By: Mark Fitzgerald
Gay journalists are changing small-town papers, too sp.
WITH THE NEWSPAPER industry’s rapid, if belated, acknowledgement that newsroom diversity means including gay voices, a few journalists have won universal recognition.
Reporters such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Randy Shilts and the New York Times’ Jeffrey Schmalz, both of whom died of AIDS in the past year, were well known for their pioneering work as openly gay journalists.
But as the recent National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference showed, gay and lesbian journalists are changing long-standing practices at many medium-sized and small-town papers as well.
For this year’s conference ? only the third of the young group ? NLGJA met in Minneapolis to emphasize the contributions of journalists at smaller papers.
“Our theme . . . is ‘Out on Main Street,’ by which we celebrate gay and lesbian journalists expressing their talents and themselves in smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and throughout he country,” NLGJA president Leroy Aarons said in opening remarks in Minneapolis.
“We bring together big city and small city journalists this weekend to recognize the unsung heroes who are out on Main Street performing small miracles for the cause of equality and better journalism,” he added.
Among the gay and lesbian journalists Aarons specifically saluted:
? Tim Halley, a reporter and later assistant city editor at the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise who wrote a first-person account of his own struggle with AIDS in an award-winning 1992 special section “AIDS: Everyone’s Problem.”
“This is really coming out on Main Street, a little tougher to do than in New York or San Francisco,” Aarons said.
Halley died Sept. 12 at age 35.
? Kim Severson, entertainment editor of the Anchorage Daily News who persuaded her paper to include gay personals in its singles ads.
? Martha Flores, a copy editor who convinced the El Paso Times to run its first same-sex wedding announcement.
? Columnist Joe Bean who led efforts to stop the San Antonio Express News from publishing before trial or conviction the names of gay men caught in vice squad stings.
In addition to recognizing these journalists, however, the NLGJA convention also has the effect of spurring other reporters and editors.
“Every year we have half-a-dozen reporters who go back to their managing editors and come out,” Aarons said in an interview.
The public emergence of gay journalists is “something that was ready to happen,” Aaron said ? though he also says the speed of the movement sometimes surprises even him.
“I don’t think five years ago you would have gotten 400 people publicly showing themselves at a conference like this,” he said.
Not only did the conference attract about 400 journalists ? it was also where the 1,000th member signed up.
Appropriately for the theme, she is a lesbian who works at the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times.
Sher Stoneman is a 40-year-old who took her first journalism job ? as a photographer at the 28,000-circulation Times ? just last year.
She has been “out” virtually her entire adult life.
“I think of one of the hesitations I had about going into journalism was whether there would be a problem being out,” Stoneman said. “It’s not like it’s something I talk about all the time, but it’s any important part of who I am. I don’t want to work anywhere I can’t be who I am.”
Any hesitation was quickly allayed, she said.
“My supervisor made it pretty clear from the outset that Gannett was committed to diversity and that diversity included sexual orientation,” Stoneman said.
Indeed, the newspaper recently hosted a series of in-house activities to mark Gay and Lesbian Awareness Month.
Also feeding this trend is a young generation of journalists who are gay ? and who have been openly gay virtually since adolescence.
“I’ve been out since high school. Not being out has never been a question for me. And I couldn’t conceive of taking a job that would mean I would be closeted,” said Elizabeth Weise, a high-technology reporter in the Associated Press’ San Francisco bureau.
Being gay in the newsroom ? or even among sources ? is rarely a problem, gay journalists said repeatedly in Minneapolis.
“I have never had a problem with an individual in my whole career [since] being out,” said Caren Crockett, Philadelphia Inquirer metro news editor. Crockett said she has been openly gay in the workplace since she was 18.
“I haven’t lost a single source since coming out. Nothing bad has happened since coming out,” added Steve Gendel, the chief medical correspondent for CNBC who memorably came out to viewers while reporting on this summer’s anniversary of the Stonewall civil disturbance many mark as the start of the so-called Gay Pride movement.
While it may be easier these days to be “out” in the newsrooms of smaller papers, however, gay and lesbian journalists still face numerous complications.
For one thing, the embrace of the gay community ? often tiny in a small town ? may be suffocating to a journalist.
“You’ve got to let [local gay groups] know that, A, not everything they want to get in is going to get in the paper and, B, it may not read like you want it to read,” said Stacy Sullivan, assistant politics and government editor of the Times in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“You sort of end up being a liaison between the gay community and the paper,” said Kim Severson, entertainment editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
Sullivan, Severson and other gay journalists said the most personal criticism ? often in the form of nasty anonymous faxes ? comes, ironically, from gay readers.
At the same time, the gay journalists may find themselves more open than the local gay community at large.
Severson, for example, recalled that she wanted to do a story on what she called the “glass closet” of Anchorage, prominent people who were “not quite out.”
She began with a list of 15 people, but could persuade only three to go on the record in the story.
On the other hand, changing policies is sometimes easier at small papers than larger one, some gay journalists say.
“The one advantage you have on small papers is they are a lot more willing to try things out, they’re more amenable to change,” said David Flick, senior reporter for the Dallas Morning News.
Major metros like his own, Flick added, think of themselves as institutions and are hesitant to make big changes in journalistic policy.
“Something like gay wedding announcements, gay personal ads ? it gets memoed to death at a big paper,” Flick said.
Indeed, there are so many possibilities to press gay issues at small papers that gay reporters and editors say they sometimes worry if they are becoming one-track journalists.
“I think the biggest problem for a gay journalists in a small market is you’re always feeling like you are pushing the gay story,” Severson said. “There are rewards,” she said, “because you get to write stories like, ‘there are gay people in our small town.’ But you do want to go on to other stories, too.”