Coming Out in the Newsroom
Why many gay journalists aren't in the closet anymore-and what it means to the way they do their jobs
PERHAPS THE FIRST MAINSTREAM Canadian journalist. to admit publicly that he was gay was Richard Labonte, who outed himself in The Ottawa Citizen in June 1980. Labonte, an entertainment writer and copy editor, wrote about how, at age 14, he was told by parents and peers that his type of love was “wicked”; how he spent the next 10 years coming to terms with his homosexuality; how it felt being taunted by passersby while walking hand in hand with his boyfriend in the Byward Market; and about how it felt being hated by society. “Every time we refrain from an act of public affection, every time we are unable to take a loved one to the office party, every time we cannot bring ourselves to challenge anti-gay comments, we die a little, a little every day,” wrote Labonte, then 29 years old.
In the weeks following the story’s appearance in a two-part series, more than 300 readers cancelled subscriptions, irate callers tied up newsroom phone lines, and angry letter writers denounced the series as “sickening.” Labonte himself received more than 50 threatening and abusive phone calls. Of course, he also heard from readers who commended him for his courage, and from co-workers who told him, “Well, we didn’t know you were gay but you’re still okay with us.”
And then there was the reaction of the Citizen city editor whom Labonte had considered a mentor since Labonte had joined the paper’s staff eight years earlier. The morning after his article ran, the editor approached him m the newsroom. “I hate fags and I didn’t know you were a fag,” he growled. “But if you’re a fag, you’re a fucking good fag.”
Today, it’s still rare for gay journalists to come out like Labonte did. As CBC Evening News senior reporter Jeffrey Kofman, who has been out since the mideighties, says: “There are a lot more people in the closet than out. I work with them. Many of them are known among their colleagues but don’t go a step farther.” Nonetheless, gays and lesbians have become more visible in major newsrooms, especially in the 1990s.It’s an open secret that the editor of one of the bigger papers in the country is homosexual, and across Canada an increasing number of “queer” journalists are out on the job. They talk freely to straight colleagues about their partners and, when asked what they did during the weekend, they no longer hesitate about being truthful.
But by being openly gay, are they affecting their job prospects? And what does their increasing visibility mean to the way stories about the homosexual community are reported? The answers are important because the composition of the country’s newsrooms influences what news we read and hear and see. But the answers are also important to me on a more personal level, because even though newsroom attitudes have changed a great deal since Richard Labonte wrote his historic article in the Citizen, as a young gay journalist, I wonder how my sexual orientation will affect my own career.
BEFORE THE 1980s NEWSROOMS WERE generally macho bastions where fag jokes were as common as typewriters. To be openly gay often meant being unemployed. “The Citizen was not an oasis of tolerance and understanding. There were crusty old farts there for whom having women in the newsroom was a problem, let alone queers,” Labonte recalls. “I know there were other gay people at the Citizen during this time period but I was the only one who was open.”
Labonte’s experience was similar to that of Murray McMillan, now a 45-year-old features and news editor who joined the “conservative” newsroom of The Vancouver Sun in 1967. The idea of being “out” was not yet part of the social consciousness-the Stonewall riots were still two years away. In fact, it wasn’t until the midseventies, when he worked under an “open and supportive” editor, that McMillan started coming out to colleagues. He remembers how the atmosphere gradually improved as senior editors made it clear to staff that homophobic comments would no longer be acceptable. He also thinks that as the number of women in the newsroom rose, the climate became increasingly tolerant. “Women stopped putting up with sexist nonsense from the guys and we certainly benefited from the change,” he was quoted as saying in a CAJ Bulletin article last year.
More recently, we’ve undergone what the American gay magazine The Advocate rather inelegantly calls “the lavender enlightenment.” The growing militancy of the gay and lesbian movement, partly as a result of the AIDS epidemic, has been one contributing factor. So has the rising acceptance of diversity in all its forms. Today, at least among the more liberal, sexual orientation is not an issue. This accepting attitude seems to be the norm in major newsrooms: I tried to locate working journalists with contemporary horror stoties about workplace harassment -or worse-but failed to turn any up. Some reported heating derogatory jokes or remarks, but they also said they were confident enough to confront the colleagues who made the comments.
