Almost two weeks after California Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the long-fought-for gay rights bill AB 101, I found myself sitting next to Jim Kepner on the 384-mile bus ride from Los Angeles to Sacramento for yet another outburst of outrage over the ease with which government sloughs off LGBT people as second-class citizens. It was National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, 1991, and I marveled at how the 68-year-old was determined to drag his frail, stooped body out to a wildly unpredictable protest march at the capitol. But, as one of the original citizen journalists of the LGBT movement, he felt the need to participate in history being made, which I needed to dutifully record.
Without fuss or fanfare, this modest gay man with twinkling eyes treated me to an LGBT “oral history” and a master class in advocacy journalism. My thinking shifted. I was rooted in mainstream professionalism—the high bar of ‘objective’ reporting to which ‘advocacy’ was anathema.
But suddenly ‘objectivity’ itself was challenged. What if the truth lies not in the facts discerned by a mainstream reporter who parachutes into a scene and relies on statements by the loudest eyewitness, but rather on nuance and historical context unimagined, unobserved or unavailable to the outsider?
That’s why there is such a need for LGBT, minority and ‘specialty’ press—to provide insight, balance and often accuracy to stories where chasing and grasping nuance is too often perceived as a chore or a luxury to mainstream reporters on deadline.
Los Angeles is the birthplace of the LGBT press. “Lisa Ben”—a pen name for Edith Eyde—started Vice Versa, the first known lesbian publication in Los Angeles, in 1947. The mimeographed newsletter/magazine enabled lesbians to connect with each other at a time when homosexuality was a ruinous crime, an official psychological perversion and a religious abomination for which ‘cures’ were imprisonment, lobotomies and castration.
A few years later came ONE, an outgrowth of the Silver Lake-based Mattachine Society. Jim Kepner met Mattachine founder Harry Hay in December 1952 and Bill Lambert, later known as W. Dorr Legg. Together with Martin Block and Dale Jennings, they launched ONE magazine in 1953; Don Slater took over later. The name ONE was taken from a Thomas Carlyle quote: “A common bond of brotherhood makes all men one,” though women were welcome, too.
Most of the ONE contributors were amateur journalists. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, however, were university-trained journalists. They created the DOB newsletter The Ladder and wrote three books, starting with the iconic Lesbian/Women in 1972.
The PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) newsletter transformed into The Los Angeles Advocate after a police raid on the Black Cat in Silver Lake in 1967. They reported on who was beaten, where, police raids and protests well before New York’s Stonewall Riots in 1969.
The Gay Liberation movement sprung up at the same time as students, women, blacks and Chicanos were finding the power in their voices, too. They were more aggressive than the civil rights and early counter-culture movements that blossomed during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The sexual liberation movement picked up steam, too, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique and the wider use of the birth control pill.
But it was ONE magazine that pried open America’s Puritanical closet door. The FBI had been trying to shut ONE down for some time. But it was Kepner’s March 1954 cover story “The Importance of Being Different” that prompted Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Alexander Wiley, R-Wis., to write a protest letter to the U.S. Postmaster General about the “so-called ‘magazine’ devoted to the advancement of sexual perversions,” according to research by Jim Burroway of BoxTurtleBulletin. The defiant editors subsequently asked their legal counsel to write up what the rules were for an October 1954 cover story “You Can’t Print It!”
But in the same issue were a fictional love story with a happy ending, a poem about morals charges and two ads—all of which postal officials determined meant the magazine was “obscene.” The L.A. Post Office seized the “You Can’t Print It!” issue and charged ONE editors with sending an “obscene, lewd and/or lascivious” publication through the mail in violation of the 1873 Comstock Act. ONE sued, and their young attorney, Eric Julber, argued the case pro bono before the federal courts. He lost before the district and appeals courts. But then, to the surprise of many, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case, and in its first decision on homosexuality, issued a one-sentence ruling on January 13, 1958, overturning the lower courts’ rulings and expanding freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The ruling also enabled the five-year-old Playboy magazine to be distributed through the mail, too, injecting even more excitement into the sexual liberation movement.
But the gay and sexual liberation movements abruptly ended with the revelation that AIDS was sexually transmitted. To compensate, new phone sex businesses emerged and became a solid financial advertising foundation for gay publications.
In 1987, all the pent-up grief and fear turned into a righteous and sexy outrage with the formation of ACT UP. The LGBT press covered the protests with excitement while most mainstream reporters followed the ‘facts’ as presented by the LAPD or other government officials. Dave Johnson, a onetime reporter for the old L.A. Free Press and the executive director of Being Alive, started writing a regular column for a thin gay activist weekly called The News, run by Sandy Dwyer. Johnson argued that it was the virus, not sex, that was bad. The mood in L.A. shifted again, as the long, dark pall of depression started to lift—though gay publications such as Frontiers, Update in San Diego and the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco still looked like the photo/print version of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
So much death yielded heady risk-taking. I was freelancing for The Advocate under Editor in Chief Richard Rouillard and Editor Mark Thompson when Rouillard challenged everything, promoting Queer Nation, starting the Sissy Awards and, in 1991, publishing Michelangelo Signorile’s outing of Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams at a time when the Pentagon was purging gays. Rouillard also changed The Advocate’s sub-head to read, “The national gay and lesbian newsmagazine.”
