Where's Our Sharpton? When Gays Are Insulted in the Media, We Don't Have That One Eloquent Defender Who Can Mow Down Our Opponents on the National Airwaves. Why Don't We Have a Spokesperson of Our Own?

Article excerpt

Don Imus forfeited his job a week after making a breathtaking racial and sexual slur about the female basketball squad at Rutgers. The nation's collective conscience was soothed. Justice had prevailed.

Gen. Peter Pace, who called homosexuality "immoral" and likened it to adultery, retains his post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff months after his comments ran in the Chicago Tribune. The nation's conscience is elsewhere, and justice is a pipe dream.

What gives? Presumably if General Pace had labeled mixed-race couples "immoral" or picked on any other minority in the country-Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics--he wouldn't still be running our country's largest employer, the U.S. Armed Forces.

So where is our Al Sharpton the knight in armor who swoops in, takes on the mantle of gay outrage, and lashes out until our aggressor is slain? Where is our spokesperson with the political clout and media muscle to face down the establishment?

Granted the two situations aren't completely For starters, General Pace is a than Don Imus. "You're not going to get a Republican president removing the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on this issue--please," says professor Kenneth Sherrill, director of the Center for Sexuality and Public Policy at Hunter College in New York City. "You've got to be honest about who is running the government."

Also, homophobia simply does not elicit the outrage that racism and sexism do in this country. "It's a measure of how little support we have that [Pace] can make a statement like that and people running for president of the United States have to ponder whether or not to distance themselves from it," says Sherrill, referring to the fact that U.S. senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both initially ducked the question of whether they agreed with the general.

Nonetheless, the comparison reveals telling differences between the history of the LGBT civil rights experience and that of African-Americans. Gays and lesbians did learn to leverage the media quite powerfully in the '60s and '70s, says David Eisenbach, professor of media and politics at New York City's Columbia University and author of Gay Power, a book about gays and the media. The Gay Action Alliance staged protests and disrupted tapings of television shows until the hosts agreed to talk with them about gay issues to help dispel stereotypes of gays. "That was tremendously successful in a short period of time," says Eisenbach. "And they didn't have to create a mass movement, which would have been impossible in the 1970s--or even today, where gays are such a tiny percentage of the population."

But most of the leaders of this initiative, such as Morty Manford, Marty Robinson, and Frank Kameny were lost to AIDS in the '80s and '90s. "Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are still prominent leaders. They are still the celebrity leaders," explains Eisenbach. "[Thanks to AIDS], that generation got wiped out for the gay rights movement. No successor generation reached the level of celebrity and attention that both of these figures did."

Besides, Sharpton is a bit of an anomaly. He has political cachet because he has run for the U.S. Senate, mayor of New York City, and president of the United States. But because he's not an elected figure, he is not beholden to the voting public. "Sharpton is a national political figure--that's a part of how he developed this constituency in the press," says Hunter College's Sherrill. "Barney Frank is every bit as witty and gives good quote and so on, but he is somewhat constrained by the office he holds. Sharpton ... there's very little to constrain him in that regard."

The fact that African-Americans have former presidential candidates who can command a national stage illustrates yet another glaring difference--from the standpoint of numbers and sheer political clout, blacks are way ahead of the LGBT movement in terms of fielding candidates. …