Thursday, March 6, 2014

Press Releases: Beyond politics

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Today’s US media environment might well seem extremely gay-friendly. American mainstream media consumers saw a fair amount of coverage of anti-gay discrimination in Russia in the lead-up to, and during, the Winter Olympics in that country (read more on this topic on page 10); there was relatively little outcry when President Barack Obama selected several gay former Olympians to represent the United States in the audience. Johnny Weir both dressed and behaved flamboyantly on NBC’s nightly figure-skating broadcasts. Heck, even marriage equality gets little more than ho-hum headlines these days as this vital civil-rights issue continues its progress around the country.
But there is still much more to be done, and last weekend, a one-day conference at Colby College in Waterville sought to explore what, and how.
Called “Queering the Media,” the event, put together by members of Colby’s all-inclusive LBGTQ-plus-allies support group The Bridge, appeared to be less about news-media coverage and more about modern culture, as described by organizers Andy Kang and Sonja Hagemeier.
The intent was that “‘queering’ would be a relatively broad and very widely interpreted term,” Kang says. Looking at “how the media portrays or represents, or tries to represent, or fails to represent, people who don’t fit into mainstream culture” is important, he says, because it can help remind consumers of that information that other viewpoints and experiences exist.
This is important in Maine particularly, says Hagemeier, because “a lot of people think of Maine as really isolating, especially for queer people.” She spoke in almost mystical tones about Portland, a place she has heard is “very very queer friendly,” while observing that it is only slowly that “people are getting used to the idea” in other parts of Maine.
Their conversations at the conference, including presentations by students and current and former Colby faculty, as well as noted queer scholar Jack Halberstam, covered athletic environments, video games, and churches’ roles in social-justice efforts. That’s certainly a departure from most coverage of LGBTQ issues in Maine’s mainstream media. In those outlets, Kang says, queerness is not treated culturally. Instead, “all these topics seem much more politically charged.”
That’s a lesson many Maine journalists could take to heart regarding not only gay culture but other aspects of Maine’s shifting demographics. Somali immigrants, for example, are interesting at times other than just when they’re running for political office or being attacked by anti-immigration activists. The same goes for people of other cultures and backgrounds.
>> Farewell This will be my last Press Releases column; managing editor Deirdre Fulton will take over starting next month. I’ll leave you with a few goals to hold the Maine media to in the coming year:
1) Ask candidates for electoral office (at all levels) hard questions about specific issues, rather than allowing the candidates themselves to set the discussion agenda — thereby neatly avoiding any controversial issues or having to actually take positions on important questions of the day.
2) Allow politicians to change their minds. But don’t let them pretend they didn’t, nor that their new position is functionally the same as the old one. People grow, learn, and change. Expecting people to hold the exact same positions and beliefs forever in effect demands that people remain as misguided and unenlightened tomorrow as they were yesterday. But, when public figures change their minds, they should be able to, and asked to, explain why and how that happened.
3) Lastly — and this is to everyone, whether you work in the media or not — remember that government works for us. We own the desks and filing cabinets in City Hall and the State House, and the documents stored in them. We own the computers and the servers in government offices, and the information stored on them. If a government official wishes to keep something secret, she must prove that she is legally allowed to do so. The burden is not on us as the public to force openness on government, but on government — and its (our) workers — to lay themselves and their records open in exchange for the privilege of serving with the public trust.