Welcome To The Gay 90s
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
H. Glenn Rosenkrantz covers business for the San Ramon Valley Times in California.
Closet doors are swinging open in newsrooms everywhere. Gay and lesbian journalists say they've kept quiet long enough.s
To reporter Lily Eng, being Asian American and a woman were obstacles enough in the white, male-dominated world of journalism.
Being a lesbian was an even bigger hurdle. But it was one she could avoid. To colleagues at the San Francisco Examiner, she appeared to be just another young, single--and straight--rising star.
"In essence, my lover had a sex change," she says. "When I told people what I did over the weekend, I changed names and pronouns. I became quite good at it."
It was not without irony, then, that Eng found herself on an Examiner reporting team that produced the acclaimed 1989 series, "Gay in America."
"I was writing all of these stories about people coming out, but I still couldn't do it myself," she recalls. "If I came out, I would be known not only as a lesbian, but as a liar."
Eng came out of the closet after joining the Los Angeles Times in 1989, but it wasn't until she became an education reporter at the Seattle Times earlier this year that she was more open about her sexuality.
"I'm not the kind of person who will wear a big L on my T-shirt," she says, but she did place a framed photo of her partner on her desk, and a bumper sticker urging other gay reporters to "Come out, come out, wherever you are" is displayed nearby.
Many journalists are following this advice. Since the late-1980s, an unprecedented number of gay reporters and managers have come out of the closet and by their very numbers begun to challenge the newsroom's traditional "heterocentrist" culture. In the process, they have fought for more and better coverage of the gay community, organized diversity workshops to promote tolerance and lobbied for workplace rights such as insurance benefits for partners.
A sign of the movement's momentum came last summer when 300 journalists gathered in San Francisco for the first convention of the two-year-old National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). It now has 12 chapters and 600 members.
In many ways, gay journalists are following colleagues of Asian, African and Hispanic descent who have launched national organizations with similar goals. But it hasn't been as easy to attract members. Some gay journalists, including several interviewed for this article, remain uncomfortable with the idea of going public, fearing they would jeopardize their jobs or careers. (Registrants at the NLGJA convention were warned that CNN and print reporters would be covering the event.) Further, many newsroom employment policies don't forbid discrimination against gays.
Even so, newsrooms are changing. Gay activists have forced the public and the press to take notice of a wide variety of issues, ranging from AIDS prevention to discrimination in the armed services. These activists have also emboldened gay journalists to be more assertive in the newsroom. And finally, some publishers and editors are becoming more open to the needs of their gay employees as well as the need to cover gay issues.
Closet Doors Open
Before the 1980s, gays were virtually invisible in American newsrooms. They either hid their sexuality or pretended to be straight in order to get along with their colleagues. In a groundbreaking New York Times Magazine article in 1971, presidential biographer and former newspaper editor Merle Miller wrote about his experiences as a closeted gay man.
"I became city editor of the Daily Iowan [while attending the University of Iowa shortly before World War II]," he wrote, "and modeled myself after a character out of 'The Front Page,' wearing a hat indoors and out, talking out of the corner of my mouth, never without a cigarette, being folksy with the local cops, whom I detested, one and all. I chased girls, never with much enthusiasm I'm afraid, and denounced queers with some regularity in the column I wrote for the Iowan. What a fink I was – anything to avoid being called a sissy again."
A public declaration like Miller's was a rare event 20 years ago, and it still would have been had it happened in recent years. As Randy Shilts pointed out in his 1987 bestseller, "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic": "Homosexual reporters [in the 1980s].. tended to know their place and keep their mouths shut... Gays were tolerated as drama critics and food reviewers, but the hard news sections of the paper had a difficult time acclimating to women as reporters, much less inverts."
Being openly gay can present challenges in the field as well. Some gay reporters declined to speak for publication--even anonymously--because they feared jeopardizing relationships with important sources. And during the Republican National Convention last August, four reporters from the New York-based Gay Cable Network were twice detained by Houston police officers and accused of using stolen press credentials to gain access to the convention floor. The action prompted a loud protest from the the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which a few weeks later encouraged NLGJA members to attend its national convention.
Shilts was openly gay when he was hired as a reporter by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981, but he was an exception. Most gay journalists have long felt they had to keep their identities hidden and lie to colleagues, readers and sources about their romantic relationships.
