I came pretty fresh-faced into this industry, you have to admit. Even the most secure individual couldn't argue with the blatantly obvious: taking over one of the world's most recognised LGBT+ brands at the age of 24 didn’t exactly follow a long-standing service in media.
I knew I had the right capabilities for the job, but I did find some blissful ignorance incredibly useful. When you aren’t conditioned to the way "things are done" in the world of media, you are free to question everything. My goodness, did I have some things to question.
A short insight into our brand story
Gay Times magazine 10 years ago was hyper-masculine, over-sexualised and only spoke to a certain part of the LGBT+ community – namely cisgender white men. In part, it was guilty of perpetuating the stereotype that all gay men are sex-crazed and obsessed with having a six-pack. It assumed they all listened to Cher and Kylie, had Will & Grace on repeat and went out clubbing four nights a week.
Gay media in general also found itself pandering to the heteronormative narrative. A quick advertising reference: 1994’s gay Ikea ad. Pioneering? Absolutely, but think about it: it’s still two very acceptable-looking white gay guys furnishing a normative home. Pioneering today? I would hope not. Yet I still see it in deck after deck referencing "best practice".
Here’s the media problem: when everything feels very absolutely-fabulous-sweetie-darling, how on Earth can I expect "them" (the big, straight, white media majority) to take me that seriously? And that’s it right there. When we (the gay media) oversimplified the gay experience, by asking to align to heteronormative values and then put a superficial spin on our day to day, why would anyone outside our community expect it to be any different?
I’ve seen countless ads, Pride campaigns (more on that another time) and diversity panels that rely on problematic simplification and harmful stereotypes of people in the community. But we, the leaders of major LGBT+ organisations, only have our collective self to blame.
On that Ikea ad, Patrick O'Neill at Deutsch, creator of the spot, said: "We knew gay people, and I felt like the lone representative. I felt a lot of responsibility making sure I didn't let my people down."
Patrick specifically refers to the fact that it was him alone who was representing an entire community – a pitfall I still see time and time again. We all appreciate fully how brave that was in 1994, but the world has moved on and so we must stop looking back 25 years for inspiration.
For people of colour, people of the trans experience, people of the non-binary experience, people who identity outside the gender binary, people of religious queer experience other than our country’s default – gay media and marketing has continually failed them. Because, just like at Stonewall (a movement that was started by a black trans woman in New York City), the white cis-gendered experience overtook and became the new default identity within what today we refer to not as gay media, but LGBT+ media.
A new wave
Gay Times is celebrating its 500th issue. But I didn’t want to write about that. The magazine represents just a tenth of the business I run today. Gay Times is a media organisation that develops meaningful and strategic connections from brands (often via their media and creative agencies) through our own LGBT+ creative, content and production teams to the community we serve. It’s completely unique in the LGBT+ media field for serving as a "full-stack" media company – one that puts identity at its core.
Amaliah, GUAP, gal-dem. Three media titles operating in different, yet inevitably overlapping, fields you should know about. They all operate in what I believe is the new wave of media. It’s a wave that I’ve positioned the future of Gay Times in. Of these titles, we have the biggest reach and roster by far, but that doesn’t make us any better by default. We’re all starting to understand the benefits of micro-advertising, the power of qualitative and market levels of one. The next generation is unique; they better understand their identity and they refuse to be limited by binaries. It’s up to us to find ways to connect with them.
So – how do you show up to LGBT+?
I tell all our partners: "Think about what you can give, not what you can take." Coming from the privileged position we are in, in the advertising and media business, we often forget the responsibility we have to the world when we show up in our work. Showing up to LGBT+ means understanding, respecting and honouring the complexities of the community that exist.
Of course, you used to be able to rely on oversimplified stereotypes of two pretty gay guys or perhaps tokenisation of the trans community. But no more. Also – here’s a tip-off – using the Pride flag in any shape or form is still taking from the community. It’s a symbol that many of us (but not all) use to represent our identity, so putting it on packaging comes with that responsibility of asking what you are going to give back. How are you going to help progress the rights of marginalised parts of the community? How are you going to empower queer people and create opportunities for them?
Early next week, Gay Times will announce an initiative to fast-track new and emerging queer music acts with Apple Music. A music industry traditionally built on supporting straight acts and relying on heteronormative marketing values needs a shake-up when it comes to queer talent. What can we give to the community? Two organisations that have the platforms together to create opportunities to support and empower LGBT+ music talent. Talent that would have previously faced greater challenges in gaining recognition. The project is Elevate: a breaking artist programme designed to catapult emerging LGBT+ acts into bigger global projects and opportunities, all while celebrating their queerness.
What the new wave of LGBT+ media is demanding is respect, equal opportunity and the responsibility to do more.
So, when you start asking your team or agency this year what your Pride 2020 marketing plans are, or if it's your job as the sole LGBT+ representative in your team to come up with the answer, consider asking what you’re going to give back first, whether you can answer alone and understand how you intersect the community. Because if it’s simply a fabulous idea to centre two good-looking white gay guys with Pride flags and a drag queen, it might not be good enough any more.
Tag Warner is chief executive of Gay Times