Sarah Kate Ellis, President And CEO Of GLAAD, On The Power Of Media And LGTBQ Representation, Part 1
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The world today is vastly different than it was even just a few years ago, and much of that can be attributed to work toward increasing inclusivity and diversity in the workplace, in leadership, and in the media we see each and every day. As a society, we choose whose stories get told, whose voices are heard, and that choice in turn impacts how we see and understand the world and each other. Witnessing how openly Millennials and Gen-Z embrace ideals of inclusivity and authenticity gives me hope for a future where everyone can be fully themselves and reach their highest potential. And yet, the LGBTQ community is also heavily under siege, with an unrelenting wave of anti-LGBTQ and particularly vitriolic anti-trans legislation sweeping the country (in just the last two weeks, a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth went into effect in Utah, and Tennessee moved forward with a bill that would criminalize such care, despite strong opposition from doctors as well as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ position that gender-affirming care is medically necessary for transgender children and adolescents).

In the middle of this dichotomy is GLAAD, the $50M global powerhouse tackling some of the biggest obstacles facing the LGBTQ community today. From Hollywood to video games to how newsrooms report on book bans, GLAAD works to effect cultural change by ensuring LGTBQ stories are told (and told authentically). As any writer will attest, there is power in the stories we tell. Storytelling has the ability to expand our worldview; it helps people feel seen and understood, it inspires and opens our minds to new possibilities, and it can create empathy, understanding, and compassion. With that in mind, I spoke with GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis about GLAAD’s current global efforts and initiatives, her career and how she evolved the organization from a $3 million media watchdog into the institution it is today, as well as its plans for the future.

Liz Elting: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you tell readers a little about yourself, your career, and how that ultimately brought you to GLAAD?

Sarah Kate Ellis: I’ve always worked at the intersection of media and culture and had a passion for telling the stories that need to be told. I was working in media and writing a book with my wife Kristen entitled Times Two—about how we were both pregnant at the same time—when I first came into touch with GLAAD. I wanted to use our book to create change about lesbian moms like us, and so we turned to GLAAD for media training and strategy. GLAAD was instrumental in getting our story out there, so when the role was open to lead the organization, I pursued it with the goal of creating a better world for my community and for my kids.

When I started at GLAAD in 2014, the organization’s funding and infrastructure were sorely lacking. The Board had given me an ultimatum: either turn the organization around or close the organization. I knew the world needed GLAAD. I quickly made key hires, developed filters for the advocacy work that we took on, and steadied the organization through some generous funders and donors who believed in our mission.

Elting: For those unfamiliar with the organization, how would you sum up the work that GLADD does?

Ellis: GLAAD is a cultural change agent. We represent LGBTQ people and issues where culture is created—from Hollywood to Davos, from English and Spanish-language newsrooms and TV stations to video games. And we advocate for fair and accurate LGBTQ representation in these places because it will reach the general public with stories that change hearts and minds. We also create campaigns to take action on LGBTQ issues.

Elting: How has GLAAD changed over the last eight years of your tenure?

Ellis: Over the past eight years, GLAAD has evolved in three main categories, each of which influences the other: mindset, organization, and finances.

We shifted the way we viewed ourselves as an organization. In regards to our original mission of media advocacy, we adapted to the rise of social media and the resulting lightspeed pace of the news cycle. I was brought on to modernize GLAAD based on the changing media landscape, which meant ensuring that we learned to think and behave with a fundamentally agile mindset. Now, our staff has adopted that agile mentality to follow the news cycle, follow the changes in media, adapt, and also continue to advocate.

This boldness in mindset led to a significant shift in our organizational structure. An example of this was the formation of the GLAAD media institute, which allowed us to codify a lot of the work and scale up a lot of our programs. Through the institute, we advise companies, newsrooms, studios, networks to uplevel LGBTQ content and programming. They also support GLAAD and the team.

As a result of these changes, GLAAD has financially scaled up in a major way. I have led amazing game-changing gifts from places like the Ariadne Getty Foundation, but now our scope is simply wider. We now have corporations, foundations, individual philanthropists, and small-dollar donors. We diversified our portfolio of donations and support, which enables us to scale up our advocacy work and take on new projects and industries to create change in. I don’t look at us as a charity, I look at us as an investment in society.

Elting: Can you talk about your approach to GLAAD’s advocacy work from a business perspective? What can others learn from GLAAD’s growth?

Ellis: If you look at the diverse array of industries and brands that we work in, it’s a real validator for the fact that LGBTQ people are part of every family, community, and workplace. There is a huge amount of energy coming from business and media leaders to do better by LGBTQ and other diverse communities today. With the number of LGBTQ people growing, this is a bottom line and talent recruitment issue. Our work has shifted from being solely a watchdog to being a resource—because if companies and media get inclusion right, it’s a win not only for them, but for the LGBTQ community too.

Elting: What do you see as GLAAD’s role today?

Ellis: Last week I spoke on an LGBTQ panel during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. GLAAD was on the ground to raise awareness for LGBTQ people and issues where the leaders of business and geopolitics convene in Davos to set the global agenda. I was on a WEF panel, and we discussed the fact that LGBTQ people are criminalized in nearly 70 countries and spoke about how and why companies can play a role in the LGBTQ movement. GLAAD also worked with Accenture and the Partnership for Global LGBTIQ+ Equality to turn the Davos promenade rainbow for one night by organizing over 15 major companies to light their Davos venues in rainbow. This sent a huge message of solidarity to the global LGBTQ community. Davos was a great example of how GLAAD can educate industry, engage and create visible activations around LGBTQ people, and work to keep global business involved and engaged in our continued fight.

Elting: Can you talk about GLAAD’s initiatives to promote LGBTQ representation in media and why representation is so important? How are our lives impacted by the media we consume? And how is GLAAD working to make a positive impact?

Ellis: GLAAD was founded in 1985 by visionaries who knew that if we could humanize LGBTQ lives that acceptance would grow, and they were right. What people see in the media has a huge impact on how people treat each other and the decisions made each day in schools, living rooms, offices, courtrooms, and all over our culture.

In 2020, we conducted research with P&G that showed non-LGBTQ Americans who had been exposed to LGBTQ people in media were more likely to accept LGBTQ people and be supportive of LGBTQ issues.

The GLAAD media institute works behind the scenes with media to consult on LGBTQ storytelling. Our campaigns team then focuses on public campaigns and accountability. We will give you the playbook for representation, but we won’t give you a pass. Recently we called out the New York Times for anti-trans coverage that is biased and harmful.

Elting: Over the last few years, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced throughout the country. What is GLAAD doing to confront them?

Ellis: Over 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in just the first month of 2023, and so many of them try to restrict the lives of transgender youth, the most marginalized group in our community. These harsh bills are cruel in nature and they stigmatize transgender youth in the ugliest of ways.

My team follows these bills and works in select states to speak out against them with local organizations and leaders. We take GLAAD’s advocacy best practices on the national level and bring them local by educating reporters about how to cover these issues, and getting local businesses and notables to speak out against these laws.

So much of LGBTQ advocacy and other social issues for marginalized communities is rooted in safety—safety of your LGBTQ consumers, LGBTQ employees or employees with LGBTQ children. This is not about politics, it’s about human rights.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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