A small number of journalists, such as Miller in the early 1970s and Joe Nicholson of the New York Post in the late 1970s, have revealed to readers that they are gay, but it hasn't gotten much easier to do. Take the recent case of Houston Post columnist Juan Palomo.
Palomo wrote a column last year condemning a homophobically motivated murder. In the last graph, he disclosed that he is gay.
"The only way I could write it was to come out in the column to show people that we are their brothers and their neighbors," Palomo says.
Under orders from his editors, however, Palomo deleted the reference. A few weeks later, the incident was reported by an alternative newspaper and Palomo was fired. After another week, Post management reconsidered its decision, rehired Palomo and appointed him to its editorial board. His column has been moved from the metro section to the op-ed page, although it appears less frequently.
"My advice for other reporters is to come out only if you are ready to lose everything," says Palomo. "In the end it all worked out fine for me, but the fact remains that I was fired."
The NLGJA encourages gay reporters to be open. T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "We're Here, We're Queer, We're On Deadline," sold out twice at the group's June convention. "It's a lot easier to go out there and take a position when you realize you are part of some national movement," says Leroy Aarons, the former Oakland Tribune executive editor who founded the NLGJA.
Not every gay journalist meets resistance when he or she decides to come out, as Joe Yonan can attest. The 27-year-old editor of the weekly Monadnock Ledger in rural Peterborough, New Hampshire, revealed his homosexuality in an article about the NLGJA convention that appeared in the trade journal Editor & Publisher. Asked by a reporter if his name could be used, Yonan replied, "Sure, go ahead... I've been struggling with how to come out to my staff."
Four months later, Yonan says much of his staff still doesn't know--or doesn't care--that he's gay. "Nobody here reads E&P except me and the publisher," he says, and she was "great, wonderful about it." He didn't have any grand plan to come out when the reporter approached him, he says. "It was just that as a journalist, I know how much nicer it is when people let you use their names."
Victor Zonana wasted no time letting his colleagues know that he was gay when he joined the Los Angeles Times in 1985 from the Wall Street Journal. Two days after being hired, he recalls, a colleague gave him a tour. "He described the features section by saying, 'This is the View section, or as most people call it, Fags and Hags'... I gathered all the courage I could muster and said, 'Well, I guess I ought to ask for a transfer.' "
Gordon Smith, assistant to the editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island, came out in June 1991, a few days after the newspaper chose not to cover a gay pride parade, even after it had passed in front of the daily's offices.
"Newspapers should represent society," says Smith. "If we ignore a part of society, we are shirking our responsibility."
Not only have most gay journalists been forced to hide a fundamental part of themselves from their colleagues, they have likewise been forced to ignore compelling stories taking place in the gay community.
Even today, says Assistant National Editor Jeffrey Schmalz of the New York Times, many stories about gays do not get assigned at newspapers "unless a gay reporter says that there's a story there." Schmalz cites his own pre-election New York Times Magazine cover piece about the power of the gay voting bloc. "Not one straight reporter came up with that idea," he says.
Some say the relative silence of gay journalists until the last few years also muffled coverage of one of the decade's major stories: AIDS.
"The lack of [openly] gay reporters..had a disastrous effect on the AIDS crisis," Shilts says. "Straight reporters with their Olympian objectivity ignored the story because of their prejudice against homosexuals."
"AIDS was a low profile story with all kinds of insinuations about it being a gay disease or an exotic thing that straight people didn't have to worry about," agrees Roger Simpson, a University of Washington journalism professor who is writing a book about media coverage of gays.
By the late 1980s, the devastation of AIDS had drawn many gay journalists out. Rallying around the slogan "Silence=Death," which had been popularized by the radical AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), many believed speaking out might force policymakers, the public and their own publications to strengthen efforts to fight the disease.
"AIDS had an impact on every gay and lesbian person in this country," says Aarons. "Many gay journalists watched their dearest friends going through horrible paroxysms of decline and death and they sat there and said, 'How can I continue to hide behind my anonymity under the guise of objectivity?' "
The L.A. Times' Zonana decided he couldn't. A business reporter based at the paper's New York bureau, he organized an NLGJA chapter there last year and from 1988 to 1991 was the paper's first reporter to cover the battle against AIDS as a beat.
