ITL #77 Overcoming persistent stereotypes: the battle against LGBT discrimination

8 years, 7 months ago


Although June is Gay Pride Awareness Month, public relations continues to struggle with LGBT equality. By Richard Waters.

On June 2, 2000, President Bill Clinton became the first American national political figure to recognize the social struggles of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community in his declaration of June as "Gay and Lesbian Pride" month. Since this signing, officials from subsequent presidential administrations have continued this tradition as the number of LGBT pride events has grown significantly and expanded around the globe.  
In the United States, the largest events annually are held in San Francisco and New York, but they are also held in smaller communities, such as Conway, Arkansas, and Salisbury, North Carolina. Pride events have become such a prominent part of June that even Walt Disney World informally hosts a weeklong celebration of the LGBT community.  
Globally, most European capitals host events to rival those of the metropolitan American cities in terms of size, attendance, and economic impact. This year, the number of pride events globally has increased to more than 150, spanning the globe from Saskatoon, Canada, to Goiania, Brazil, and from Zagreb, Croatia, to Istanbul and Tel Aviv.  
This year’s pride events serve as a significant public relations demonstration in the United States as nearly 40% of states legally recognize LGBT marriages either through popular vote, state legislature, or court decisions. Grassroots events and demonstrations of civil inequality have paved the way for legal challenges to gay marriage bans and have shifted the tide of individuals’ personal beliefs on the ban in the past five years.  
The United States is catching up to the 16 other nations – including Argentina, Canada, and Uruguay – that legally recognize gay marriage.  
Ongoing discrimination and inequality
Despite these successes on the civil rights front, the news is not as optimistic for other dimensions of LGBT equality.  The Williams Institute at UCLA regularly issues reports on LGBT demographics and experiences in the United States. Recently, a report on workplace issues revealed that one out of every five lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees have been discriminated against in terms of hiring, promotions and pay.  That number rises to 47% for transgendered employees. Gay and bisexual men, on average, earn $0.79 for every dollar earned by similarly-qualified heterosexual men.
These findings, sadly, reflect the current scholarship of LGBT practitioners in public relations.  In 2013, Dr. Natalie T. J. Tindall from Georgia State University and Dr. Richard D. Waters from the University of San Francisco edited the discipline’s first volume focused exclusively on the LGBT issues in public relations.  
The 15 research studies document the harassment and discrimination experienced by LGBT public relations practitioners, the exploitation of LGBT consumers, and the challenges LGBT organizations have had in gaining legitimacy in advancing their civil rights struggles.
The Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research’s "The Pink Ceiling is Too Low" report highlighted that the most common forms of workplace harassment and discrimination were being the target of workplace jokes and being asked inappropriate questions about their sexual activities (Irwin, 1999). However, Tindall and Waters’ book highlights more serious forms of harassment, including social exclusion in the workplace and being denied earned promotions and raises.  
Critical scholarship from the United Kingdom notes that the public relations industry has not created an environment where LGBT practitioners are openly supported (Edwards & L’Etang, 2013). This conclusion is grounded in earlier findings from a Council of Public Relations Firms survey of senior managers who estimated that 3% of their employees were from the LGBT community.  
Despite the small representation, senior managers felt this was an over representation of the LGBT community and that diversity recruitment needed to focus on other demographic segments. In a revealing moment of honesty, however, the same respondents felt that real differences for diversity-recruited practitioners might not come until managers’ and organizational cultures’ toward minorities changed (BPRI, 2005).
In addition to being targeted as jokes or socially excluded in the workplace, LGBT practitioners in public relations were frequently asked to help plan campaigns and design message strategies that would attract LGBT audiences while not offending mainstream heterosexual audiences for certain brands while simultaneously being asked for advice on how to make niche campaigns over the top for brands targeting the LGBT community. (Gudelunas, 2013). Research published in the Journal of Public Relations Research identified a new role for gay public relations practitioners: that of being, the "cool, creative employee" who can navigate both mainstream and LGBT campaigns (Tindall & Waters, 2012).  
A shallow view 
Practitioners expressed concern that the strategic communication industry was painting a shallow view of the LGBT community, especially gay men, by centering campaign messaging on the gay stereotype of having an active social life filled with a vibrant nightlife, physical fitness, and high fashion.  
The focus on securing the "gay dollar" because of stereotypes of LGBT individuals as having fewer familial obligations and employment in higher-paying careers resulted in manipulation and exploitation of the community. Trade journal pieces, such as Advertising Age’s "Why (and How) You should Go After the Gay Dollar (Johnson, 2010)" further reduced the social value of the LGBT community in discussing why companies needed to "capture the LGBT market."  
