Q & A – Rashad Robinson

The media activist discusses working with the press, bringing queer people of color into the limelight and how it feels to come out as a gay Black man every day.

By Beandrea Davis May 16, 2007

You started at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD) two years ago as director of media field strategy, and now you’ve moved into a senior leadership role as director of media programs. How does it feel to move from being an organizer on the ground to managing overall strategy?

There’s a real benefit to understanding the type of decisions, the type of skills that it takes to be on the ground and to be working in local communities and the impact that we can have. I feel that I can bring a real understanding about what the needs are out in the community. But there is a real difference. There is a much larger responsibility to the overall mission of the organization in my new role, which is very, very exciting. I feel a real responsibility to support and improve and be a cheerleader for the work that we do out in the community.

GLAAD has a reputation as a mainstream gay advocacy organization. What do you think about that perception?

Our goal is to change hearts and minds and end homophobia and discrimination. So we do operate to influence opinions within mainstream media. We may have a reputation of being a mainstream organization, but we represent a community that in 36 states you can be fired from your job [for being gay]. We represent a community that is very much discriminated against and is very much in a struggle and a fight for equality. The attacks that we fight against everyday from anti-gay forces can’t allow us to sit back and think that we’re somehow in the mainstream.

GLAAD’s senior leadership team is white. Does your work now feel more significant to you as a queer Black man?

I always have taken my responsibility – as a person of color in this world and as a person who has had great opportunities along the way to grow – very seriously. One of my earliest entries into political activism was knocking on doors in African American neighborhoods within my community for [political] candidates.  I grew up with my parents as activists, going to NAACP meetings. My early activism was very much in racial equality and working to make the world a better place for people like me. That moved into why I went into doing voting rights. I worked on felony disenfranchisement. The support and the work for marginalized communities is why I still do the work that I do right now.

Is GLAAD looking to make queer people of color more of a focus within the organization?

The work we do with people of color doesn’t just take place in [our] people of color program. It takes place across all the departments in the organization. For far too long when people have seen LGBT images in the media, they have been white, and they have been rich. That’s not the reality of the world that we live in. I know and see young LGBT people of color who want to see their images in the media. I know that we have a lot of work to do in not only dispelling the myths, but in giving voice to the real stories that are out there.

Could you say more about the invisibility of queer people of color in the media?

It’s very hard in mainstream media to present multidimensional voices. You’re either one thing or the other to the media. That is the role and responsibility of an organization like GLAAD, which has worked to build these relationships and push journalists to be able to cover all types of stories. We recently helped Essence magazine tell a story about an African-American transgendered woman in Los Angeles. That type of multi-layered story is the type of story people don’t get to read on a regular basis. People got to read about Cookie, a male-to-female transgendered woman and her struggle and her transition.

We had an editorial board meeting with the owner of Ebony and Jet. I remember reading Ebony and Jet in the barbershop or the beauty parlor waiting for my parents when I was growing up. I know the type of impact magazines like those can have in communities where it’s still very taboo and people are still very closeted and don’t have the same type of support networks. GLAAD [went] to Mexico to meet with folks at [the Spanish language media conglomerates] Univision and Telemundo. The majority of the content that is shown on Spanish-language television in the U.S. is actually produced outside the U.S. We went outside the country to be able to influence and provide information.

Working with GLAAD is the first time you’ve worked for a gay advocacy organization. What’s that transition to being in such a publicly gay role been like?

After the 2004 election, there was this conversation happening in progressive circles where the LGBT community was being blamed for the rollbacks and for what happened. All the antigay ballot initiatives that passed were credited with turning out more conservative voters. I was sitting around in rooms where these conversations were happening and feeling like I had to take a side.

There’s a real difference to when you go home to your community and say “I’m working on voting rights” as opposed to “I’m working on gay rights.” I come out every single day over and over again. Any time I hand a business card or tell someone where I work, I’m coming out. There’s a different level of connection to my identity that my work has taken.

So you feel activism that works on changing people’s perceptions through the media is pretty effective and useful?

I do. We live in a world with a tremendous amount of media. We’re hit with it in all sorts of ways, but it also comes into our homes, workplaces in a way that can educate us, change our minds and shape our opinions.  Many people in my generation’s first, ongoing experiences with LGBT people are through the media.

What’s your first memory of seeing a queer person in the media when you were growing up?

I grew up with a gay uncle and gay cousin who were close, so I had real-life people who were defining for me in my first interaction with people that I knew were gay. I definitely remember those first episodes of The Real World San Francisco. There was a humanity to the images that was very different from things you might hear out in the street or from family members or community people. Pedro was someone that forced us to care about someone that we didn’t know we were supposed to. It challenges our opinions, assumptions and education about who is important in the world and who is not.

Looking ahead to the 2008 presidential election, what do you think are some of the key issues people should be paying attention to?

It’s going to be very exciting and interesting. As a person who works on LGBT issues, it’s going to highlight just how far our movement has come. If you think about eight or12 years ago, candidates would stay as far away from our issues as possible. You’re going to see candidates openly talking about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” While we may not have as many candidates taking solid positions on marriage equality, you’re going to be having most major candidates–at least on the Democratic side–supporting civil unions. You’re going to have candidates struggling openly with how they can reconcile their faith with being fair and promoting equality. That’s going to be happening at the presidential level, in communities all around the country, around kitchen tables, within churches, schools. It’s exciting for us to be debating how we can become better as a country, become more open, how we can treat one another better.

Do you really think Democratic presidential candidates are going to address queer issues, given that they are often playing middle-of-the-road politics?

They will if we make them. What gets addressed in the elections, in local communities and through the media is as much our responsibility as it is the candidates’. I come to work every day because I’m optimistic about my ability to affect the political debate. If I didn’t think that we had the ability to influence what is debated then I would do something else.

Beandrea Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Oakland, CA.