Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Landscape of media’s LGBT coverage grows from barren to lush in three decades

Times can change more quickly and more drastically than even progressive people might imagine, as the events of the past half-century show.

A little over three decades ago I knew just about anything I might write about ordinary gay and lesbian people representing them as anything other than criminal, psychotic  or flamboyant protesters would be viewed skeptically and harshly by most readers of mainstream publications.

 I also knew getting such a story past an editor would be more than problematic. It would be next to impossible, even if I did manage to overcome the greater challenge of getting anyone to go on the record as being gay. Only activists such as those who bravely risked public condemnation by filing early legal challenges to sodomy laws and organizing gay rights parades in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 in New York City could be counted on to take such a risk.

My research of The Dallas Morning News’ archives show early coverage of gay people prior to the widely-recognized birth of the gay rights movement in 1969 focused on the war on homosexuality that legendary Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, pictured above in his office about the time, waged against ordinary gay people. The newspaper published stories of police officers busting parties in private residences where – gasp – men actually danced with other men.

During those days, most of what I learned about homosexuality I found in literature, such as Gore Vidal’s book, “The City and the Pillar,” which ironically was published about the same time I was born. It was the first book I discovered that openly discussed the subject I was so eager to know more about, and it led to the discovery of many more such resources during my teenage years. I also learned the cultural centers of the world – New York City, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome to name a few – attracted enlightened, unconventional societies I wanted to join.

At some point in the 1960s Wade quietly gave up his anti-gay initiative and by 1969 gay and lesbian bars, which apparently had always quietly existed in Dallas and other large cities in the nation, flourished openly that summer all hell broke loose in New York City.  To the amusement of the nation, surprised police officers ran away in panic when a group of oppressed drag queens and other scrappy gay patrons turned on them inside a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn.

The national media made note of the event, but the idea of the birth of a new civil rights movement apparently went right over the head of most journalists. Gay pride parades became common in most major American cities, but coverage remained limited to the parades and other big events, such as the outcry against singer Anita Bryant’s anti-gay rhetoric, a boycott of Coors beer after news of anti-gay employment practices surfaced and legal efforts to ban pro-gay nondiscrimination policies.

It took the emergency of the HIV virus in 1981 and the subsequent epidemic involving so many gay men to catch the media’s attention and hold it.  At the same time, LGBT people became more willing to embrace the gay rights movement, and that included a lot of people who worked within the media as reporters and editors.

In the following years newspapers devoted to the coverage of HIV and all other LGBT issues emerged throughout the nation, and the mainstream media and the alternative media , which had occasionally covered gay issues in addition to the environment and other civil rights issues, steadily increased their coverage. In the mid-1980s more progressive newspapers began using the terminology of "gay" rather than "homosexual," largely thanks to the efforts of the efforts of groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation that published a style book devoted to LGBT issues and circulated it to the media.

The development of the Internet has led to a wealth of information, and it has connected LGBT people around the world with each other. News about LGBT issues circulates at the same speed that all other information enters the public domain through the mainstream media and websites devoted solely to the LGBT audience and its friends.

I personally have gone from writing on a standard Underwood typewriter 50 years ago to a laptop today. For many years I felt compelled to specialize in the coverage of LGBT issues, but I no longer feel my contribution is as important as I once considered it.  There are many new voices available to take my place so if I slack off someone else will fill the space.

Today there is an abundance of media coverage about LGBT issues, and I am unable to keep up with it all. I don’t complain about that though because I well remember a time when it was not available to me or anyone else.