Focusing solely on the dollar, resulted in strikingly high levels of debt in the LGBT community (Reilly, Rudd, & Hillery, 2008). As public relations campaigns and marketing messages created and reinforced the norms of the gay lifestyle and community, many bought into the stereotyped, marketed identity with credit cards and personal debt.  Practitioners who participated in in-depth interviews with the Tindall and Waters (2012) study expressed concern that they were contributing to a culture of debt in the LGBT community; however, they feared even more workplace exclusion and discrimination if they did not participate in creative sessions and strategic planning of campaigns.  
Through these targeted campaigns, LGBT public relations practitioners discovered the power that mainstream media messaging has on targeted publics. The media’s influential power over public opinion has been well documented as media discussions about funding for HIV/AIDS (Dearing & Rogers, 1992), acceptance of sexual orientations (Brown, 2002), and the same-sex marriage movement (Hester & Gibson, 2007) have all been shown to influence public perceptions about LGBT issues.
Public relations practitioners and directors of LGBT organizations have recognized the impact of mainstream media and have worked relentlessly to influence the media’s agenda.  However, they reported running into pre-constructed media narratives that did not align with advancing LGBT issues.  
Turning to social media
Advancing the discussion of civil rights and LGBT harassment issues in the workplace was difficult to get local news media to support. With media choosing to exclude these stories, Mundy (2013) pointed out that many LGBT organizations have turned to social media to discuss these issues and to promote LGBT community events. No doubt, these socially-mediated discussions have helped fuel the successes the LGBT community has had in terms of civil rights equality in recent months.
Hon and Brunner (2000) concluded that public relations does a great job in talking the diversity talk but a bad job at actually walking the diversity walk. To its credit, the Public Relations Society of America Foundation issued a call in 2013 for research proposals designed to create practical suggestions and methods for increasing the diversity of the field. However, the industry is not as diverse as the publics we engage.  
The reality is less optimistic for the LGBT community based on continued research documenting workplace exclusion and discrimination, consumer exploitation, and difficulties in working with mainstream media.
Public perceptions have shifted considerably since President Bill Clinton first declared an official gay pride awareness month, but has our industry’s views toward the LGBT community really changed? I challenge those connected to the public relations industry at all levels – executives, managers, entry-level practitioners – to reflect on your own organization’s attitudes and behaviors toward the LGBT community.  
Within our organizations, we are tasked to create meaningful, long-term relationships with our stakeholders. If we as public relations practitioners cannot improve the situation for LGBT employees in our organizations and the LGBT community when engaging our organizations, then are we really doing our jobs?
The BPRI Group. (2005). PR coalition diversity tracking survey 2005. Retrieved May 29, 2014 online at
Brown, J. D.  (2002).  Mass media influences on sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 39(1), 42-45.
Dearing, J. W., & Rogers, E. M.  (1992).  AIDS and the media agenda.  In T. Edgar, M. A. Fitzpatrick, & V. S. Freimuth (Eds.), AIDS: A Communication Perspective (pp. 173-194).  Hillsdale, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum.
Edwards, L., & L’Etang, J. (2013).  Invisible and visible identities and sexualities in public relations.  In N. T. J. Tindall, & R. D. Waters (Eds.), Coming Out of the Closet:  Exploring LGBT Issues in Strategic Communication through Theory and Research(pp. 41-56).  New York:  Peter Lang.
Gudelunas, D. (2013).  Sexual minorities as advertising gatekeepers:  Inside an industry. In N. T. J. Tindall, & R. D. Waters (Eds.), Coming Out of the Closet:  Exploring LGBT Issues in Strategic Communication through Theory and Research (pp. 73-89).  New York:  Peter Lang.
Hester, J. B., & Gibson, R.  (2007).  The agenda-setting function of national versus local media:  A time-series analysis for the issue of same-sex marriage. Mass Communication & Society, 10(3), 299-317.
Hon, L. C., & Brunner, B. (2000). Diversity issues and public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12(4), 309-340.
Irwin, J. (1999). The pink ceiling is too low:  Workplace experiences of lesbians, gay men and transgender people. Sydney: Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay  Research.
Johnson, B. (2010, October 11). Why (and how) you should go after the gay dollar. Advertising Age. Retrieved from
Mundy, D. E. (2013). Updating pride: How 21st century gay pride organizations strategically use social media to manage relationships with key stakeholders. International Public Relations Research Conference 16, Conference Proceedings..
Reilly, A. , Rudd, N.A. & Hillery, J. (2008). Shopping behavior among gay men: Issues of body image. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 26(4), 313-326
Tindall, N. T. J., & Waters, R. D.  (2012). Coming out to tell our stories:  Using queer theory to understand the career experiences of gay men in public relations.  Journal of Public Relations Research, 24(5), 451-475.
Author’s Details
Richard D. Waters, Ph.D is an associate professor in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco.  He has authored more than 75 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters on the public relations industry.  

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The Author

Richard Waters

Richard D. Waters, Ph.D is an associate professor in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. He has authored more than 75 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters on the public relations industry.

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