So Sorry | Why public apologies matter

One-time sitcom star Kirk Cameron suggested that legalizing gay marriage threatens to topple civilization in a recent CNN interview. In the time it takes to type 140 characters into a tweet, LGBT leaders, celebrities and cyber activists were calling on Cameron to apologize.

The conservative Christian actor isn’t likely to say “sorry” – or be sincere if he does. So why ask for an apology?

There are multiple reasons say the activists involved in this line of 24/7 work, but none of them are to make gays embrace Kirk Cameron as an actor or purchase the “Growing Pains” series on DVD.

“On occasion, the person apologizing truly learned something and can be educated. More often than not, demanding an apology is an exercise in political power,” says Wayne Besen of the Truth Wins Out gay rights group. “Forcing apologies has created an atmosphere where people have to weigh the social and career consequences if they want to verbally gay bash.

“I think that this is a good thing for LGBT people and for society. If you attack African Americans or Jewish people or Latinos, there rightfully is a backlash. Why should it be any different for smearing LGBT people? Why should there be a gay exception to society's rules of decency and respect?”

Extracting punishment also is a factor, but perhaps most important is the opportunity to educate the offender, an industry and a general public.

“When fans, viewers or readers hear anti-gay slurs or language that promotes anti-LGBT violence, whether on the court or in a script, it sends a message that homophobic language and anti-LGBT attitudes are acceptable,” says Rich Ferraro of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “When someone like Kobe Bryant or Brett Ratner publicly acknowledges that anti-gay slurs are harmful and that LGBT people should be supported, millions listen. As athletes like Kobe and leagues like the NBA begin to take stands against anti-LGBT attitudes, it trickles down to local, college and high school sports teams and leagues.”

GLAAD’s work, Ferraro emphasizes, involves holding people and institutions accountable when they “miss the mark” and encouraging positive representations of LGBT people – in film, on television, and in the press.

A successful example of both, Ferraro says, is the response last summer to comic-actor Tracy Morgan’s anti-gay rant in a Nashville, Tenn., club. Morgan, among other comments, told his audience that if “his son were gay … he would pull out a knife and stab” him.

Apologies were demanded of Morgan, but also much more.

“We knew a simple statement was not going to be enough,” Ferraro says. “More and more, an apology is not enough.”

NBC and Morgan’s “30 Rock” co-star Tina Fey issued statements – and later devoted an episode to the subject.

And Morgan went through intense sensitivity training. He met with GLAAD representatives, visited with homeless LGBT youth at the Ali Forney Center in New York City, met with a woman whose gay son was killed, accompanied GLAAD and gay teens on press interviews and then went back to Nashville to talk about his education and deliver his apology.

“To his credit,” Ferraro says, “he said he wanted to make things right.”


With the work of GLAAD, TWO, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and other prominent LGBT groups, there has been attention called to many high-profile injuries and attempts at amends this past year.

Last fall, director Brett Ratner resigned as producer of the 84th annual Academy Awards amid controversy over anti-gay comments, including saying “rehearsing is for fags.” Ratner, after meeting with GLAAD reps, issued a letter of apology, resigned and agreed to participate in talks in the entertainment industry about anti-LGBT jokes and slurs in film and on TV. More recently he took a seat in the audience for an all-star reading of “8,” the play about the Prop 8 trial.

“I’ve gotten a well-deserved earful from many of the people I admire most in this industry expressing their outrage and disappointment,” Ratner said.

Meanwhile, Kelly Osbourne found herself apologizing for derogatory comments about transgender people and promising to observe Transgender Remembrance Day.

In the sports arena, apologies were sought and league actions demanded after Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers was heard shouting “faggot” in a game, after NBA players Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah were caught on camera saying the same slur and after MLB coach Roger McDowell made anti-gay comments about San Francisco fans.

The NHL, NBA, NFL and MBL all have responded at times in the last year with statements of zero-tolerance for homophobic slurs. Earlier this month, NHL players taped PSAs against locker-room homophobia.

Activists agree that valued apologies tend to be more forthcoming from the sports and entertainment industries than repetence in political and religious circles.

When Chicago Cardinal Francis George recently apologized for likening gay rights activists to KKK members, many saw his statement as little more than an attempt to force activists to cancel a protest.

And the cardinal still faced a demonstration by the Gay Liberation Network. “I do occasionally find high-profile apologies sincere, but I think they're rarer than most people think,” says GLN’s Andy Thayer. But George’s apology wasn’t one of them.

And there are some offenses, generally from politicians, that prompt activists to leap over the “apology requested” phase to the “resignation demanded” action – like when North Carolina Rep. Larry Brown called gay lawmakers “fruitloops,” when Troy, Mich., Mayor Janice Daniels boasted on Facebook that she wouldn’t be returning to New York City because of the “queer” weddings and when Oklahoma Rep. Sally Kern said gay Americans were a bigger threat to national security than terrorists.

“There is an important difference between actors and athletes, on the one hand, and political leaders,” said R. Clarke Cooper of Log Cabin Republicans. “While the role of a celebrity is to entertain, lawmakers are public servants, elected to represent the interests of their constituents and reflect the values of our communities. We expect our elected officials to be professional. Depending on the circumstances, politicians whose rhetoric reveals themselves to be incapable of fairly representing any part of their constituency may justly be considered to have lost public trust, and perhaps the privilege of serving in elected office, at which point calls for resignation would be appropriate.”

Besen adds, “Politicians are in public service and expected to serve everyone. We are paying their salaries with our tax-dollars. So, they have a special obligation to act reasonably and responsibly. They are also expected to be better educated. Entertainers and athletes often do not have the same level of education and they are not publicly funded, so there are lower expectations. However, because of their huge reach, they often have enormous impact, so their transgressions must be paid attention to.”


Sometimes opinions differ over whether a celebrity comment reaches a level that requires a call to action – consider Roland Martin’s Super Bowl tweets.

Martin, a CNN commentator, tweeted about an underwear commercial featuring soccer player David Beckham: “If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham's H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him! #superbowl”
He also said, “Who the hell was that New England Patriot they just showed in a head to toe pink suit? Oh, he needs a visit from #teamwhipdatass.”

GLAAD, HRC and the NAACP sought an apology from Martin – who at first claimed he was having fun with soccer fans not gays – and a comment and action from CNN.

But others said the community overreacted. Longtime gay rights activist Jim Pickett, for one, questions the public response: “I thought his tweet was not some sort of homophobic violence-promoting slam – and I thought all the gays who got upset about it were way, way, way overreacting. We as a community don’t seem to have any sense of context anymore. Was that a really important fight to have? I don’t think so.”

Besen says activists must look at intent. “If a someone says something off-color or a word that may make us cringe, we can live with it.… We don't want to become annoying and humorless ‘national nannies.’ It does, however, often seem clear when the intent was to cause harm and intentionally denigrate LGBT people for a cheap laugh or to express outright disdain. When true homophobia is encountered it is like pornography, as the saying goes, we know it when we see it.”

A week doesn’t pass these days without activists encountering such forms of homophobia, but Ferraro says it’s wrong to connect this to an elevation in attacks.

“We’ve arrived at a place where homophobia is no longer tolerated in many arenas,” he says. “It’s not that there are more ‘anti-gay comments,’ it’s that those comments now attract headlines because they’re out of step with our culture.”

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