By contrast, in a U.S. survey conducted in 1990, many of the 205 homosexual reporters interviewed said they worked in a homophobic environment left unchallenged by managers. Leroy Aarons, then executive editor of The Tribune in Oakland, conducted the study for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. When Aarons presented his findings at an ASNE meeting, he also revealed that he was gay. A well-established journalist like Aarons coming out to his colleagues with no apparent negative consequences sent a message to journalists across the country that they didn’t have to check an essential part of their identities at the door of their newsrooms anymore. Several months after Aarons’ presentation, a handful of gay and lesbian reporters met in his San Francisco living room to discuss forming a support organization. The resulting National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association currently has 16 chapters and 850 members, up from 500 in 1992, and Aarons, now retired, is the association’s president. The NLGJA’s recent activities have included organizing diversity workshops to promote tolerance and lobbying for such workplace rights as insurance benefits for partners. It has also held two conferences, the second of which was in New York City last September.
During the weekend-long event, New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., a heterosexual who has been largely credited for making his newsroom environment more comfortable for his homosexual staff, hosted a reception for the 560 NLGJA members in attendance. The same weekend featured a panel discussion involving NBC’s Tom Brokaw, CBS’s Dan Rather, CNN’s Judy Woodruff, and Robert MacNeil of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, who all said they would welcome gays and lesbians to their newsrooms. Even more notable was the day-long job fair, which attracted 15 major American news organizations, including the Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, and ABC News.
While in Canada a similar job fair is probably years off, the NLGJA’s success has prompted the creation of a similar network. Vancouver Sun news reporter Kevin Griffin attended the association’s first conference in San Francisco. Upon returning home, he and about half a dozen journalists, including McMillan, met in Griffin’s living room. The result was the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Canadian Association of Journalists, which now has 80 members, two-thirds of whom are male, roughly reflecting the gender makeup of the industry. The caucus has not hosted a conference of its own, but at last year’s CAJ conference, a four-member panel, including Deb Price of The Detroit News, whose column on gays and lesbians is syndicated nationally, discussed such issues as what a gay and lesbian news story is, when it’s significant to identify someone as a homosexual, and whether journalists who are out have a responsibility to ensure coverage of gays and lesbians is fair and accurate.
One of Griffin’s hopes for the caucus is that it will help other journalists avoid the isolation he felt when he began at the Sun. He describes how he took the “safest route” and portrayed himself as being asexual, not insinuating he was either straight or gay, when he started at the paper in 1987. But, as he wrote in the CAJ Bulletin last year, “After a while, I found this intolerable. I could no longer justify writing about injustices against other people while perpetuating one against myself.” Shortly after he started at the paper, following a few bottles of wine during a dinner party with several close colleagues, Griffin told them he was gay. “The announcement caused hardly a ripple,” he says. The grapevine kicked in from there. Now Griffin refers to his desk in the Sun’s newsroom as “a gay space” where he encourages other homosexual reporters and editors in the newsroom to gather.
There certainly weren’t any gay spaces in the Global newsroom when Jeffrey Kofman started as a Queen’s Park reporter in the early eighties. Consequently, he was pretty much in the closet. “I was young and working my way up. And I was less confident about myself and less confident about my career.” Then in 1985, he attended an AIDS fundraising dinner. He remembers being concerned that some provincial politicians who were there would see him and conclude he was gay. He was uncomfortable, and at the same time worried. “You set yourself up to be vulnerable if you let people think there’s a reason to be vulnerable. It took a moment like that for me to realize I didn’t want to live that way.” Over the next two or three years, as he gained more confidence, he began being completely honest about his personal life when colleagues asked. “I wasn’t prepared to be someone I’m not,” he says. Like Kofman, Toronto Star reporter Bruce DeMara initially kept his sexual orientation a secret on the job. He was on a summer internship program at the paper and was afraid he wouldn’t get a position at the end of the summer if his bosses knew he was gay. After being hired full time, he told one colleague, who passed on the news to others. The response to DeMara’s revelation was anti-climactic: he didn’t lose his job, and the couple of reporters who had previously made homophobic remarks stopped.
For Janet Money, the decision to come out was not unlike Richard Labonte’s experience. In 1989, when she was working at The Daily Sentinel-Review in Woodstock, she and the lifestyles editor attended a speech given by the mother of one of Money’s lesbian friends. As a result, the editor decided to write an article about what it’s like being homosexual in Woodstock, but the one lesbian who was willing to be interviewed wanted anonymity. “I was feeling really awkward because there was no reason to hide,” Money recalls. She came out to the editor and agreed to be quoted in the piece. “It seemed important that at least one lesbian be named in the story. Otherwise it would convey the message that it was too scary to be a lesbian in Woodstock and I didn’t feel it was.” The day the article appeared, a staff photographer congratulated her and the composing room foreman said, “That was a really brave thing you did.”
