If GLAAD can be described as a charity, then for Joan Garry it
certainly begins at home. Her three kids are the driving force behind
her quest for fairer representation of gays in the media. James Chase
Joan Garry's eldest daughter recently started at a new school. Before
the term began, the 12-year-old and her two mothers visited the school
to make sure the board were aware that, for the first time in the
school's 175-year existence, it was about to unlock its gates to an
openly gay family. "Yes, of course," acknowledged the admissions
director, eyebrows raised ever so slightly. But Garry wanted to make
sure: "We're not just gay - We're, like, Today Show gay."
Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation (GLAAD), does that a lot. That is, she'll often use the daily
challenges facing her children to help explain her own motivation - and
to proudly relay their responses to illustrate her progress. She recalls
how her daughter (at the age of seven or eight) would watch Sesame
Street, "looking for families with two moms," but never finding one.
"I am driven more by being a parent than a lesbian," she confirms.
Garry has never worked for a PR agency, nor been part of a corporate
in-house PR team. In fact, she's never even had a PR title. But GLAAD is
all about using powerful media relations, solid strategy, and incisive
execution to change opinion and influence important decision-makers.
It's effectively a PR agency for the gay community, although Garry is
quick to point out that "there's more to it than that."
In its quest to promote fair representation of gays in the media, GLAAD
has fought more than a few high-profile tussles. The most famous is
probably the five-year-long effort to educate the public about the
impact of persistent anti-gay remarks by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a West
Coast radio host. Paramount gave Schlessinger a TV show, but after key
advertisers withdrew, and ratings plummeted, it was taken off the air,
and GLAAD duly declared victory.
The recent announcement by MTV and Showtime to launch the first gay
channel is, for Garry, a remarkable convergence of the lines on her
resume; before joining GLAAD, she spent the best part of 15 years
working between the two networks. It's hard to imagine a greater
vocational coincidence, and yet Garry is not too taken aback. "It helps
make sense of how I got to this point."
Garry grew up in Amityville, Long Island, and graduated from Fordham
University in New York with a joint major in communications and
"What could I possibly do with that?" she pondered at the time.
Her first job in 1981 was to test-market new cable channel ideas for
Warner Amex Communications. One year later, the company had become
Garry was now responsible for strategic planning and new business
development, and devised a business plan for the first MTV Video Music
Awards. "Ironically, 15 or so years later I was outside on the steps
protesting (Eminem's lyrics)."
Garry's seven years at MTV opened her eyes to the power of the
"Nobody walks away from MTV without realizing how media shapes the
world," she says.
After taking a year off while her partner had their first child, Garry
joined Showtime. She helped to get its pay-per-view plan off the ground,
and soon discovered the best way for the channel to make money: boxing.
Eventually she found herself managing the relationship between Showtime
and high-profile promoter Don King. "My mom is in the boxing business,"
Garry's daughter would tell her school friends, "although she doesn't
Showtime chairman and CEO Matt Blank was sad to see her go. "She's
terrific on both a business and a personal level," he says. "She's
tough, she's bold, she speaks her own mind - it's hard to intimidate
her." At that time the channel was redefining itself as a workplace in
terms of the diversity of its employees, and Blank says Garry became an
important voice. "She made a terrific impact on the soul and conscience
of Showtime. I always thought she could do more, and I wish we'd had
something else for her. I hope to find a way to bring her back some
Garry joined GLAAD in June 1997. At the time some questioned the wisdom
of appointing someone with such a "corporate America" background, and
with little nonprofit experience (other than serving on the local school
board). No one is saying that now. Since she joined, GLAAD has tripled
in size, both in staff and budget. As Blank points out, many of her
skills have not gone to waste. "Her relationship with Don (King) was
great preparation for her to go in and debate the likes of Jerry
Falwell," he says.
Currently, Garry is busy working on the 13th Annual GLAAD Gay Media
As well as raising awareness, the event generates half of the
organization's $5 million budget. As for the future, she feels
GLAAD needs to address regional media, and provide greater outreach for
coverage. "You see less outright homophobic coverage, but so many
stories are not being told."
Outside the office, Garry became the first person in New Jersey to
legally adopt her partner's children. She says their seven-year-old
twins understand that "mommy's work is about being treated fairly." And
her eldest daughter is "starting to flex her political muscle" -
recently a couple of kids at school gave her a hard time for having two
moms, so she asked them with genuine concern, "How do you know you won't
turn out to be gay?" Garry is proud of the way her children are
"Kids are like blank sheets of paper," she says. "I am so lucky to be in
a position where I can help shape their world."
1976-1979: Fordham University, New York
Graduated with a degree in communications and philosophy
1981-1989: MTV (originally Warner Amex Communications)
Director, new business development*
1990-1997: Showtime Networks
VP, business operations*
GLAAD, executive director
* most senior role during tenure