My journey in LGBT journalism started in the late 1980s. So many friends were outed by and then died from AIDS, I felt morally obligated to come out. But I didn’t know how to be useful other than to write about what I saw. My first piece was an essay for Frontiers entitled “Ten Days That Shook the FDA” about the August 1989 hunger strike in West Hollywood by ACT UP’s Wayne Karr and Lou Lance, both of whom had AIDS. At the same time that Dave Johnson, then L.A.’s first AIDS Coordinator, was testifying before Congress and Mark Kostopolous, Michael Callen and so many others were storming the Food and Drug Administration demanding compassionate release of experimental AIDS drugs.
Two months later, in October 1989, 400 people surrounded the federal building in Westwood demanding access to experimental drugs in the glacial FDA pipeline. About 80 people were arrested, including Metropolitan Community Church founder Rev. Troy Perry who told the L.A. Times that mainstream apathy over AIDS was the result of such misconceptions as “only homosexuals contract the disease, and it’s a punishment from God.” Troy was hurt during the arrest—you can see him wince in the video my friend Tad Feldman and I shot and produced for West Hollywood City Channel News (go to tinyurl.com/6rp5jbt to watch it).
I wasn’t trained as a science or medical writer, and I worried about getting the facts wrong. But I tried—learning about antioxidants and free radicals for a piece in Sean Strub’s new POZ magazine in 1994, for instance. Fortuitously, Frontiers news editor Aslan Brooke was a former Army nurse who understood the emerging A-to-Z vocabulary of the new HIV medications. Eventually, ACT UP/L.A.’s Bruce Mirkin and I struck up a kind of unspoken deal—he covered mostly science and medicine, while I covered politics and events.
Mike Salinas, the news editor at the Bay Area Reporter, called me an “environmental” reporter because of my emerging “you are there” style. I started thinking of the homebound person with AIDS who would have loved to have attended the event I was covering. I imagined a friend reading my story out loud so the sick PWA could imagine being there.
At times, this was humorously challenging. I had to ask the guy from the GAP sitting next to me what was so fabulous about this new Isaac Mizrahi collection, which looked to me like the models (and Sandra Bernhard) were wearing shag carpet jackets.
But even more difficult was trying to capture the textures, backstories, subplots and nuances in a very limited space on the printed page. And herein, perhaps, lies a big difference between mainstream and minority reporting. The L.A. Times, for example, wrote about the 1995 L.A. Shanti “Tribute to Joe Layton” in the Entertainment section as a “Pop Music Review: Midler, Others Pay Tribute to Joe Layton.” Reporter Don Heckman actually reviewed the event.
Nowhere in the story does Heckman mention that Layton died of AIDS complications, as the Times had previously reported. In fact, AIDS is only mentioned once—in the context of the kinds of services L.A. Shanti provided. But for me, the whole event was about AIDS. The show was hosted by comedian Bruce Vilanch, who by this time joked that he had emceed so many AIDS benefits, he should have a card that read “AIDS-R-US.” The Times reviewer only mentions Carol Burnett, but gays and PWAs know her as the actress/comedienne who did the first TV PSA for the new American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985, the year Rock Hudson died and Elizabeth Taylor, Dr. Michael Gottlieb and Dr. Mathilde Krim started amFAR.
Heckman closed his review thusly: “Closing her headliner segment of the show, [Bette] Midler’s tribute of ‘Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe’ and ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ was both tender and heartfelt, a fitting conclusion to a well-produced evening.”
Twelve years later, I still remember that L.A. Shanti event—how a large black-and-white portrait of Joe Layton was unfurled, taking everyone’s breath away and prompting Bette Midler to step backwards slightly, momentarily overwhelmed. She recouped and explained who Layton was to her, sharing with people who she knew would understand. As her voice choked, she turned to the portrait of her friend and sang, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero, and everything I would like to be? I can fly higher than an eagle, ‘cause you are the wind beneath my wings.”
There was not a dry eye in the Wiltern Theatre as Midler concluded, the thunderous standing ovation an emotional outlet for all the love and grief stored up inside so many. I didn’t feel worthy or skilled enough to capture that miraculous moment. But I knew I had to struggle through it. I cried as I typed, imagining the homebound PWA listening to my words.
It is a privilege to capture such moments, the gems of our LGBT history and the legacy upon which the next generation stands.
The irony is that, for all our maturation, we still ask similar questions as Kepner did in that March 1954 cover story for ONE magazine, written under the pen name Lyn Pedersen:
“Are homosexuals in any important way different from other people? If so, ought that difference be cultivated, or hidden under a bushel or extirpated altogether?” Homosexuals are “natural rebels. … Most become inured to breaking the rules. They must reject what they learned as children and still hear repeated about them. ... It should barely be necessary to state that I am interested in defending my right to be as different as I damn please. And I’ve picked up the notion that I can’t protect my own rights without fighting for everyone else’s.”
Jim Kepner died on Nov. 15, 1997. He was 74. By then, Kepner’s massive collection of LGBT books, publications and me morabilia had become the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, which merged with ONE Institute. His memorial in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences auditorium was packed with LGBT pioneers.
I sat in the back, dutifully taking notes, wondering about the nuanced common bond, the history shared among these LGBT brothers and sisters over the dark years and the brighter years to come.