He Came Out and Hundreds Followed
H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
H. Glenn Rosenkrantz covers business for the San Ramon Valley Times in California.
Leroy Aarons grabbed the attention of the news industry in April 1990 when he announced in a well-publicized speech that he was gay.
Aarons' announcement came during the presentation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' first-ever survey of gay journalists, which he had organized. He says he expected to create a stir, but thought the reaction would fade quickly.
"I had thought I would get this speech done and that would be it," says Aarons, who at the time was executive editor of the Oakland Tribune. "I would go back to my responsibilities [at the newspaper]. I wasn't an activist."
But when Aarons came out, he brought hundreds of gay journalists with him. His speech and the survey that prompted it proved to be the beginnings of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), of which Aarons is now president.
Aarons, who turns 59 this month, says his decision to organize the NLGJA was based on the "electric" response he had from the 205 journalists he interviewed for the ASNE survey. In it, he asked them to describe the atmosphere for gays in their newsrooms and the coverage gay issues received in their publications. Many, he says, asked if there was an organization "or any way for them to talk to other people."
Within months, a handful of gay journalists gathered at Aarons' home east of San Francisco for the group's first meeting.
Aarons says that his position at the Tribune, and the fact that his coming out had no apparent adverse consequences, encouraged others to follow his example. "This senior editor got up and in front of everybody said, 'I am a gay journalist. Here I am. I'm out there,' " he says.
Like many gay journalists who have come out, Aarons has war stories about life in the newsroom closet and how it affected his reporting.
As New York bureau chief for the Washington Post in the late 1960s, Aarons says he ignored the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village – the event that launched the gay rights movement. "Not only did I not cover Stonewall, but I never did a story about it afterwards," he recalls. "At the time, my rationale was that I was one person covering an incredible era in New York City. In retrospect, I'm sure I stayed away from that story unconsciously because I didn't want to be identified."
Later, as the Post's West Coast correspondent, Aarons tackled an article about the importance of gays in San Francisco politics. He interviewed gay leaders but says he had "a sinking feeling in my stomach" as he sat down to write, pretending he didn't know anything about their lives. "But here I [was] putting my pen down at night and going off to the gay bars," he says. "That was some kind of hypocrisy."
Although no longer a daily journalist after taking early retirement from the Tribune, Aarons says he still keeps an eye open for stories with a gay angle. He's now working on television movie scripts, as well as a book about a California teenager who killed himself in 1983. The boy's mother was homophobic; he was gay. ###