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Hallmark Channel pulls, then reinstates ads featuring kiss between lesbian brides

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Image courtesy of Zola

At the end of a tumultuous week for The Hallmark Channel, the pay television network has announced it would reverse its decision to pull several ads featuring a same-sex kiss.

The controversial commercials were among a series of six ads for Zola, a wedding planning website, which had been airing on the Hallmark Channel since Dec. 2. In all of the ads, couples standing at the altar for their wedding wonder if guests might have arrived on time and bought them better gifts if they had used Zola to create a custom wedding website. Most of the ads include a same-sex couple; while only one focused specifically on the lesbian brides, the two women were shown kissing in several of them.

According to the New York Times, the ads which featured same-sex kissing were pulled after the channel deemed their content “controversial.” The decision was made by executives at the network after the anti-LGBTQ hate group, “One Million Moms,” published a petition urging Hallmark to “please reconsider airing commercials with same-sex couples.”

One Million Moms is a division of the conservative American Family Association, an organization that defines its mission as the “fight against indecency,” and which has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group for the “propagation of known falsehoods” and the use of “demonizing propaganda” against LGBTQ people.

Following the posting of the petition, anti-LGBTQ comments began to flood Hallmark’s online message board, such as one from an unnamed user who said, “Why would you show a lesbian wedding commercial on the Hallmark Channel? Hallmark movies are family friendly, and you ruined it with the commercial.”

On Thursday, Hallmark notified Zola via email that it was pulling four of the ads – the ones featuring a kiss between the two women – because the channel is “not allowed to accept creatives that are deemed controversial,” according to an account representative from the television network.

On Friday, a Hallmark Channel spokesman implied in a statement that “overt public displays of affection… regardless of the participants,” was against the network’s current policy. However, later that evening, Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media Family Networks, issued a statement saying, “The debate surrounding these commercials on all sides was distracting from the purpose of our network, which is to provide entertainment value.”

The response from Zola was one of both surprise and skepticism. The company’s chief marketing officer, Mike Chi, commented that Zola had previously run ads featuring same-sex couples on the channel without incident. He also observed that the ads including kisses between same-sex couples were allowed to remain on the air.

Chi pointed out, “The only difference between the commercials that were flagged and the ones that were approved was that the commercials that did not meet Hallmark’s standards included a lesbian couple kissing. Hallmark approved a commercial where a heterosexual couple kissed. All kisses, couples and marriages are equal celebrations of love and we will no longer be advertising on Hallmark.”

Outcry was swift from the LGBTQ community and its advocates.

In a statement from GLAAD, president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said “The Hallmark Channel’s decision to remove LGBTQ families in such a blatant way is discriminatory and especially hypocritical coming from a network that claims to present family programming and also recently stated they are ‘open’ to LGBTQ holiday movies. As so many other TV and cable networks showcase, LGBTQ families are part of family programming. Advertisers on The Hallmark Channel should see this news and question whether they want to be associated with a network that chooses to bow to fringe anti-LGBTQ activist groups, which solely exist to harm LGBTQ families.”

In addition, GLAAD created a petition calling on the network to reinstate the ads.

Pro-LGBTQ voices also took to social media. The hashtags #boycotthallmark and #BoycottHallmarkChannel trended on Twitter over the weekend, with one commenter including a graphic featuring the word “Homophobic” using the same font and crown design used by Hallmark in its own branding.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, Hallmark president and CEO Mike Perry issued a new statement, saying, “The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused. Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision,”

The statement goes on to stress Hallmark’s commitment to “diversity and inclusion,” saying it has “the track record to prove it” and citing its publication of LGBTQ greeting cards, previous commercials featuring same-sex couples, and recognition it has received from HRC and Forbes for its inclusive business practices. It also announces the company’s plan to work with GLAAD on how “to better represent the LGBTQ community,” as well as its intention to reinstate the commercials from Zola.

Shortly afterward, GLAAD issued a statement, with Ellis saying, “The Hallmark Channel’s decision to correct its mistake sends an important message to LGBTQ people and represents a major loss for fringe organizations, like One Million Moms, whose sole purpose is to hurt families like mine. LGBTQ people are, and will continue to be a part of advertisements and family programming and that will never change. GLAAD exists to hold brands like The Hallmark Channel accountable when they make discriminatory decisions and to proactively ensure families of all kinds are represented in fair and accurate ways.”

