misleading and dangerous ‘religion versus gay’ frame. This frame is misleading because it gives media consumers the false impression that to be religious, particularly Christian, is to be inherently anti-LGBT. Experiences like the one I had in Easter worship are not reflected in the media. The frame ignores religious people who increasingly support equality and discounts the thousands upon thousands of LGBT people like me whose faith play central roles in our lives.
The media has a responsibility to be fair and accurate in how religious voices are represented in our public discussion on equality. Journalists often cite a need for balance, and the time has come to balance with LGBT-affirming religious voices who have been silenced for too long. Disproportionately favoring the negative message from anti-LGBT voices is neither fair, nor accurate, nor balanced coverage.
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