The Video Strategy of the Fundamentalist Right

By Laura Flanders

It was the military and the media that made The Gay Agenda popular, says Bill Horn, once a CBS sportscaster, now video maker for the Springs of Life charismatic Christian church that produced the tape.

"Since The Gay Agenda was featured on Larry King Live and ABC World News Tonight, calls have poured in on the 1-800 sales number requesting a copy," boast the producers. After appearing on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" with clips, Horn says he gets 500 requests a day.

The Gay Agenda poses as a teaching tape, revealing what Horn calls the "hidden" side of gay life. Using amateur footage from gay parades and demonstrations, the tape stars doctors and scholars and "recovered" homosexuals who recite lists of unsourced statistics on what they say are the unhealthy practices of gay men.

Ten thousand copies were distributed to voters in Colorado and Oregon in the fall of 1992, in time to influence voting on anti-gay initiatives that were on the ballots in those states. According to Horn, exit polls in Oregon showed that 70 percent of "yes" voters said they were influenced by the tape.

Then in December 1993, Marine Commandant General Carl E. Mundy received a copy. "After viewing it, I reproduced copies for each of my fellow service chiefs, the chairman and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," he told Representative Pat Schroeder in a letter. "It appears to be extreme, but its message is vivid and, I believe, warrants a factual assessment."

Eventually, each senator and representative in Washington has received a copy, and Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association distributed tapes to every legislator in the states of Washington, Maine, New Mexico, and Montana, where voters faced anti-gay initiatives.

Dueling Videos

Yet Bill Horn is right when he says that The Gay Agenda received little or no media attention until the gay and lesbian community launched its response.

Though writers for the gay and lesbian press had reported on the use of The Gay Agenda in the campaigns of 1992, and footage documenting the mass distribution of the tape was available from the award-winning filmmaking collective Testing the Limits, mainstream editors did not consider the Religious Right's anti-gay video a national story.

Only in February 1993, when the Gay and Lesbian Emergency Media Coalition (GLEMC) launched its own video response, Hate, Lies and Videotape, did the mainstream media react. Hate, Lies and Videotape compares the Religious Right's anti-gay effort to crude KKK films attacking African-Americans and Nazi propaganda vilifying Jews. With its release, the media had what USA Today dubbed "A Videotape Duel" and, ipso facto, a story.

"The dueling videos amount to a direct trade of volleys between the religious right and the gay rights movement, each now aggressively staking out its ground," reported the Washington Post. Quoting John C. Green, a monitor of grassroots movements, the Post suggested that the far right's tactics were reactive: "The gay-rights movement has become very organized and seems to be making strides, so they are a good target" for the Religious Right.

"Both sides in the [gays in the military] debate have been working hard trying to influence public opinion, using a variety of techniques," announced Diane Sawyer on ABC "World News Tonight." "A battle of dueling videotapes," CNN declared that same day.

The fact that the video war, rather than the human war, attracted mainstream attention exposes much of what is chronically wrong with the media's response to the anti-gay, anti-civil rights movement. The Gay Agenda is not a "volley" traded between equivalent players (as CNN put it, "Gay Rights vs. Religious Right"). This kind of "balance" equates vicious lies about gay and lesbian people (e.g., "92 percent of homosexuals engage in rimming. . . .You couldn't do it without some ingestion of feces") with the response to those lies.

Grassroots Camouflage

Presenting the tape as a new, grassroots response to an advancing gay movement is misleading and inaccurate. "To make local anti-homosexual campaigns appear to be exclusively grassroots efforts when they are guided by major national organizations" has been one of the New Right's primary objectives, according to Jean Hardisty, director of Political Research Associates. So, too, has the camouflaging of the religious content behind the secular "defend the family" theme.

While magazines such as Vanity Fair are writing about "the Gay Nineties" and "an influx of openly gay people in the corridors of power," the media's focus on gay gains obscures the assault organized by the right and veils its sources.

The far right has been using video for decades. Don Black, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, appears in the GLEMC tape lecturing on the prospects for VCRs and the need for Klan supporters to build "our own private network."

At the GLEMC press conference, Loretta Ross of the Center for Democratic Renewal, which researches hate groups, pointed out connections between the Religious Right and other far right groups. For example, Billy McCormick, a founder of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, which is selling The Gay Agenda over a 900-number telephone line, is also a key supporter of David Duke.

The far right routinely capitalizes on public fears generated by AIDS, Ross said, as when a Georgia-based Klan leader claimed that "interracial couples are an open door to infecting white people."

Documenting the political and historical connections of the Religious Right's attacks would be valuable work for the mainstream media. Instead, even when "Larry King Live" showed parts of The Gay Agenda, the GLEMC video, Hate, Lies and Videotape, was not excerpted. Instead, stand-in host Frank Sesno played on the discomfort that exists around gay and lesbian images and behavior. After screening clips from The Gay Agenda, Sesno turned to Rachael Williams of GLEMC and asked, "Do you condone that kind of behavior? It seems a fair question."

Our Own "700 Club"

Jessea Greenman, co-chair of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), helped to organize a community forum to discuss The Gay Agenda. "We have to learn a sense of entitlement," she says. "Whenever we get an article printed or a documentary produced, it is seen as advocacy and [conservatives] call up and complain."

Tongues Untied, a documentary on black gay male culture produced by Marlon Riggs and aired on PBS after much controversy, was seen as pornographic, Greenman points out. "No one's saying The Gay Agenda is porn." On the other hand, it's not very sexy to say that gay and lesbian lives are normal, and for that the gay community pays a price in the sex-obsessed media.

DeeDee Halleck of Deep Dish Television, an independent satellite distribution network, says that progressives need their own media. "Until we have our own '700 Club,' we'll continue to be the victims in the public theater of this society." GLEMC's new tape was distributed on the Deep Dish satellite in early May 1995.

Meanwhile, The Gay Agenda has its clones. In New York City, home of the world's largest gay and lesbian community, a Christian Right group is circulating its own video, a 30-minute tape called Why Parents Should Object to the Children of the Rainbow. According to the New York Observer, the tape was shown at P. T. A. meetings and in private homes, in some cases with the approval of school principals, to mobilize parental opposition to Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, who supported a pro-tolerance curriculum. Fueled by their success in ejecting Fernandez from office, the tape's makers, Concerned Parents for Educational Accountability, used the tape in similar meetings around the New York City school board elections. Since then, Horn has made sequels to The Gay Agenda, and there are dozens of similar videos being circulated by the right.

"We have to begin to control the message," says Ann Northrop, once a producer for CBS TV, and now the executive director of GLEMC. "They're way ahead."

Laura Flanders is on the staff of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). This article first appeared in the June 1993 issue of FAIR's newsletter Extra! © 1995, Laura Flanders.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

130 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 633-6700

A media watchdog group that publishes a bi-monthly newsletter: Extra!

 

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This article is adapted from:
Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash
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