Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

GLAAD CEO ushers in new
day at media advocacy group


GLAAD's new CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis
Photo: Courtesy GLAAD
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Near the end of a half-hour interview, the head of a major national gay organization waxed philosophical about a shift in approach to LGBT rights and equality. "Going from activism to advocacy," said Sarah Kate Ellis, the recently appointed president and chief executive officer of GLAAD, may well be "the overarching theme of this conversation."

"There was and still are places where you have to be an activist," she explained. And yet, "There are places where you can be an advocate."

That's because "there has been a cultural shift in America. A lot of work remains to be done. But more people want to do the right thing than the wrong thing," said Ellis.

On the job for not yet half a year, Ellis, 42, spoke recently during a wide-ranging telephone interview about her vision for GLAAD, a leading LGBT media advocacy organization, which, over nearly three decades, has played a significant role in changing the nation's view of LGBT people partly by "empowering real people to share their stories," according to its mission statement.

"In terms of my leadership," she said, "it's about core competency and being the media advocacy organization that we are, that's why it is important to have somebody who has a media background in the role," especially given "how nuanced and finite the media" [landscape] is "in which we have to operate."

In communicating – and messaging – through print, broadcast, social media, and other online venues, it's all about "where to pull the punches, when to pull back, and" how "to navigate all" of those opportunities, said Ellis.

The current media landscape of 24/7 news and entertainment, along with social media's ability to go viral instantaneously, she readily acknowledges, "does make" GLAAD's work "a little bit more difficult – the pressure that is applied and it's assuming the worst, which I never like to do about anybody."

In that regard, "I choose to be deliberative," said Ellis, "because that is how we can make the most impact and have the most influence in shaping the culture."

The rapid-fire, split-second media juggernaut opens GLAAD – its action or seeming inaction – to criticism.

The recent Logo TV RuPaul's Drag Race kerfuffle – the drag performer's use of the word "tranny," which is widely perceived to be transphobic – is a case in point, with some LGBT people wondering what took GLAAD so long to respond.

"Our work, a lot of our work, is done behind the scenes," explained Ellis. "We were quick to respond, but not public about it."

Consequently, she said, "I think that is where the misconception or misperception is. That if you don't hear from GLAAD, then we are not working on something, which means we are probably working overtime on it."

"With the Logo situation," Ellis explained, "we had really good relationships with the media" outlet. "We were talking to them, having conversations. A lot of times – I cannot speak for past presidents – but my approach is to come to the table and try to find a resolution that is going to move the culture forward.

"We only apply 'the watchdog role' when we don't feel like we're getting anywhere or not being heard or listened to."

There is also a danger, she said, in "go[ing] out against a company or an organization. It can really set you back."


Extensive media background

Ellis brings to her new role at GLAAD a wealth of media savvy. Most recently, for example, she served as senior vice president of global marketing for Martini Media Inc., a digital firm that specializes in online branding, public relations, and marketing.

An award-winning media executive with 17 years of experience, Ellis, who is based in New York City, has also led national media brands to success, particularly growing Real Simple into one of Time Inc.'s most respected and successful magazines. At Time, she co-chaired the publishing outlet's LGBT employee organization, thereby leading programming efforts to spotlight LGBT diversity at the same time educating the company's straight allies on a range of LGBT issues.

In 2011, Ellis and her wife, Kristen Ellis-Henderson, co-authored a memoir, Times Two, Two Women in Love and the Happy Family , which chronicled their respective pregnancies and path to motherhood.

The proud mothers of two children, Ellis and Ellis-Henderson were the first same-sex couple to be married in the Episcopal Church of New York state.


GLAAD at a glance

Founded in 1985 in New York City, primarily in response to the New York Post's sensationalized coverage of the AIDS crisis, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – now simply called GLAAD – has changed and evolved over the years.

Based in Los Angeles, with an office in New York, the organization has an operating budget of approximately $6 million and staff of 29. Ellis's salary is $225,000, she said.

Back in the day, GLAAD staffed regional offices, including one in San Francisco, but they were shuttered in 1997; however, the organization still has volunteer leadership councils in Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

In addition to amplifying "the voice of the LGBT community," GLAAD's mission includes "holding the media accountable for the words and images they present, and helping grassroots organizations communicate effectively."

The organization has expertise not only in news and entertainment media, but also Spanish language and Latino media and communications and digital strategy.

Additional programmatic work focuses on faith and acceptance, transgender media, marriage and family, immigration, equality on the field in American sports leagues, support for LGBT youth (Spirit Day), and the Boy Scouts.

GLAAD's Commentator Accountability Project, or CAP, monitors comments made by anti-LGBT activists when quoted in the media about LGBT issues. The project thwarts the spread of harmful misinformation by giving reporters information and context for America's most ardent anti-gay activists.

Over the years, CAP – for its media watchdog role – is one key means by which GLAAD has become widely known throughout the LGBT community.

And yet, in promoting a positive public image of LGBTs for nearly three decades, GLAAD has become much more than a media watchdog organization.

"We still do media monitoring, but not at the same level we used to," said Ellis.

One area where media monitoring is needed is around transgender issues, which Ellis said is "much more relevant for the transgender community."

GLAAD's board co-chair is a transgender woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is a writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.

Ellis went on to explain that GLAAD's "core competencies" entail "advocacy, education, and protection."

Protection, she said, is the "newest" element that "we have added, and that comes from the great success we've seen as a community."

Recent advances in LGBT equality include the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian service members; the advent of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (2004) and its extension today in 19 states and the District of Columbia; and other positive developments gracing the cultural landscape, including those in business, entertainment, politics, among other areas, where, increasingly, LGBTs encounter acceptance and support – even in professional sports where Michael Sam, a defensive end, recently became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the National Football League by the St. Louis Rams.

"If you look at the movement over the last quarter of a century," said Ellis, there's a need "to put in place a protection strategy to protect those gains that we have made, legally, legislatively, culturally."

Why so? "If you study other movements, the ones that have not put into place any protection strategies in place are the ones where rights have been eroded over time because the opposition gets smarter and uses different tactics," she said.

Specifically, regarding LGBT equality, Ellis pointed to Arizona and Mississippi where gay rights detractors recently marshaled freedom of speech and religious liberty arguments, attempting to advance potentially discriminatory legislation in those respective states with varying degrees of success.

Of course, the other way GLAAD is widely known throughout the LGBT community and beyond is through its Media Awards, established in 1989 to "recognize and honor media for their fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the LGBT community and the issues that affect their lives."

This year's awards ceremonies were held in Los Angeles (April 12) and in New York City (May 3).

Those two gala events indeed served up enough glitz and glamour, prompting some to view GLAAD as all about Hollywood, a perception Ellis readily acknowledges.

Nonetheless, "I think there is a lot of imagery out there that [we] are doing very glamorous stuff. ... But we are not as Hollywood as [some] would think," she explained, pointing to the 65 percent programming component of this year's awards celebration.

"We had some glitz and glamour," said Ellis. "But that's how we sell tickets and tables to build excitement around the programming."

The long and the short, what's GLAAD all about?

"We are a dynamic media force," going "after the tough issues, which puts us in the crosshairs, crossfires," Ellis said. "But ultimately it's about changing the narrative and providing dialogue that leads to change."

Added Ellis, "We are the voice for LGBT equality."

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