Cathy Renna

Gary and Tony have a baby, Bil Browning has a cow and I have some things to say

Filed By Cathy Renna | June 24, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: CNN, Gary & Tony Have a Baby, Gay In America, gay parents, surrogate parents

A lot is being written about the CNN documentary airing tonight, kicking off their "Gay in America" series, called Gary and Tony Have a Baby. It premieres on CNN tonight, June 24 at 8pm ET & PT and on CNN International on Saturday, June 26 at 8am ET. As they say, check your local listings.

G+T.jpgFirst of all, some disclosure on my part. I know Gary and Tony. I also know and work with many of the people involved in the production, some of whom are friends as well as producers I work with professionally. This makes for challenges when pitching - and reacting - to stories, but is a by-product of the kind of work I do. And it never stops me from being honest and forthright about all sides of this kind of coverage.

As most Projectors know, Bil wrote a pretty scathing review here and there was a lot of comment and reaction. There have also been a number of complimentary reviews, including one by the Washington Post's Tom Shales, who had some interesting back and forth with readers online.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between the lit torches and the Emmys.

First, let's look at the actual documentary in proper context. This is by no means an excuse, but the reality is that it is very hard to find a family willing to be followed around for months by cameras, never mind as they go through an stressful, personal and significant time like the birth of a child.

I frankly could not imagine having a camera there the moment Rosemary came into my life. That said, we have been in the media in ways that feel safe and hopefully have had an impact. To be perfectly blunt, my family has more than once been the "last resort" when it becomes obvious that there are not families who want to - or safely are able to - be visible in the media.

The unfortunate result is that those who have more safety and privilege are more able to be visible. And since privilege is about race and class more than anything else we end up with primarily white couples. I, for one, was glad they showed a gay male couple's story, since it offers a perspective on loving fathers that belies the trope of gay men being a danger to children, but that's another post entirely.

Seeing Gary and Tony's story was moving, inspiring and exhilarating, since I watched - as I do all media- not only through my eyes, but the eyes of someone watching who will say "I never thought about it that way" or "I never realized the hurdles gay families face." That is why this is an important story to be told. As are the countless other stories of our community, one that is a microcosm of the entire culture and in that sense so diverse it is a challenge to ever represent any one of us as "all" of us.

As for how the story was told, I believe Soledad O'Brien did a great job trying to bring out the genuine reality of these men, who struggled like so many as young people, grew up in small towns, dealt with religious bigotry and who have a lot in common with many of us. It was made clear that they are not super-rich or even that well off, that they sacrificed to have this child and are indebted to someone they love who left them an inheritance to make it all possible.

But we all know that the bottom line is this: our community is once again portrayed as white, male, economically secure and in a big city. Bil also makes the excellent point about their being "safe" gays in terms of the whole not too butch and not too fey issue. These are deep, sophisticated ways of examine this but to single out this documentary is unfair. Other mainstream corporate media and even our own community media do the same thing all the time.

The questions I think we should all consider are two: what does this opening salvo from CNN (this is a series after all) mean and what is our community's role in reacting/supporting/leveraging this significant piece of news coverage?

The first is easy. Let CNN have the chance to air the other segments. I have confidence that other issues and diverse communities will be covered. Will we still have things to complain about? Of course, but when we expect CNN to be able to cover our diverse community when our own media don't do great job we have lost our grip on reality. Watch this and thoughtfully encourage them to do more. I recently got an email from a major LGBT media outlet that was doing a feature on LGBT families but was - and this is a quote - "as usual having trouble finding families of color." Welcome to my world.

The second issue is much more nuanced and important.

Have we - as organizations and individuals - done all we can to create the kind of community where diversity is celebrated and diverse families (in this particular case) are given the training, skills and safety to allow their stories to be told?

As someone who does this for a living, I can tell you that we have not and the chickens come home to roost all the time. There is no database or bank of diverse spokespeople for organizations, never mind "real people" for the media that is as diverse as it should be, on any level. When I work with media on a story about the LGBT community, whether it is about seniors, youth, families or any other group, I take the issue of diversity as MY responsibility, not the journalists, since many are really not there yet. When a reporter calls asking for people who have "come out" later in life and is really only thinking "gay or lesbian" I advocate to have a transgender woman who came out and transitioned at 75 included and explain why it is important. 'Nuff said.

From where I sit, we all have some responsibility for this and what happens next. Are the larger organizations, especially those that work with the media a lot and are resources to them, working to have a stable of diverse stories? I know many are but are challenged by a historical lack of connection and trust in communities of color, along with the other issues I describe above. No excuse. Are we adequately supporting our LGBT organizations of color to get their leaders out in the media and partnering to create more diverse "real people" for storytelling?

It is not like this cannot happen. The recent work in DC around marriage equality proved that big time. It was about being intentional, aggressive with media and collaborative within our community. And it worked. Seeing African-American couple on the front page of the Washington Post and in worldwide media was a huge "F-you" to every person who has ever told an African-American LGBT child that they would never be happy, should be ashamed of themselves, would not find someone to love or have a family. It was pretty damn satisfying on many levels, but it was that thought that drove me - and the couples who said "not another interview Cathy, really?" - for that wonderful and intense time.