And coming out not just to one’s colleagues but to the public is still a brave thing to do today. Kofman admits that five years ago he probably wouldn’t have agreed to be interviewed for an article like this one. And a journalist in his mid-20s who writes for a national TV news and current affairs program didn’t want to be identified even though he is open to colleagues and has previously worked with the gay press. He doesn’t believe it serves to have “Joe and Mary Public” know he is gay. “That’s not the best way to operate until you get to the point in your career when you’ve proven yourself.” He makes the point that it’s difficult being out to only a few in Canada because the business is so small and the circles of decision-makers are so interconnected. “When you out yourself in Canada you’re outed across the board. If you are a journalist in New York and you come out, people in the south probably won’t know it. In Canada, everybody will know.”
A 44-year-old entertainment writer at one of the Sun chain of papers also didn’t want to be identified, even though he is open with colleagues. “Being gay is a component of my personality. It’s not the overriding aspect of who I am,” he says. “Maybe if I had come out when I was 20 it would have been.” While he acknowledged and accepted his homosexuality 14 years ago, for a long time afterward he was in a state of constant fear. “I spent a lot of years living the U.S. military position on homosexuality: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ You never know when the door is going to slam.”
One concern common to both closeted and out gay and lesbian reporters is being labelled a homosexual reporter rather than a reporter who just happens to be homosexual. They worry about being typecast or, worse, being seen as an activist. Kofman remembers that fear: “I figured that label would follow me and people wouldn’t look at my work without dismissing it or pigeonholing it.” But for Daniel Gelfant, senior editor of documentaries for Prime Time News, labelling isn’t the issue. He believes that if you’re a journalist who is known to be homosexual, the label is there automatically. “My question is what do you do with the label? In my case being gay is a special part of my identity, it’s a part of the way I see the world, therefore my work is going to reflect that sensibility.”
Susan G. Cole, a senior editor at NOW, an alternative Toronto weekly, thinks “every journalist should have an adjective in front of them. Nobody just happens to be anything.” She believes that insisting we’re not homosexual journalists is the biggest insult. “It means we have nothing to say.”
One notable difference between gay and lesbian journalists is that there are relatively few women who are out of the closet. When Money joined The London Free Press in June 1991, she came out again in an article because she wanted to meet other lesbian journalists. It didn’t work. “I am the only out lesbian mainstream journalist in my city,” she says regretfully. “There are hardly any of us, so it’s nice to create moral support.” It’s just as lonely out west. Mary Lasovich, a former staffer at The Kingston Whig-Standard who now freelances out of Victoria, says until she became a member of the CAJ’s gay and lesbian caucus she didn’t know of any other reporters who were lesbians. When Lasovich realized she was a lesbian in 1989 she did some research, trying to find an out lesbian journalist to use as a role model. She didn’t succeed. For the situation to change, she says, “There will need to be more women out in the newsroom, out to readers, to show that it’s not as dangerous, not as career-threatening.”
There’s no one explanation for why lesbians are less visible. It took Lasovich almost three years to come out to others after separating from her husband because she didn’t want to jeopardize getting custody of her three children. She suspects there are other lesbian journalists who have the same fears. Irshad Manji, a freelance journalist who writes a regular column on equality for The Ottawa Citizen, believes another reason has to do with numbers: there are still not as many women as there are men in the newsroom. “Therefore, there are naturally fewer lesbians in journalism.” Manji adds that there is still sexual and verbal harassment of women in newsrooms “so to draw attention to yourself by coming out is not the safest thing to do.”
The isolation felt by lesbians, however, is lessening. During the CAJ-sponsored Women in the Media conference in 1992, Money announced the formation of a lesbian caucus. Only about six women, some of whom were not out in their newsrooms, attended. At last year’s conference, twice as many women came to the caucus and almost everybody there was out in the workplace, Money says.
Those journalists who have made the often-difficult decision to come out to their colleagues believe the newsroom benefits from their decision. They say that they’re in a position to pitch stories about the gay and lesbian communities that might otherwise be overlooked, and to serve as resource people for colleagues when they are writing about gay and lesbian issues. Just as important, says Bruce DeMara, they can monitor copy to ensure stereotypes are not perpetuated so “the bogeyman idea of leather-wearing men who have 1,000 sex partners goes out the window.” Daniel Gelfant thinks there’s an educating job to be done as well, so other reporters can write about gays and lesbian issues with some depth of understanding. Before taking part in a panel session called “Straight Mythology: Gay and lesbian Reality-Who Draws the line in the Media?” during the 1993 CAJ conference, he conducted a brief “unscientific” survey among his colleagues to gauge their opinions on and knowledge of homos sexuality. “I realized there isn’t much communication across the line about what the gay and lesbian world is, who we are,” he says of the responses. One of the eight questions was, “If you were at a bar sitting next to a pregnant woman who told you she was a lesbian, what questions would you ask her?” To Gelfant’s bemusement, most said they would ask the same questions they would a straight woman. Some said they certainly wouldn’t ask the woman how she had become pregnant. “There’s no point in seeing us the same because we are different,” he says.
