The Spirit's new management hosted a one year anniversary party last week -- an occasion that brought together many of the paper's contributors and reporters. Later in the evening, a group of us began telling war stories about our time working for other newspapers. As the oldest person in this early September assembly, I was not short on stories. As I used to say to friends, "Just name the newspaper, and I'll tell you a story." When you've written for nearly every publication in the city (except Philadelphia Magazine) stories come easily.
I wrote for the Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) for a number of years sometime after its founding in 1976. It made sense to me to write for PGN: I wanted to do something to combat the hostility and discrimination toward gay people that I saw in society. As a PGN writer I could write about gay lives, interview gay artists and talk to politicians about gay issues. In those days, mainstream press outlets such as The Philadelphia Inquirer did not always report so-called "gay news." In some of these mainstream news stories one could sometimes detect outright prejudice. This is why PGN became a valuable, priceless asset. This was the era, after all, when Philadelphia Magazine had a ban on gay dating classifieds in their personal ad section. This kind of censorship would be hard to believe today.
I'm sure I wasn't the only PGN writer who experienced negativity from editors of other newspapers. When applying for a reporter job at The Germantown Courier in 1980, I had sent them my resume beforehand with my connection to PGN clearly visible. I thought I had a fair interview until I stepped out of the editor's office and heard a staffer remark, "You know, I half suspected he was going to walk in here with a purse." This comment, I think, was based on the stories about gay issues that I had published in The Distant Drummer and in PGN. Needless to say, I didn't get the staff gig although The Courier was willing to allow me to freelance.
Prior to writing for PGN, I wrote for the radical gay press in Boston. One newspaper was called Lavender Vision. In my stories for the outlet I castigated straight radicals for their disparaging views on gay liberation and their use of the word fag, which was very common then. I would hawk Lavender Vision in Harvard Square, shouting to one and all, "Get your gay liberation newspaper!" I had a scruffy beard, long hair and I wore wide lens German aviator glasses. Passersby seemed oblivious; nobody blinked -- this was bohemian, sophisticated Cambridge, after all.
When I joined the staff of PGN, I started writing features before starting a weekly column entitled "Profiles," in which I interviewed prominent members of the community.
I became acquainted with PGN's publisher, Mark Segal, and other writers on the staff. PGN's editor had been a friend of mine in Boston so I felt very much at home. As reporters and columnists, we had our work cut out for us: This was a highly politicized and dramatic time when gay men were getting arrested in Center City late at night just for walking or talking together in so called "gay areas." A police wagon would pull up and ten men gathered around a stoop would be ordered inside. When the city's first Gay Rights Bill was introduced in City Council (this bill sought protection from employment discrimination) anti-gay protest groups held vigils and petition rallies outside City Hall Annex. During City Council meetings, the level of ignorance sunk so low that protesters shouted how homosexuals all had rotten teeth. An outspoken homophobic preacher, Germantown's Rev. Melvin Floyd, was probably the most famous homophobe in the city at the time. Floyd would ride through Center City and other neighborhoods in a truck with a dummy's head protruding from roof while screaming Bible verses at passersby through a megaphone.
All of these stories, however unpleasant, had to be recorded. These were among the best years of PGN, I think, because the hostility of the outside world drew us, the staff, toward one another in a way that soldiers in a war look out for one another in times of trouble. PGN was needed in those days. But I'm not so sure that's the case today when most publications report gay news.
Still, when I'd visit my parents in those days my mother would always ask me when I was going to get off "the gay thing."
"You're limiting yourself as a writer," she said. "Can't you branch out? It's all you write about. Gay. Gay. Gay!"
Mother was right, of course. I told her I'd stop writing about gay issues when society stopped making being gay an issue.
With the PGN staff I wrote features on gays and alcoholism, religion and the AIDS crises. For my "Profiles" column I interviewed gay Catholic priests, Wiccans and pagans, motorcyclists, athletes, lesbian disc jockeys, AIDS researchers, bar owners, bartenders, authors and activists.