Gary and Tony deserve our thanks for being willing to go on national television and tell their story. What we need is a much larger pool of people like them and we need to create the environment and infrastructure to make that happen. Let's direct our energy - and anger - into that, not at CNN, a wonderful new family that is fighting for our community every day or (trust me) the folks at CNN who worked their asses off to make this happen and be done well.

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Great post, Cathy. Having been in these proverbial trenches with you before, I can attest to the mixed reactions one can have to getting any kind of productive coverage (yay) while also feeling that the coverage doesn't go far or deep enough (dammit). There are many barriers to accurate, representative, diverse coverage of our communities in the mainstream media. But as you said, no excuses, the work goes on. These are parallel paths we travel. You work with the media to connect them to spokespeople and issues as they come up, all the while investing your time and efforts in perfecting the sytems we have in place to connect with media so that the end result is more representative of who we all are as LGBTQ people spread out across this nation and the world. It's not an either/or proposition. It's just plain hard and often personally difficult to manage work.

Chitown Kev | June 24, 2010 1:30 PM

Oh, Bil's preemptive strike may have been unwarrented.

Oh, and check out the homophobia AND racism in the comments.

Cathy, your suggestion that we should see how the rest of this CNN series plays out is excellent. I attended the screening and panel discussion involving the two dads, GLAAD's Jarrett Barrios and CNN's Soledad O'Brien. They were all enlightening and admirable. This show does not attempt to encapsulate the entire gay community and caress one portion of its skin at the expense of the rest.

Also, the demand that CNN fall in line with everyone's supposed sense of diversity and activism and justice is absurd and misplaced. Paint and carry your own placards, folks. CNN is a business, not a public agency. If you don't like it, don't watch it. There is much to rail against in the public provision of services in our country and regarding our lack of rights, but CNN has the right to paint any picture it thinks will sell. Love it or leave it. Get angry where it will count: local, state and federal politics.

CNN is a news agency, it has responsibilities, every business has responsibilities. To some extent they have more responsibilities than the general public because they have more power than the general public.

Karavision Karavision | June 24, 2010 4:40 PM

As a mixed tranny who can't afford to transition anytime soon and is not small enough to pass in the meantime, I have given up on seeing myself represented In much of anything outside of the mirror.

I think that bil is forgetting about all of the poor out of shape working heterosexuals who will never see themselves represented in popular media. Black in America never showed my family. I doubt that this one will be any different. Black people are all poor criminals, mexicans are migrant workers and gay people are well off white people. That is what TV tells us and that is fault of the viewers who respond to it and make it profitable. I do not think that well off, white gays hold the blame.

George Byrd | June 25, 2010 12:04 AM

As a mixed tranny who can't afford to transition anytime soon and is not small enough to pass in the meantime, you are always welcome on my screen!! :) This once well-off and still privileged white male would see you and accept you just the way you are!

George Byrd | June 25, 2010 12:07 AM

As a mixed tranny who can't afford to transition anytime soon and is not small enough to pass in the meantime, you are always welcome on my screen!! :) This once well-off and still privileged white male would see you and accept you just the way you are!

John R. Selig | June 24, 2010 5:53 PM

Cathy, as usual you are right on the mark.

There is one more aspect to consider. Whatever those of us in the choir think this documentary is good or not is in some way secondary. My real concern is how will those in America react that are not as familiar with our families as we would like. If the documentary moves them along the road to understanding, acceptance and then support then the documentary will be a huge success regardless of whether or not we believe that it is accurate or diverse enough.

I have boundless respect for Larry Kramer and all that he has done and continues to do for our community. However, I remember that he was strongly displeased with the movie "Philadelphia" when it came out because the parents were to accepting and there was no gay sex. Although I agree that Larry's criticisms were legitimate, to say the movie wasn't good because of them missed the point of how much the movie impacted people who didn't know much about AIDS and didn't know anybody who had the disease.

From what I have heard, the documentary is a supportive portrayal and if it results in more people in the moveable middle moving towards supporting us then it is a huge success.

Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | June 24, 2010 7:07 PM

John - you are absolutely right - people fall all over the spectrum in terms of what they know about our community and this doc will certainly open some eyes - and minds and hearts too hopefully. i just think that we need to push for more and more representations that make people realize the true diversity of our community, too

I think the title of this article should win the most hilarious Bilerico title of the year. I laughed out loud in my empty living room for a good thirty seconds or so. "Bil Browning has a...." ROFLMAO

Bil, honey, you know I love ya. Cathy, I liked the way you acknowledged both points of view, and harmonized. Awesome post.

Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | June 25, 2010 8:33 AM

Dr. J - coming from you I consider that quite a compliment. Now that we are through the house buying process and settling in, I am hoping to post more......

Does anyone have pictures of the cow?

(Excellent post Cathy.)