For years, mainstream press ignored the LGBT community. Thankfully, LGBT media filled the gaps
Editor’s note: October is National Gay History Month, and as the month begins, Rare Reporter columnist David Webb takes a look at the role the media — both mainstream and LGBT — has played in preserving our history.
If an LGBT person went into a coma a decade or so ago and came out of it today, they likely wouldn’t be able to believe their eyes when they recovered enough to survey the media landscape.
There was a time not so long ago when gay activists literally had to plead with or rant at editors and reporters at mainstream publications and television stations to get them to cover LGBT events. Even editorial staffs at alternative publications often dismissed political and cultural events in the LGBT community as unimportant to the majority of their audience.
Editors and reporters at traditional media outlets who happened to be members of the LGBT community often steared clear of gay issues to fall in line with the prevailing policies set by the publishers in the newsroom . Often, they were deep in the closet, or if not, just afraid to challenge the status quo.
I know all this to be true because as late as the early 1990s, I was engaged in legendary battles with my straight editor at an alternative publication who only wanted two or three “gay stories” per year. After the first quarter of one year I heard the editor telling another writer that I had already used up the newspaper’s quota for gay stories for the whole year.
This long-standing scarcity of coverage opened the door for the launch of gay newspapers to fill the void and the thirst for information that was coming not only from LGBT people but also straight allies, straight enemies and the non-committed in the gay rights movement.
After about two decades of working for the mainstream media and later at the alternative publication for a few years, I moved to a gay newspaper. Upon hearing about it, my former editor advised me that the job sounded “perfect” for me.
At the gay newspaper, I not only covered LGBT issues, but I also liked to scrutinize and comment on the coverage or lack thereof I observed in mainstream publications. It was, at the time, a dream job for me. I was flabbergasted to learn that no one at the newspaper had obtained a media pass from local law enforcement officials nor received official recognition at local law enforcement public relations departments.
What gay activists and enterprising journalists had come to realize was that straight people were just as interested in what our community was doing as we were. I also realized that elected and appointed public officials, civic and religious leaders, law enforcement officials and most others love media coverage, and the fact that it was a gay publication featuring them didn’t much matter at all.
As a result, gay publications across the country were providing coverage that gay and straight readers couldn’t find anywhere else. And those newspapers were flying out of the racks at the libraries, municipal buildings and on the street in front of the big city newspapers as fast as they disappeared from gay and lesbian nightclubs.
What it amounted to was that gay publications were enjoying a lucrative monopoly on LGBT news and, in the process, helping LGBT communities to grow strong in major urban areas.
It’s amazing how long it took the powers that be at the giant media companies to figure out what was going on, but they eventually did.
I would love to say that a social awakening was responsible for the new enlightened approach to LGBT issues by the mainstream media, but alas, I fear it was more motivated by dollars and cents. Publishers began to realize that those small gay publications were raking in lots of advertising revenue from car dealers, retail stores, real estate agencies and many other businesses where the owners knew LGBT people spent money.
Today, you can hardly turn on the television or pick up a newspaper or magazine without hearing or reading about something related to LGBT news or gay and lesbian celebrities and politicians. When I fired up my laptop today, I received an e-mail from the Huffington Post directing me to a story written by Arianna Huffington announcing new features that included the debut of “HuffPost: Gay Voices,” a page that will compile LGBT news stories together each day for the convenience of the readers.
With the power of the Internet and its capacity for documenting and archiving news stories, information about the LGBT community for both the present and the past will always be at our fingertips, except for those three decades between about 1970 and 2000 when the mainstream media couldn’t be bothered with us because they had no idea what a force we would one day become.
For information about that period of time we are going to have to scour the coverage of gay newspapers and magazines published before the days of the Internet, read fiction and non-fiction published by LGBT writers and encourage older members of our community to share their recollections in written and oral form.
It’s vitally important to the history of our culture that we not lose those stories, and it’s largely thanks to our communities’ own publications that we won’t.
David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. E-mail him at [email protected].
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.