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Undergraduate Research Symposium and Senior Seminar

The following is a 2013 Research Symposium and Senior Seminar paper.

Due to the Supreme Court deliberating on same sex marriage and DOMA, the national news is awash in stories relating to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. What was once taboo and discouraged is now reported on by news sources in any language throughout the world.

More and more, the door has widened for acceptance of these news stories as a result of the gay press having influenced mainstream media. When Jodie Foster spoke at the Golden Globes earlier this year, she focused on the “coming out” process without actually admitting to being gay.  Her indirect admission stirred up a conversation in the mainstream and gay media about why she chose this time to come out – at the announcement of her retirement from acting.  Many people, straight and gay, from bloggers (JoeMyGod) to radio hosts (Michelangelo Signoreli) analyzed her speech, criticizing her late coming out.  By doing so, she is the last in a long line of influential people who have added their name to a public list of gays and lesbians.  The fact that this private conversation has been made public directly results from the gay press and mainstream media’s intertwined relationship that has its roots in a difficult and recent past.

The public conversation about the LGBT community was taken a step further, this year, when President Obama spoke on LGBT rights during his second inauguration.  His speech contained information about “Stonewall,” a pivotal event in gay rights.  By invoking Stonewall, Obama raised the stakes of gay rights from the confines of private conversation to a national discourse.  The inauguration committee chose a gay Hispanic poet, Richard Blanco, to read a poem at the inauguration.  This was the first ever in the history of the inauguration that an openly gay Hispanic person had been invited to speak at this high profile event.

This type of acceptance is light years away from how LGBT stories were handled by the press during the first half of the twentieth century.  Stories dealing with the LGBT community were largely hostile, negative and one-sided. The majority of these stories reported on the salacious activities leading to the arrest of gay men, or reports from experts that called into question the psychological mindset of gays or lesbians.

The origins of the “gay press” have been well documented by writers in the 90s through today by such authors as Tracy Baim of the Windy City Times and author of Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America and Rodger Streitmatter, who authored Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America.  In addition, Michaelangelo Signoreli documented his rise to activism and how he was able to utilize the gay press to influence mainstream media in his autobiographical novel Queer in America: Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power.

In the early years of development, the gay press was still in the closet.  Many fledgling newsletters were secretly written and distributed by hand.  This was, in part, due to the U.S. Postal Service being one of the biggest censors of the LGBT press.  When a gay group in Los Angeles – The Mattachine Society – tried to mail a magazine, One, to their members in 1953, the USPS thwarted their attempts by detaining their mail.  The Los Angeles postmaster referred to their magazine as “obscene.” It was a four year legal battle before The Mattachine Society was finally able to mail their magazine. It was also one of the many cases that helped to weaken the Comstock Act (1873), which prohibited the publication, sale, distribution or possession of obscene material.  During this time, the FBI investigated the Mattachine Society members as communist and also designated them as “sexual deviants.”

In 1967, a Philadelphia gay publication, Drum magazine published an issue with a full frontal nude – considered one of the first magazines to do so. The editor faced an indictment for distributing obscene material. A federal grand jury dropped the charges after he elected to stop publishing the magazine.

A large part of reporting on LGBT stories in the 50s and 60s was the coverage of men being arrested in bar raids or for other illegal activities. During this time, homosexuality was illegal and police often raided the bars in which gays and lesbians frequented.  The reporting of such raids named people in the newspapers and effectively ruined the lives of the men and women arrested. It was the raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar in June 1969, the Stonewall bar, which started a change on this action by police.  When police attempted to raid the bar and arrest patrons, many fought back sparking two days of riots and protests.  For the first time, the gay movement rode the wave of political activism on the shoulders of women’s and black’s rights.

Newspapers covered the protest, but the coverage was less than flattering.  Liberal news outlets, such as the Village Voice, used the same derogatory language as that of the conservative outlets.  The protests at Stonewall were just the beginning, as gays and lesbians began to call into question the way the media was portraying them.