Freelance journalist Gerald Hannon also points out that gay and lesbian journalists might have a different take on stories than heterosexual reporters. We have been conditioned, he says, to view issues and events from an “outsider” perspective: we grew up in a heterosexual society that didn’t have our interests at heart-we learned about straight culture without ever fully being a part of it. And Daniel Gelfant makes another point: “We can be better journalists because we’re more used to being observers. As children we have had to judge the danger all the time. So when you’re so attuned to looking at danger then you’re also a keen observer of other things.”
Of course, the question arises as to whether homosexual reporters can cover gay and lesbian issues objectively. Janet Money dismissed this concern in a column she did for the Free Press last June: “Well, first of all there’s no such thing as objective journalism. What is often called objective journalism is the news as seen through the eyes of privilege. The eyes are usually those of white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class men.” She went on to relate the story of a reporter who, while covering a school-board conflict over gay and lesbian curriculum content, was asked by her editor to interview people who thought homosexuality was a sickness. “When we do stories about racism, we don’t go to the Ku Klux Klan in order to present a ‘balanced’ view of people of colour,” Money wrote tartly.
Susan Cole is equally suspicious of the passion for objectivity: “I don’t believe journalists are little ciphers through whom information and facts flow, but rather they’re human beings who filter information and interpret the facts.” And Bruce DeMara, who calls himself the “unofficial” gay and lesbian beat reporter at the Star, says that when he’s writing about homosexual issues, “I can pour on a bit more compassion because I’ve been there.” But the New York chapter of the NLGJA probably has the snappiest response to the objectivity dilemma: “Can heterosexuals cover straight issues objectively?”
Newsroom managers like John Cruickshank, managing editor of The Globe and Mail, and Phil Bingley, assistant managing editor of The Toronto Star, maintain that when they’re hiring, an applicant’s sexual orientation is not an issue or a concern. As Bingley says, there are dangers in not being objective doing any story, whether it’s a lawyer writing about legal issues or visible minority journalists writing about issues in their own communities. On the other hand, a homosexual reporter might have more insight into a story on the homosexual communities than would a straight reporter.
And what about the quantity and quality of coverage of the gay and lesbian communities? Have these improved as more journalists come out? Certainly there’s been a marked increase in the number of stories on gay and lesbian issues. According to the Canadian Index, in 1980 the Globe, for example, published 21 stories about homosexuals and homosexuality, whereas in 1993 there were 69. But while there are more stories, are they better? Gays and lesbians aren’t so sure. Often the media either cover the sensational aspects of gay and lesbian culture-drag queens during Gay Pride Day, say-or they go the other way by trying to make the homosexuals look like heterosexuals. “You don’t ever get the richness of the texture of our culture,” says Cole. However, this coverage is better than nothing, she concedes. One reason for the greater amount of space has to do with newspaper economics: faced with a dwindling readership, papers have become more inclusive, recognizing that gays and lesbians make up a fairly large part of the population. As Phil Bingley says, “It would be short-sighted to ignore.” Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. made a similar point at last year’s NLGJA conference: “If newspapers are to survive, they can no longer be exclusionary bastions of a single view of the world. We can no longer offer our readers a predominantly white, straight, male vision of events and say that we, as journalists, are doing our job.”
SHORTLY AFTER HE TOLD HIS OWN STORY in the Citizen, Richard Labonte left the country and the newspaper business altogether. Since 1982 he has been living in San Francisco, where he runs a chain of gay bookstores. He doesn’t know if his coming out more than a decade ago would have hurt his journalism career, but he has no regrets. “Overall, I think it did me good, it did the paper good, it did the people in Ottawa good.” As for the coverage today, he says: “We are a component of news and for a long time gay stuff was covered insensitively by straight people. Not that they were being deliberately malicious, but it helps to know facts. The more facts you know the better the story is. That’s another reason why I like the idea of people being open. Now, hardly a day goes by that some lesbian or gay element of news doesn’t get into one of the papers. It’s almost commonplace.”
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