Speaking on CNN immediately after Hallmark’s announcement was released, Ellis confirmed Perry’s statement that Hallmark and GLAAD would be working together, saying, “We’re talking with them, we’ve been talking with them all weekend, because they want to do the right thing, and I think that the quick decision was the right thing. And now we have to watch and see what they do in the future.”

 

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Movies

‘Pray Away’ exposes horrors of ‘conversion therapy’

The fraud is still out there, actively claiming victims

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A scene from ‘Pray Away.’ (Image courtesy Netflix)

LOS ANGELES – It’s fitting that Blumhouse Productions should be among the array of associated companies behind the new documentary “Pray Away,” which debuted on Netflix Aug. 3.

Now a major Hollywood player, Blumhouse Productions spent a decade building its success on creepy horror movies like “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “The Purge.” The horrors revealed in “Pray Away” are every bit as disturbing as anything in those movies; the difference is that these are horrors that take place in real life, and that makes them even more chilling.

As its title suggests, the Kristine Stolakis-directed documentary dives into the world of “conversion therapy,” specifically in the form of the Christian “Ex-Gay” movement, and unspools its history from its beginnings in the 1970s. That was when five men, struggling with being gay in their Evangelical church, started a Bible study to help each other leave the “homosexual lifestyle.” They quickly received more than 25,000 letters from people asking for help and formalized as Exodus International, the largest and most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world.

After decades of spreading anti-LGBTQ propaganda and touting methods based on discredited and pseudoscientific practices, the company was rocked when a multitude of former “success stories” began to come forward and renounce their claims of having become heterosexual. Faced with public outcry and an inescapable recognition of the untold harm they had perpetrated, Exodus officially ended its operations in 2013.

“Pray Away” is not really about Exodus, though, nor is it about scandal – at least not the salacious kind. It’s about the real human pain underneath all of that, and it follows the stories of several men and women who were once connected with Exodus. Once among the leaders and high-profile representatives of the organization, these are individuals who spent years as “Christian superstars” in the religious right before coming out as LGBTQ and disavowing the very movement they helped to start. Through the stories they tell of their personal journeys, and the resolve with which they dedicate themselves to debunking the notion that being queer is something that should or even can be “cured,” they underscore the depth of the influence that conversion therapy – and its proponents – exerts not just on its participants but on LGBTQ society as a whole.

There’s Mike Bussee, one of the co-founders of Exodus, who ultimately became one of the first high-profile members to denounce the group and come out as gay; John Paulk, another former Exodus leader, who along with his “ex-lesbian” wife was the face of the movement through appearances on television and magazine covers until being caught in a gay bar and exposed in the press; and Yvette Cantu, who became a highly visible spokesperson for conversion therapy and even served as a “policy analyst” for the Family Research Council – a virulently anti-LGBTQ organization that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – before crippling anxiety forced her to confront her feelings of guilt over the harm she was helping to inflict.

These narratives, interwoven throughout to form a bigger picture, bear witness to the personal damage caused by conversion therapy, but many of them also cast light on the even more ominous nature of the movement’s machinations behind the scenes, as it aligns itself with politicians to gain the power necessary for turning its anti-LGBTQ stance into legislative and judicial policy.

Randy Thomas, the former Exodus vice president who disassociated from the group shortly before it disbanded, relates how the movement allied itself with conservative politicians eager to stir up their constituents with a “moral” issue and facilitated the passing of Proposition 8, the California referendum that effectively banned same-sex marriage before being struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015. The implication – that a well-organized minority can gain enough political traction to impose its extreme views on a whole society – is something of which most viewers will already be keenly aware, given the shape of the last few years, but it serves as an chilling reminder of the very real and widespread harm that has been perpetrated by fundamentalist bigots acting in the name of religion.

Of course, “Pray Away” is also a story of triumph; the subjects who share their stories are shown clearly to have moved beyond the lies of conversion therapy to live much happier, fulfilled lives; one, Julie Rodgers, who was once groomed as the poster child for an Exodus-affiliated “ex-gay” ministry, is even in the process of planning a wedding with her girlfriend – perhaps the most appropriate “happy ending” of all, considering the circumstances.