The activism movement of the 1970s held its court in large cities.  New York, Chicago and San Francisco were hotbed of gay political movements.  When Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco City-County Supervisor in 1978, it was the first time an openly gay candidate was elected to a city commissioner seat in the U.S. Milk was assassinated later in the year.  The local new outlets heavily covered his speeches and protests resulting from his death.

It wasn’t until the activism of the 1980s that mainstream media was forced to step back for a look at the broader picture of LGBT news.  HIV and AIDS changed the narrative in such a way that news coverage had to change quickly.

Activists, not happy with the government’s slow response to the AIDS crisis, focused most of their efforts on government programs and agencies through protests. Among them was ACT-UP founding member, Michaelangelo Signoreli. In addition to their anger at the government, they were equally as outraged by the lack of media coverage.  The coverage primarily was one of limited access and stoicism.  The mass media reported on the AIDS crisis, but only as a last measure.  It wasn’t until activist from the New York group ACT-UP staged a demonstration and called in the mainstream media did the press take notice of the protester’s actions and start to write about it in an objective manner.

Simultaneously, gay journalist grew resentful of the lack of coverage by the mainstream media.  The feature stories of AIDS patients were being ignored.  The human element had been struck from the storylines and this became the drive for gay and lesbian journalists to write about their friends, family and neighbors who were struggling to survive due to lack of medication and education.

What was born was finally a movement toward covering gay issues by mainstream media. The gay press was born.

The horrors of HIV/AIDS found their way into the mainstream media and the mainstream media could no longer ignore the potential for the news.  With this came the realization of the potential financial benefits of a gay audience, which bore the term ‘gay dollars’.

But the mainstream media weren’t the only ones that saw the potential for a financial boom.  The gay press began their own newspapers and magazines focused primarily on the LGBT audience.  Magazines such as The Advocate and The Washington Blade became early participants into the world of gay news, gossip, and fashion.  As a result of the success of these magazines, other newspapers and magazines carved their own slice of the gay economic pie and succeeded.

There had been many newspapers and magazines before The Advocate and The Washington Blade.  These were small papers that were local, regional and sometimes national.  They are not to be dismissed, as these led the way toward a new era in gay journalism.

Corporations began took notice of the gay audience and started to invest their advertising dollars into this new form of media.  These large companies partnered with the gay community.  Unfortunately, many weren’t prepared for the dangers of this partnership.  When some of these companies were found to have anti-gay policies or lacked any gay-supporting policies, the LGBT community would boycott until the company either changed their policy or the relationship was tendered.  Often these companies addressed their failings and quickly returned to the lucrative business of advertising within the gay community once again. Sometimes the partnership became a source of contention outside the gay community and often these companies had to weigh their financial interests within the gay community to those outside it.

While the gay press had a long rocky beginning, its influence into mainstream media has had far reaching results.  While the conservative Fox News channels may not spin LGBT issues into a positive light, they are reporting on gay issues and have added themselves into the national narrative.  The rhetoric of MSNBC tends to lean toward a liberal view with shows like The Rachel Maddow Show and, until recently, The Big Show with Keith Olberman.

The Internet has made newsgathering and dissemination an easy prospect for news junkies and the casual observer. Blogs are a popular destination for information. The number of gay news blogs continues to grow and are easily accessible to the LGBT community.  Pam’s House Blend and JoeMyGod are two popular gay blogs that provide news of a primarily political nature.

Newspapers, news outlets and blogs aren’t the only sources that have adjusted to the influx of LGBT news; Sirius Satellite radio has implemented a gay-themed channel that offers news, gossip and music to a primarily LGBT audience.

Regardless of where the population receives its news, the plight of the LGBT community continues to be documented on both sides of the spectrum. LGBT news can be found in all forms of media and social media.  Mainstream media is covering the current DOMA debate in the Supreme Court as tenaciously as it is by the gay press, showing us that the intertwined relationship between the presses has grown from one of subjectivity to one of symbiosis.

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