..And Other Issues
AIDS isn't the only issue that has received increased media attention partly because gay journalists have become more outspoken. According to the Advocate, a national newsmagazine devoted to gay issues, the number of articles about the community appearing in major newspapers has been increasing. The New York Times had 65 percent more stories in 1991 than the previous year, while the Los Angeles Times showed a 40 percent increase. Coverage in both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune jumped about 10 points.
Smaller papers also have been affected. Since Gordon Smith came out, for example, the Providence Journal-Bulletin has published more than 10 page one stories on gays or gay issues, including one about gay state residents and a profile of the 39-year-old lesbian daughter of Sen. Claiborne Pell. Smith says there also have been at least three stories in business, 20 in religion, 15 in features and three in sports about gays or gay issues, as well as his two columns about what it means to be homosexual. In August, the paper reported the local gay community's reaction to Patrick Buchanan's speech at the Republican National Convention in which he called for a "cultural war" on homosexuals.
"There was no badgering on my part for that story," Smith says. "The system just began to kick in."
And the system is "kicking in" across the country. "The mainstream media is on the verge of taking our movement for civil rights seriously," says Robert Bray of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, a civil rights group in Washington.
The Detroit News has gone so far as to appoint its Washington news editor as the nation's first openly gay columnist to write solely about gay issues for a mainstream paper. Deb Price's weekly column is wired to other Gannett-owned newspapers and marketed elsewhere by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. After reading her first columns, then-Chicago Tribune media writer James Warren wrote that Price had succeeded in deflating stereotypes of the gay community "as some isolated world filled with the radical, the angry, the AIDS-stricken and child molesters."
But the move by journalists to embrace their homosexuality and pitch stories and columns about their community to their editors is only one reason for the increased coverage. Clearly there have been more newsworthy stories to pursue as gays have become more vocal.
The practice of "outing" public figures who are secretly gay, for example, caused consternation for many publications, including WJR. The outspokenness of gays in the armed forces put the military's discriminatory policies on the front page and injected them into the 1992 presidential campaign. The Bush campaign's emphasis on "family values" mobilized gays and lesbians--and reporters who smelled a compelling story. And the appearance of HIV-infected people at the Republican and Democratic conventions generated a torrent of articles about their struggles and the candidates' policies for battling the disease.
Besides reporting more stories about AIDS and the gay community, gay reporters and editors have begun to express their concerns about the accuracy of reporting on gay issues.
At the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California, three gay editors voiced their objections to a banner headline that would have quoted Magic Johnson vowing, "I'm gonna beat this thing," after the basketball star announced last year that he had tested positive for HIV.
"Our concern was that it would give people a false sense of hope," says Sports Editor Jim Buzinski. "There's no medical basis for it."
To Buzinski and others, such instances are justification enough for coming out. By policing publications or broadcasts, gay journalists say they can flag words, phrases or images that mislead or reinforce stereotypes.
Kathleen Buckley, the Oakland Tribune features editor, cites the example of what she calls the "AIDS celebrity death list," distributed by the Associated Press after Arthur Ashe announced earlier this year that he has HIV. The list primarily included people in the entertainment industry, describing many as "flamboyant," which Buckley says was a code word for homosexual.
"I don't think identifying people with AIDS is a bad thing, but the AP list was too narrowly defined," she says. "Most everyone on it was a member of the Hollywood cult. If it's going to be an accurate reflection of who people are who get AIDS, then it should include people from across the spectrum, people in sports, politics and the arts."
With their collective voices, gay journalists have put the issues that concern them on many more editorial calendars. But their efforts at some newspapers have been helped along by a new generation of publishers and editors who have more tolerant views of homosexuality.
This has been most obvious at the New York Times, where 40-year-old Arthur Sulzberger Jr. became publisher earlier this year. He has created a more comfortable atmosphere for minorities, including gays, throughout the company.
"I'm convinced that if newspapers are to survive they can no longer be exclusionary bastions of a single view of the world," Sulzberger told journalists at the NLGJA conference in a videotaped speech. "We can no longer offer our readers a predominately white, straight, male vision of events and say that we are doing our job.
"As a white, straight male, let me quickly add that I don't think that particular vision is any better or worse than a gay or lesbian vision, a black or Hispanic vision, or any other," he said. "But in a world that's as wonderfully diverse as ours it is simply not complete and therefore not sufficient."
In a move considered especially significant, Sulzberger announced during the speech that he supported insurance benefits for gay partners, a policy that few companies, including those in the news industry, have endorsed.