Still, though, the disquieting realities exposed by Stolakis’ documentary are never quite erased by these positive outcomes. Outdated notions that are perennially used to sex-shame queer people and frame their identity as a dysfunction – the parents are to blame, masturbation is bad, gay people are child molesters, girls become lesbians through fear of men, and other such infuriating tropes – keep turning up in the discourse throughout; a procession of pious, white male faces (some belonging to disgraced former “moral leaders” like Jerry Falwell) decry homosexuality as sinful in archival media clips; and in perhaps the most unsettling sequence, we see footage of a notorious “reparative therapy” psychologist – the late Joseph Nicolosi – manipulating a patient (or rather, a victim) through psychological torture.

Most horrifying of all, perhaps, is another narrative that is woven among the others. The film begins with Jeffrey McCall, a Christian activist who was once a transgender woman but claims to have renounced his trans identity for Jesus. We watch as he works to organize a misleadingly named “Freedom March” for “ex-trans” awareness, guides a mother over the phone toward rejecting her child’s trans identity, and participates in a ritualistic “warrior” chant with a group of other former trans people – all without a trace of joy in his face, his voice, or his manner.

It’s that last sequence in which “Pray Away” becomes most reminiscent of one of Blumhouse’s horror films; in the feverish, histrionic abandonment to which they give themselves in their chant, these struggling people evoke the unnatural fervor of a possessed congregation at a cult. Watching the spectacle, it’s easy to see them as deluded and dehumanized. Even so, one can’t help but sense that the tears in their eyes are real; they draw our compassion, and they remind us that the fraud of conversion therapy is still out there, actively claiming victims.

The evil of Exodus may have been vanquished in “Pray Away,” but like any good horror film, it makes sure we know there’s still plenty of room for a sequel.

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Books

Leontyne Price book will inspire you to embrace opera

A dazzling hybrid of memoir, prose, quotations, and poetry

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‘The Monster I am Today’
By Kevin Simmonds
c.2021, TriQuarterly Books
$20/160 pages

Years ago, my boss, who had the flu, insisted that I use her ticket to hear Pavarotti give a recital at Lincoln Center. I knew nothing about opera, but was thrilled by this opportunity. After the performance, I ended up in a receiving line to meet the famous tenor. When I shook his hand, he put me at ease about my ignorance of opera. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “I listen to Waylon Jennings.”

I tell you this not to name drop, but because “The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse” by San Francisco-based writer, poet, and musician Kevin Simmonds makes me want to do nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe opera.

Between the pandemic and other problems of life, it’s easy to become desensitized to poetry, other people’s pain – even beauty.

As you read “The Monster I am Today,” Simmonds, who grew up Black and gay in New Orleans, will awaken your deadened senses.

Through a dazzling hybrid of memoir, prose, quotations, song lyrics and poetry, Simmonds brings Price, the first African-American to achieve international acclaim in the opera world, to life.

Price, 94, was born in Laurel, Miss. In 1955, Price was the first Black singer to appear in an opera on TV when she sang the title role in “Tosca.”

She performed in major opera houses from the Metropolitan Opera to the San Francisco Opera to La Scala. Price has received many honors. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Yet, though she’s so renowned, even some of her most ardent fans might not know much about her life.

Price, Simmonds says, didn’t believe in talking about herself too personally or complaining about her struggles publicly.

“Have I talked too much,” Price says, “You know, talking a lot isn’t good for a singer.”

It’s ironic that Simmonds puts this quote from Price right after one of several (fictitious) FBI files of her in the book.

As Simmonds notes in the endnotes, the FBI files in the volume aren’t official FBI files, but the content in them is factual.

The faux FBI file notes that Price attended a production of “The Dutchman” by “Negro agitator Leroi Jones, who is married to agitator Hettie Jones, a Jew.”

“The play is insolent filth and undisciplined rage toward the white race,” the file added, “Price endorsed the performance from her seat in the audience by shouting, ‘Right on!’”

You can’t help but wonder: Does Price mean that talking too much would hurt her singing voice? Or is she also thinking: talking too much wouldn’t be good given white society’s racial prejudice?

“The Monster I am Today” isn’t a bio of Price. Yet, through taut, incisive poems and prose fragments, Simmonds makes her up close and personal.

“Dear, this wasn’t no Chitlin’ Circuit/not Ella’s or Lena’s crowd,” Simmonds writes in a poem in Price’s voice, “This was box seats passed/from one generation/of Vanderbilts Carnegies Astors and Guggenheims to the next.”

Price is the life in the title of the book. But you soon realize that Simmonds is remembering — riffing — on his life.  Price is the monster (in the sense of marvel) etched in Simmonds’ DNA.

Opera, music, and high school chorus saved his life when Simmonds was a young queer kid.

