18 January 2007


KNIGHT SPEAKS OUT AGAINST GAY SLUR For those who have followed the Grey's Anatomy “faggot” controversy since it began last October, one of the recurring questions has been: Just what would it take to get the mainstream media to cover the use of an anti-gay slur? After all, had T.R. Knight called Isaiah Washington the N-word, there is little doubt about the coverage it would have drawn or the consequences Knight would have rightly faced.
Some media outlets have avoided reporting on the story because the alleged incident took place on the Grey's Anatomy set and not in public, a point of view encouraged by the show's producers. But that hasn't previously kept reporters from digging deeper to get a story, and for stories of considerably less importance — a feud between actresses on Desperate Housewives, for example — than the denigration of an actor who happened to be gay.
Now it we seems we have an answer to how to get the mainstream media to pay attention to the issue. It takes a pretty, straight woman — in this case Grey's star Katherine Heigl — speaking out about it. AfterElton.com and other gay media outlets covered the story extensively last October, including our feature, “The F-Word and the Media's Double-Standard for Gay Slurs.” But few mainstream outlets had much to say on the topic until this week, which culminated in Knight's appearance on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show to discuss what happened.
The issue initially resurfaced after Monday night's Golden Globe Awards when Washington bizarrely decided to address a reporter's question to Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes about friction on the set. After grabbing the microphone, Washington said, “No, I did not call T.R. [Knight] a faggot. It did not happen.” The audio of the reporter's question is nearly unintelligible, and it's impossible to tell whether the question actually referred to Washington's use of the F-word.
What has gone unreported thus far is that Rhimes then said, “I think the best statement is just that things were created in a very odd way by the press that were not necessarily completely reported as true.”
Thus passed an opportunity for Rhimes to actually set the record straight and let America know she doesn't condone the use of sexual-orientation slurs by the people she employs. Instead, she spun the issue as somehow being the fault of an overly imaginative press. Not exactly a Harry “The buck stops here” Truman moment for Rhimes.
After Washington and Rhimes' denial, Heigl then felt compelled to speak up, telling Access Hollywood, “I'm going to be really honest right now, he [Washington] needs to not speak in public. Period. I'm sorry, that did not need to be said. I'm not OK with it.” Heigl continued on, backing up T.R. Knight and musing whether her comments would land her in trouble.
Given that no one else from ABC or Grey's Anatomy ever spoke up except to try to spin the incident as some sort of a “family affair,” it seems reasonable for Heigl to worry. After all, we're talking about one of television's most successful programs. Upsetting the apple cart over the use of an anti-gay slur just isn't done. At least, that is the message ABC and Rhimes has sent thus far.
So what should ABC and Rhimes do? AfterElton asked Paris Barclay, the widely respected director, producer, and a Director's Guild of America Vice President currently working on FX's Dirt and CBS's CSI, what action should be taken against Washington. “Here's what needs to happen: ABC, from Steve McPherson [ABC President] on down, need to condemn this kind of hate-speak, and Isaiah needs to be fired. It's just that simple. He needs to go. He's a homophobe and a liar, and no matter how important he may appear to be, there has to be a line on what behavior is acceptable both on the set and when representing the show to the press.”
When asked how he would've handled the situation, Barclay said, “We'd figure out a way to work out the contract issues, and write the actor out as quickly as possible. Actors with addiction problems have been let go unceremoniously -- this to me is much worse.”
Heigl's words have launched, if not quite a thousand articles, at least a couple of hundred, as news outlets ranging from MSNBC, FOX News and even ABC News finally picked up the story Tuesday. (This despite the fact there was no one nicknamed McDreamy or McSteamy directly involved.)

Washington's Golden Globes statement also compelled Knight to speak publicly about the incident. Interestingly enough, Knight chose to go on DeGeneres' daytime talk show to address the issue. Given the rest of the mainstream media's indifference to the story prior to Heigl's interview, it's not surprising that Knight chose to speak with arguably the most famous gay person in America. It was one place he could feel certain of getting a fair hearing.
During the interview, Knight made it absolutely clear that the incident did take place, something supported by Heigl and even by Washington's earlier apology for having said hurtful things. (By press time no one representing ABC, Grey's Anatomy, or Isaiah Washington had responded to our requests for comment. Through a spokesperson Knight declined to comment, choosing to let his appearance on Ellen speak for him.) Knight also spoke movingly to DeGeneres about what a shock it was to hear a co-worker use the F-word in relation to him, at one point saying sarcastically, “It's an awesome word, isn't it?”
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has weighed in on the matter, with GLAAD president Neil Giuliano saying yesterday in a press release, “When Isaiah Washington uses this kind of anti-gay slur — whether on-set or in front of the press — it does more than create a hostile environment for his cast mates and the crew of Grey's Anatomy. It also feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm's way.”
TVGuide.com's Michael Ausiello added, “His [Washington's] continued employment on a show that wears its diversity as a badge of honor is the height of hypocrisy. If ABC wants to be remotely true to the principles Shonda Rhimes so eloquently espouses through the show, it has to do the right thing and fire Washington. Anything else at this point is simply unacceptable.”

By speaking up, Knight has put a very human face on what for many had just been an abstract notion of intolerance — until yesterday. Hopefully his actions will help Americans come to see that the F-word is as unacceptable in it's own way as the N-word. Yes, gay people are known to use the word amongst themselves, just as African-Americans use the N-word, but that does not excuse anyone using it in a demeaning and derogatory manner.
Now that DeGeneres has put the issue front and center with her high-profile talk show, it will be interesting to see what the mainstream media does next. Will Washington be engulfed in a frenzy similar to the one that swamped Michael Richards? Will reporters demand he apologize for his use of the F-word? Will FOX News report on Washington 's apparent homophobia? Or will they instead pontificate about the liberal press which, ironically, ignored the story for so long? And will pressure be brought on ABC and Rhimes to explain exactly what did happen on the Grey's Anatomy set and justify their inaction since then?
Early signs of how well the mainstream press now grasps the issue are mixed. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered the story in their “Living” section with an article titled “Some advice to feuding celebs: Just let it go”. That's what they think T.R. Knight should do after being called the F-word? Let it go? The article then helpfully suggests that the celebrities “take a time out” as if T.R. is somehow being childish in insisting he be treated with respect. The Charlotte Observer did better, but even they referred to the incident as merely a “fray”. At least the Los Angeles Times quoted from GLAAD's statement on the issue and described the “growing furor” around the topic. So far, however, no one outside the gay media has had much to say about the inappropriateness of the word's use, instead simply focusing on the celebrity controversy.
Will this sad affair mark a turning point in how public bigotry toward gay people is handled by society and the mainstream media? Only time will tell.

Knight playing Mozart in AMADEUS

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