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How Sarah Kate Ellis Brought GLAAD Into the 21st Century

GLAAD was in crisis. A series of leadership shakeups coupled with the 2008 economic collapse, which dried up donations, had left the advocacy group essentially broke and directionless. Plus, after launching bruising media campaigns against the likes of Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan, the gay and lesbian organization was in danger of being seen as the P.C. police. Enter Sarah Kate Ellis. When she took the reins as president of GLAAD in 2014, she knew the stakes were high.

“I was hired to either turn GLAAD around or to shut it down,” says Ellis on a recent morning, adding that the organization had been operating at a deficit for five straight years. “As a woman with two children and a wife, I couldn’t imagine a world where my kids grew up without GLAAD. It had done such unbelievable work and created such a powerful platform — to see that go away would have been a terrible disservice.”

What Ellis and her team realized is that GLAAD had to be more selective in its public battles. Moreover, before it engaged in a war of press releases, it had to weigh the cultural impact. In the past, the organization had a tendency to wage reactive crusades instead of looking to the future.

Ellis is an unlikely leader for GLAAD. A former executive at Time Inc., she had never been in the nonprofit world. Under her tenure, GLAAD devotes about 20% of its resources to holding the media accountable. Her team landed on the ground in the hours after the Orlando massacre, advising reporters on how to cover the tragedy so that the faces of the victims wouldn’t be forgotten. But there’s also attention paid to what it means to be gay in 2016, at a time where marriage may be legal, but discrimination is institutionalized.

Ellis was a thorn in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s side, drawing attention to the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws during the Sochi Olympics. And after convincing sponsors of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade to pull their support, she lifted a decades-long ban on gay participants.

“I couldn’t imagine a world where my kids grew up without GLAAD. It had done such unbelievable work and created such a powerful platform — to see that go away would have been a terrible disservice.”
Sarah Kate Ellis

Among Ellis’ fans is ID PR founder Kelly Bush. “I’m grateful for her leadership and confident that GLAAD’s commitment to cultural and economic equality will result in a brighter future for my children and yours,” Bush says.

GLAAD still believes in the power of pop culture to shape attitudes and foster greater acceptance. In Hollywood, the organization has continued to release an annual scorecard of LBGTQ depictions in TV and movies, routinely finding that the big screen lags behind the small.

“The six major studios have no LGBTQ representation,” Ellis says, citing the need for tentpoles to perform well in countries that are hostile toward gay people. “We can have subtle inclusions,” she says. “At least let’s get the ball rolling.”

TV is better, but she notices how streaming series like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” are ahead of network shows. “We continue to push them,” Ellis says. “It tends to be still a gay-white-male depiction.”

When GLAAD launched in 1985 — as the Gay Anti-Defamation League — in protest over the New York Post’s homophobic coverage of AIDS, there was almost no public visibility for the gay community. GLAAD’s role as a media watchdog was important through 1997 and thereafter, when Ellen DeGeneres became the first television star to openly come out. Now, 87% of Americans say they know someone who is gay, but that figure is significantly lower for the transgender community.

As a remedy, in 2015 Ellis added a full-time position for Nick Adams as director of the transgender media program. “She recognized we were at a tipping point,” Adams says, referring to the rise of stars like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. “What I really appreciate from Sarah Kate’s leadership — she’s been thinking about the future and where the world will be for GLAAD in a post-marriage-equality environment.”

Over the last two years, Ellis has cleaned up GLAAD’s books. The organization no longer hemorrhages money, as its revenue has grown by 38 percent. Ellis spoke to Variety after returning from a fundraiser in San Francisco that brought in $1 million. The group, which includes a staff of about 30 in New York and Los Angeles, will start hiring again soon.

“GLAAD has never been in a better position,” Ellis says. “In other social movements, the cultural work falls off, and you look at the challenges we’re seeing today in Black Lives Matter and women’s issues. It’s important that you continue pushing and changing hearts and minds.”

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