Other top Times officials have voiced their openness to gay journalists. Three months before Sulzberger's speech, in a meeting considered extraordinary by many gay journalists, Times Managing Editor Joseph Lelyveld appeared as a panelist at a NLGJA forum in New York to discuss coverage of gay issues.
Lelyveld told the 300-member audience that he considered his participation "an opportunity to show solidarity with my gay colleagues at the Times, but, more importantly, to deepen my own awareness of your concerns..and where you see us as going wrong or being neglectful in coverage."
In a telling sign, the Times last July began to include the names of gay partners as "survivors" in obituaries. "It may seem to some to be a small matter of usage, but it is felt strongly in the gay and lesbian community," says Times real estate reporter David Dunlap, who is gay.
During the last few years, according to Advocate reporter Michelangelo Signorile, coverage of the gay community in the Times has blossomed. The newspaper has run articles about gays living in the suburbs, the Jewish gay community, positive characterizations of gays on television, children growing up in gay households and spousal benefits offered to gay workers and their partners.
Ironically, some NLGJA members and other gay journalists criticized the Times for its coverage of the San Francisco conference. A June 29 article by reporter Jane Gross angered some because it did not quote any lesbians.
"As we push for greater acceptance, we have to make sure there is not a white male-based image of us," says Donna Minkowitz, who covers gay politics for the Village Voice. "People have an image of gays as only white and male and that's not true." Gross declined to respond to the criticism.
The atmosphere has also changed at the Washington Post since Ben Bradlee departed as executive editor last year, staffers there say. His successor, Leonard Downie Jr., is considered more open to covering gay issues.
"This used to be a very macho newsroom with a lot of macho spirit," says Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser, in an obvious reference to Bradlee. "It's not here anymore."
Adds Greg Brock, an assistant news editor who is gay: "Ben Bradlee was uncomfortable with gay stories at any level. You just didn't write them if you wanted to stay here." Bradlee declined to comment.
Covering a Beat You Live
Like their minority colleagues before them, gay journalists have taken some heat for challenging the profession's mantra of objectivity by taking an active role in the community they cover.
Among the NLGJA's staunchest critics is syndicated columnist Cal Thomas. In July, Thomas took gay journalists to task for what he says was nothing more than lobbying for support of a political agenda under the guise of pushing for balance.
"What should especially concern journalists and the public is the growing number of groups to which journalists belong, groups that have an agenda," Thomas wrote. "That agenda is often to advance specific policy issues and candidates who support them."
Aarons calls that argument "a smokescreen... In Cal Thomas' columns, usually any effort to legitimize or validate the gay experience is described as a politically motivated or special interest exercise." But he also acknowledges that balancing activism and objectivity can be tricky. "You have to maintain your obligation to your craft and at the same time your sense of obligation to yourself and to the gay community."
Few gay journalists believe that their objectivity has been compromised simply by opening the closet door. (The March NLGJA forum, entitled "Gay Journalists and Objectivity," was pointedly subtitled, "Can Heterosexuals Cover Straight Issues Fairly?") But if, as gay New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan says, "objectivity is a chimera, but not something that should be abandoned altogether," how do gay journalists avoid being activists? Or do they need to?
Panelists and audience members at the NLGJA forum focused much of their debate on that question. It came up first during Zonana's opening remarks, in which he asked why it has taken so long for gay journalists to organize.
"For one thing," he offered, "journalists are loathe to join anything. Some of us believe it's inappropriate to take a stand, any stand, and make no mistake, coming out is taking a stand.
"We also fear being labeled a gay journalist rather than a journalist who is gay, or that even more odious label in our profession, an activist. We're afraid that by coming out, by writing about the gay community as openly gay journalists, we'll be accused of violating the canons of our profession."
Minkowitz of the Village Voice later added: "Forcefully injecting gay and lesbian lives, voices and issues into the media may not further some illusory notion of objectivity, but it will further the truth."
Zonana says he did consider whether he would be able to report on certain issues fairly if he decided to reveal his homosexuality – or if he didn't. ###
"I didn't want to make a political statement, but I didn't want to hide what I was," he says. "Ultimately, I realized that coming out would be an act of human dignity. Coming out is in the finest tradition of the canons of our profession--to tell the truth and to tell good, honest, passionate stories."