East’s GSA gets an encouraging visit from “Ugly Betty” casting director

Andrew Huff ('10)/ Eastside Humor Editor, Andrew Huff ('10)/ Eastside Humor Editor, Andrew Huff ('10)/ Eastside Humor Editor, and Andrew Huff ('10)/ Eastside Humor Editor

Geoffrey Soffer (’95), the casting director of ABC’s Emmy-winning “Ugly Betty,” spoke yesterday with East’s Gay-Straight Alliance about his life after high school.

Soffer joined ABC Television Network/Touchstone Television in New York in 2003, where he is now Manager of Casting. Despite his prominence in the television industry, the conversation quickly turned matters concerning the gay and lesbian community, both at East and beyond.

Soffer called the people gathered in C115, gay and straight alike, “pioneers.”

He noted the courage it takes to advocate for a minority group, and lamented the fear some individuals have about joining GSA.

“They think about it, they talk about,” he said, but they lack the confidence to walk through the door.

In a conversational style, Soffer sat on the front desk taking questions from recent East graduates, current students and two faculty members, including the gay-straight alliance advisor and retired East teacher, Mrs. Ida Varon

Referencing his current stomping grounds, the entertainment industry, Soffer, who is gay and recently married his partner of six years, said, “with guys it’s usually 50-50,” in terms of being gay.

On the topic of gay rights, and the slow progression to equality for members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, he said, “We see the Ellen DeGeneres’ and the Barney Franks. We see gay leaders, we have them, but we don’t see everyday [gay and lesbian] citizens functioning in society.”

“We see the rich poster children,” he continued. “[But], we need people like you and me who are not famous.”

Soffer used an analogy to explain the importance of coming out – which he stressed as a defining, liberating moment which allows LGBT people to “wake up with a sense of purpose.”

If “Mary in accounting,” he said, comes out, then her co-workers will know someone who is gay, and will not be disconnected from the gay community. They like Mary, so they realize that they can like lesbian people, too, and that they aren’t all stereotypically masculine, he said.

Unfortunately, though, discrimination is rampant, and has manifested in seemingly innocuous language, such as the phrase “That’s so gay,” he said.

Sometimes, Soffer said, “people don’t even know that they discriminate [by saying] ‘That’s so gay.’ [But], it’s a negative. It’s the negative word they chose.”

To convey the insulting nature of the phrase, he compared it to someone saying, “That’s so Jewish,” or “That’s so black.”

However, Soffer says that his sister-in-law, whom he called an incredibly accepting person, sometimes uses the phrase, and that “in those situations I try to diffuse it with a joke.”

All kidding aside, Soffer acknowledged the fact that many cross-cultural people still regard homosexuality as an illness.

One straight GSA member recounted how a friend’s mother believed her to be a lesbian and refused to allow her daughter to go to her house.

Soffer said that even if homosexuality were an illness, “since when are we a country that discriminates against sick people?”

A lesbian member of the GSA told of how she overheard a woman say “that’s gross” when a speaker revealed he had AIDS.

She added, “What if we ran away from people with arthritis?”

As pictures from the recent protest outside of East traversed throughout the rows of listeners, Soffer reinforced the implementation of sensitivity training for East teachers. As one attending faculty member noted, oftentimes teachers will be at the computer and will overhear slurs, but will disregard them completely.

At 4:05 p.m., Soffer concluded the discussion with sound advice for the GSA: “make noise.”