But my time as a columnist or reporter at PGN was not without major hurdles. There was one column where I interviewed a popular lesbian disc jockey. The woman later telephoned me in a rage and insisted that I had portrayed her as "a slut." I had no idea what she was getting at. I read and reread the piece and showed the column to friends.
"Do you think I make her out to be a slut?" I asked. After rereading the column a number of times I came to the conclusion that she took objection to my calling her an attractive woman quoting something she had told me during the interview that she was tired of men whistling at her when she walked the streets of Philly. "But I only wrote what you told me during the interview," I said. I might as well have been speaking to my bathroom wall.
For extra money, I took a Friday job driving the PGN company car while another staff member distributed papers to all of the vending boxes and distribution points in the city. I'd drive for five minutes, stop at a box as my co-worker got out and filled it and got back in the car before somebody behind us honked or rammed into us. It was a lot like driving a taxi with constant stops and three minute parks, while dodging mid-city traffic and lights. Some Fridays the traffic stress was so great that my co-worker would scream when I missed a box or took a wrong turn. One minute we'd be laughing together but then a kind of road rage would take over. Whenever I see images of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" I think back to this little driving job.
It was a sad day when my Boston friend, Stanley Ward, left his post as editor of PGN. Things seemed to work out for a while under the leadership of Al Patrick, who had stellar Ward-like qualities. I was now writing a PGN column about famous gay men, bisexuals and lesbians in history, which later formed the genesis of my book, "Out in History." I wasn't quite so cozy with PGN's publisher at this point, but we were still on good terms.
Then a prolific lesbian PGN writer charged me with anti-Semitism after I wrote that children all across England would race to their TV sets whenever Dame Edith Sitwell appeared on TV. I had quoted another writer when I wrote that the children of England loved Dame Sitwell because she looked like a witch with her hooked nose. Blame it on the English children, I said, the hooked nose part was not my doing but a quote. Happily, the "attack" journalist and I later reconciled.
There comes a time in every journalist's life when a Darth Vader editor takes over a newspaper. This is the type of editor that likes to clean house and hire a new staff just to put his/her signature on things. Darth Vader editors can also mean "death" for certain reporters and columnists for varied reasons that may be only be partially articulated within the editor's head. When a Ms. Darth Vader became PGN's next editor newspaper life suddenly became foreboding.
For years I had been writing for PGN with comparable ease but now every word I wrote was called into question. Ms. Vader would call me and go over my columns like a dentist goes over x-rays that show hidden tooth decay and gum disease. Sometimes she'd want a sentence that was buried in the column to be the lead sentence, or she'd tell me to rewrite two paragraphs. Other times she'd want to use a period instead of a semicolon, or open the column with the sentence I chose to end it with. Sometimes she'd request that I turn a column inside out and start from the middle, or that she wanted the middle extracted and new editorial stuffing inserted. When I would do as instructed, she'd call or send a note in the mail and state that I was still not listening to her.
Ms. Vader was making life so difficult for me that I began to dread writing my weekly column -- with every word I wrote I kept seeing her red pencil and hearing her angry voice on the phone. She had succeeded in freezing up my creativity.
Today I read PGN only because it comes to me online and because I occasionally like to bathe in nostalgia. To be honest, there is rarely any "news" via PGN that surprises me anymore because more often than not gay news is available elsewhere in bigger outlets like The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times or The Huffington Post. Gay news is now a mainstream affair because it is no longer the taboo subject it once was; the age of the gay ghetto is over.
Just writing these words reminds me of what Barbara Gittings once said when she talked about gay people joining all-gay churches: One day something like this will be unnecessary because liberation and freedom will have been achieved. With churches or newspapers, the same logic applies. PGN has done its job, and it has done its job magnificently. It is a tribute to its success that gay news is now, well, everywhere.
The PGN fat lady, perhaps, is getting ready to sing.