Is there a crisis in gay journalism?
I remember quite clearly how, as a teenager coming up to San Francisco from San Jose in the late ‚Äė70s, one of the first things I would do is find and read the local gay papers. It is hard to describe nowadays just how important and urgent this weekly ritual was back then in the pre-Internet era, when mainstream media coverage of gay events was still very minimal and mostly unfriendly.
Back then, the gay papers were the only way to find out what was going on from the gay perspective - the only way, for example, to find out where the gay bars were and what they were like, what LGBT groups were meeting and why, and, not to be forgotten, who was advertising in the personals and for what. The many writers filled their articles with all sorts of lively gossip and tantalizing news tidbits that everyone talked about. Quite literally, the gay papers were nothing less than a map to the local gay world, and they were indispensable to newcomers like me adventuring out and for long-timers who wanted to keep abreast of local happenings and trends.
More importantly, the local papers were full of news - critical news stories that were utterly missing elsewhere and yet completely vital to the well-being of LGBT people. The late ‚Äė70s was a momentous time with the rise of Anita Bryant spreading hate across the country, the historic campaign against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative, and the election and then assassination of Harvey Milk. Gays everywhere rushed to pick up the papers to find out the latest development or to see when the next demonstration or political club meeting would be. It was by reading the gay papers that one had the rhetorical ammunition to argue against the bigots. The papers gave us the collective strength finally to stand up and be heard, and the results that followed were for the first time in our favor.
Of course, everyone knows that the challenges facing the gay community became even more intense in the ‚Äė80s. Seemingly out of nowhere, the horrific HIV epidemic snow-balled into a full scale crisis with stunning speed. Again, in our age of instant access to information, it is easy to forget just how mysterious and unfathomable the epidemic was at the beginning. With pundits in the mainstream press actually getting away with arguing that gays deserved what they got and that they should be tattooed and quarantined for the safety of the general public, it was up to the gay media to do the heavy investigative reporting and advocacy journalism necessary to find out what was really going on and to get the word out.
Luckily, there was an increasingly formidable gay media infrastructure ready to face the challenge. The gay community building boom of the ‚Äė70s had left early every major city with at least one gay publication, and several local papers, like the New York Native, Toronto‚Äôs Body Politic and Boston‚Äôs Gay Community News, were becoming nationally influential. It was papers like these that quickly assembled science and medical writers to tabulate the numbers and show the severity of the situation. It was these front line journals that published first-hand accounts of both the suffering and heroic response, thus putting a real human face on an issue that was quickly becoming an easy excuse for anti-gay demagogy. It is truly hard to imagine that the great tidal wave of organizing and activism which welled up within the gay community to fight AIDS and anti-gay hysteria would have been possible without an energetic and forceful gay press in place to channel it.
And what is the situation now? Sadly, the infrastructure of the gay media, on both the local and national level, is not nearly as strong as it once was. All the above mentioned papers have long ago closed shop, and in the past few years there have been yet another rash of once proud and important gay publications shutting down with more to follow. Like the mainstream media, gay media has suffered tremendously in the last decade as advertising and readership have migrated to the Internet. The recent credit crisis has been devastating to local gay press in particular, as these papers have always operated on extremely tight budgets.
Even the papers and magazines that have survived are not the same as they used to be. Rather than engaging in investigative reporting and in-depth coverage, many publications have resorted to cheaper and flashier ‚Äúlifestyle‚ÄĚ reporting in an attempt to cut costs and retain readers. Rather than do independent journalism with trained professionals, it has become very common for gay publications to run stories taken from mainstream wire services like the Associated Press which are relatively inexpensive and require little staff. As a result, one expert has calculated that there are just a few dozen journalists actually working full time for the gay media in the United States, a shockingly low number.
It could be argued that one reason the gay media has declined is that it‚Äôs not as necessary as it once was. With famous gay people like Ellen DeGeneres having their own hit shows and a mainstream press more willing to hire gays and cover gay issues, it could be said that gay media has simply evolved into a different mode. Gays are certainly well represented online as well, with many social networking sites and a number of well established gay blogging sites, like Queerty, The Bilerico Project and Towleroad, among others.
I would argue, however, that an independent and professional gay press in decline is a serious threat to the well being of the gay community and to the success of its goals. Perhaps the best example of this threat is the passage of the 2008 anti-gay marriage proposition in California. The campaign against Prop 8 was run by gay politicos who pointedly decided in private not to pursue a strong gay perspective in their ads and promotions ‚ÄĒ and they failed miserably.. Would this have been possible if the campaign against Prop 8 had been deeply rooted in a formidable gay press capable of rallying a well-informed gay public in large numbers, instead of run mostly by a small secretive group listening to the advice of political consultants based outside the community?
I am also very concerned about the effect a gay press in decline could have on the preservation of gay history. The ample coverage of gay events by gays themselves since the early ‚Äė70s means that the gay perspective from this period can never be easily ignored or silenced. One reason the movie Milk was so mesmerizing and authentic was that its creators had a wealth of information on which to base their work. But what if this coverage were to cease as gay ‚Äúpapers of record‚ÄĚ fall by the wayside? It‚Äôs quite possible that without a strong gay press, the gay perspective may indeed become highly vulnerable to the distortions and willful misrepresentations of others, as it was in the past.
So what can be done to save the gay press? This is a huge question that needs to be addressed by the gay community on many levels ‚Äď and quickly before we reach a point of no return, when such discussion are no longer possible. The community needs to make clear what it wants from the contemporary gay media in both its old and new forms. The gay media in turn needs to communicate better what it needs from the community in order to survive and thrive.
Meanwhile, I know what I will be doing, resuming my weekly rush to read and support the local gay papers. It‚Äôs an easy first step and one that everyone can do right now to help ensure that the gay community can continue to stand up and speak for itself, now and in the future.
Tim Vollmer, Ph.D. is president of the board of directors of The Community Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a strong community for gay and queer men and their friends and families.