Renna, the first national news director of GLAAD, visited with students virtually on March 31, discussing diversity in the media industry and having a voice in the workplace.
Cathy Renna spoke with Elon students on March 31 from the comfort of her own home — and theirs — during the Unity in Communications initiative’s first-ever virtual dinner meeting. The chat was originally scheduled on campus but was reorganized online following the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
A media relations and communications expert, Renna spoke to students via WebEx about her career path in the communications industry, and her start in LGBTQ media and activism.
After graduating from Adelphi University, Renna said she wanted to get involved with the LGBTQ community. She attended an event about lesbian invisibility in the media, where she made a connection with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, now known more widely as GLAAD. For more than 30 years, GLAAD has worked through entertainment, news and digital media to share stories from the LGBTQ community that promote acceptance.
Renna became involved with GLAAD first through volunteering and chairing a chapter in Washington, D.C., before becoming a media spokesperson and the organization’s first national news director in 1990.
“Through the 1990s, all those things that you saw in the media that were really high profile, whether it was Ellen coming out or the murder of Matthew Shepard, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ marriage equality, all those things I was kind of at the epicenter,” Renna said.
Renna served as news director for 14 years before transitioning to a PR firm, becoming a mother and, eventually, starting her own company. Today Renna owns Target Cue, an LGBTQ-focused, full-service communications and public relations firm.
“My partner likes to joke that you can take the girl out of GLAAD, but you can’t take the GLAAD out of the girl,” Renna said.
Throughout the online conversation, Renna offered insight into how LGBTQ media has changed and what needs to evolve moving forward. Shows and reboots like “Roseanne” and “Will and Grace,” were significant when they came out, Renna explained, and they allowed for more complex characters and diversity within shows.
“If you look at the representations of our community, you see so much more diversity, you see so much more nuance, much more multi-dimensional characters,” Renna said. “You’re seeing LGBTQ people who are part of the story and the fact that they’re LGBTQ is not a main reason they’re there.”
In addition to diversification on the screen, Renna also addressed the changes that need to take place behind the screen.
“We need more queer people in the room to be making these programming decisions,” Renna said.
Renna was involved with NYC Pride for Stonewall 50/WorldPride, the most covered Pride month in history, and the largest as well with a record five million people attending the final weekend events in June 2019. During the conversation, Renna and students spoke about the impact COVID-19 will have on Pride.
“We’re now struggling with what we are going to do this June. A lot of Prides have canceled, several hundred,” Renna said. “It’s the struggle, in this new world, where I should be sitting, having dinner with you and, instead, we’re here on WebEx.”
Renna is also involved with InterPride, an organization that produces Pride events around the world. In response to coronavirus cancellations, InterPride will be hosting a virtual “Global Pride” event in late June.
“We’re living in a time right now where a lot of people could learn from the LGBTQ community,” Renna said. “Because we’ve used technology and we’ve used the internet to connect and create community in ways that I think could really help other folks learn how to navigate the world and what it is today.”
Communications Dean Rochelle Ford joined students during the virtual dinner and said she enjoys asking speakers how they navigate their work environments, especially where they may be the only person who looks like them.
“One of the reasons why we started this unity group is because we have students who are here who represent a whole host of groups that don’t have large populations on our campus, and we wanted a place where we could support each other and we could help identify mentors,” Ford said.
Renna said her advice is to create that community for yourself, inside or outside of that room.
“I think finding allies and finding support for yourself … is important,” Renna said. “Even if you cannot find someone else who’s part of the LGBTQ community, finding allies is super important.”