“Opera: Italian for ‘a work, a labor’:the feminine Latin root op: ‘to work, produce in abundance,” writes Simmonds of his young self, “Feminine work of abundance – that’s what I sought to behold and become.”

Simmonds studied music at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Carolina.  He is the author of two poetry collections, “Mad for Meat” and “Bend to It.”

Because “Monster” is structured as overture, performance, and postlude, reading it is like being at the opera.

Its beauty and heartbreak will tear your heart out.

“The steady, anesthetizing racism of the campus police, professors and classmates poisoned and debilitated me,” Simmonds writes of his time at Vanderbilt, “I thought I’d lost my voice.”

A standing ovation for “The Monster I am Today.”  It’s a monster of a book.

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a&e features

Everything you need to know about WorldPride 2021

Party in Scandinavia with the happiest people on Earth

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Confetti rained down in New York’s Times Square at Stonewall 50 WorldPride New York’s closing ceremony two years ago. (Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

By Mikey Rox| NEW YORK – It’s been two years since Stonewall 50 – WorldPride NYC 2019 became the largest international Pride celebration in history, but the “bye” year of 2020 wasn’t due to the pandemic. 

The global celebration has been held every odd-numbered year since 2017 given its massive logistical undertaking (with sporadic celebrations in 2006, 2012 and 2014 before then), and WorldPride Copenhagen – Malmö 2021 couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Hundreds of thousands of cooped-up queer revelers and allies will flock to the twin host cities in Denmark and Sweden, respectively, from Aug. 12-22, to party with the happiest people on the planet, a delightful distinction provided to the Scandinavian countries by the United Nations’ famous World Happiness Report. (The United States ranked No. 19 in the most recent report, FYI.) 

So what’s in store for this year’s all-out progressive-flag-flying festival? Read on for more.

Two LGBTQ anniversaries in Denmark

If you can believe it, it’s been 70 years since Danish doctors in 1951 performed the world’s first successful genital reconstruction surgery, a medical marvel that provided hope to transgender people the world over. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Gay Liberation Front’s Danish chapter, which has been instrumental in blazing trails toward equality for the country. Look how far it’s come.

Opening ceremonies kick off in Copenhagen

In conjunction with Copenhagen Pride, WorldPride will officially start late afternoon on Aug. 13, but in adherence with COVID-19 protocols the opening ceremony won’t be held in WorldPride Square (at least not as of press time; things could – and probably will – change). That potential snafu notwithstanding, Denmark welcomes vaccinated U.S. travelers, and if any testing is needed, both PCR and antigen tests will be available free to everyone, including tourists, 24/7. Copenhagen is OPENhagen again.

WorldPride Square will be open for the rest of the fest

WorldPride Square, a makeshift village of sorts (similar to the Olympics) located within Copenhagen’s main square, will provide a gathering place for all attendees that have traveled far and wide. LGBTQ+ and non-governmental organizations spanning the globe will set up shop in the square to greet pedestrians, provide information, and invite folks to get involved. Art exhibits also will be a centerpiece of the village, alongside a street-food market and bars with plenty of space to relax. 

EuroGames will be held simultaneously

If you enjoy watching athletes compete in variety of sports that range from boxing and badminton to dancing and dodgeball, add the spectator-friendly EuroGames to your list of to-dos while you’re in Copenhagen. If you want to get hands-on, consider signing up to become a volunteer at the games, to be held Aug. 18-20; EuroGames’ website is currently accepting those applications. 

Spread out and explore other WorldPride villages

While WorldPride Square will serve as the jump-off for the 10 days of festivities, other available villages will allow crowds to spread out and explore their individual interests. In addition to Sports Village for EuroGames athletes and fans, other villages will focus on kids and families, youth, women, and the queer community, among others. Programs and content of these villages will be target-audience specific but open to everyone.

You might have a brush with royalty

Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, Countess of Monpezat, is patron of Copenhagen 2021, making her the first-ever royal to serve in the role for a major LGBTQ+ event. Say hi if you spot her; she knows a queen when she sees one.

Despite pandemic protocol, the show will go on

Organizers have said in an official statement that despite some COVID-19 restrictions, they’re “continuing to plan for full delivery of all Copenhagen 2021 events taking into account the guidance and recommendations” of government agencies. Doubling down, organizers have promised they will not cancel or postpone events. 

Now there’s only one thing left to do: Let’s go!

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBT lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels)

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