"Access: Use It to Give Voice to the Voiceless (and Hell to the Powerful)," An Address to the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association
I want to first say what an honor it is to appear right after Chris Geidner, my homo journo brother from another mother. We're exactly the same age - ok, he's a month, to the day, younger than me - and I've been blessed to repeatedly cross paths with him on this amazing journey we've both been on during the past couple of years. Although I admire Chris greatly for the quality of his work, I admire him even more for wearing an open heart of gratitude on his sleeve in appreciation of the privilege we all have in doing this work. And it is a privilege; it's a gift. He understands how blessed each one of us in this room is who gets to earn their bread as a journalist.
Congratulations on your well deserved recognition.
Now, as for the rest of you, my fellow homosexual journalists: I'd like to talk to you tonight about the word access. I've been thinking about that word a lot lately, and I'll start with a kind of coming out story, regarding something I haven't admitted publicly before.
I write long form features, which sometimes drop a controversial bomb after months of investigation. People have come up to me from time to time and told me that they think I am brave or courageous for publishing one story or another. This embarrasses me deeply, mostly because my primary impulse when something inflammatory goes live is to crawl under my bed and hide. (Not just under the covers, under the bed itself.)
I don't give in to that impulse, but the feeling is there, even though I have no one to blame but myself for choosing the stories that I write. Younger journalists will ask me my philosophy to approaching my stories, and the best I can summarize it is this:
I want to give voice to the voiceless, so that the powerless may be heard; and I want to give such hell to the powerful, that they'll routinely need Rolaids.
To do either of these effectively, to tell any story, really, you have to have access. How you get it, and what you do with it, has been one of the trickiest things to figure out for me.
Travel back in time with me, as I think about two of my heroes who got really close access to a story. It's a Sunday night in Greenwich Village, in the summer of 1969. My predecessor at the Village Voice Howard Smith is covering a skirmish at a local bar near our offices at the time called the Stonewall Inn. Smith starts talking to the cops, and he winds up inside the bar with them as they barricade themselves from the "powerful rage bent on vendetta."
Outside, another predecessor, Lucian Truscott IV, gets the exterior perspective. He sees: "a kind of liberation, as the gay brigade emerged from the bars, back rooms, and bedrooms of the Village and became street people...The reaction was solid: they were pissed."
Not everyone would agree with how colorfully they wrote their stories. (In fact, when they were printed a few days later, an angry mob turned its ire on the Village Voice offices itself and threatened to burn it to the ground.)
But Smith and Truscott were there - even in harm's way, they were there -- and because of their journalism, we, 43 years later, are there, too. Their words transport us. Smith and Truscott got their access the hard way: by going to cover an event. No one knew what it would become. No one had any clue it would spark a worldwide revolution. They got access by watching and listening to people in person.
As for the agitators who caused the story itself: they had no publicist. They had no talking points. There was no Facebook campaign. No "media team" vetted the protestors, keeping the most vulgar among them from talking to the press.
The first stories of the gay rights revolution were as simple as the exchange between reporters and subjects.
My fellow queer journalists, 43 years later, we have a level of access in reporting about LGBT matters that was unheard of when the Stonewall Riots occurred. In 1969, the Village Voice was about as close as you got to a mainstream publication that published stories about homosexuals, let alone openly employed them.
It would be another 13 years before the Voice became the first private employer in the nation to offer benefits for same-sex partners of employees. But as the play The Normal Heart dramatizes, as the plague descended upon us, LGBT journalists couldn't easily be out even at the New York Times. There is still more work to be done here. But because of many brave men and women living openly - including members of my union, and some people in this room, like Randy Wicker - many of us do now enjoy the chance to chronicle the stories of LGBT people, as openly LGBT people.
This is an amazing opportunity, as there are also now out LGBT people in the highest echelons of business and government. Sometimes, we have access to them. Sometimes when they're in the Big House, we get access to the Big House - even the White House.
What will we do with this access?
My fellow LGBT journalists, I humbly suggest to you that our work is more important than ever because of this access.
But conversely, the more access we have, the more we must work as journalists and disregard whether our work will make us lose that access or not. And we have to work without worrying if people "like" us or not.
This is not easy. We work in a profession where we are increasingly pressured to get people to "like" us. We want people to "like" our stories on Facebook, and we want them to "like" our Facebook fan page!
And most insidiously, PR people want to like us and for us to like them. They want us to like the access they offer, which comes at a price. And when the PR people are LGBT, and their client is LGBT, they will prey on our gayness to get us to like them, when we should be critical of whatever or whomever it is they're trying to sell us.
What an exciting period in LGBT history to have access to. Our job is to tell stories, sometimes, that people may not like - or that may not make people like us. Our job is to give rise to stories people wouldn't find on their own, and to use the access we have to ask questions others can't ask.
Those of you familiar with my work in New York know that I've tussled a bit with 'Gay Inc.' recently, particularly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. There is, I must grudgingly admit, some good in what GLAAD does, and they have been gracious in meeting with me. But GLAAD has described itself as a "PR firm for the LGBT community," a phrase that quite honestly makes me cringe. And while there may be some value in that, PR is their job; it is not our job.
As a great sign I saw at an Occupy event read, "Unless someone is angry, it's not journalism, it's just public relations." And as our LGBT community as a whole gets more access -- to power, to money, to influence -- we need more press, and not more press relations.
I had a fun exchange recently with the head of PR for the LGBT Center in New York, a woman named Cindi Creager. The Center had refused to return any of my calls or emails for a year, since I'd written critically about how they'd taken to censoring political speech based on their donors' agenda. I'd also pointed out that its board of directors refuses to meet with the public.
In July, after a year of the Center not returning my messages, I posted questions on their Facebook wall. And they blocked me from their Facebook wall. So then I finally showed up at the Center, knocked of the door of their press rep, Ms.Creager, and walked into her office.
And let me tell you, few things are funnier than a press rep being greeted by a member of - the press. Crieger called for backup security, who told me it was "highly inappropriate" for a journalist to be asking a press representative questions.
But it is not inappropriate for me to think that a press representative of a publicly subsidized community center should speak to...the press. That is my job, that is their job, and if they don't "like" me for asking questions, oh, well. Mitt Romney will probably release his tax returns before the LGBT Center answers any of my questions - or before HRC will ever return any of my calls -- but I'll keep asking them. And that's not inappropriate - that's what I am paid to do. Nor is inappropriate for me to demand answers to questions of Glennda Tetone, the LGBT Center's Executive Director, who engages with PR but not a politics reporter.
Creager and Testone both come from GLAAD - and this is significant. Many PR firms want to say, "Now don't worry your pretty little head digging around. We'll tell you what the story is." But we are journalists. We find the story. We don't outsource it to anyone of any sexual orientation. We cannot accept anyone's spin, even if they may be someone we might want to sleep with. And we can't let any "PR" firm set the agenda. Even an LGBT PR firm would not have approved of the press covering a riot with underage gay street kids at a dive bar with ties to the mob! But that's the kind of story that got us as a community where we are, and those are the kinds of stories we still need to find.
And by the way, when it comes to following GLAAD's agenda - if it weren't for the kickass journalism of Bil Browning and the Bilerico Project, we might not know about GLAAD's malfeasance a year ago, which almost made it implode.
But look around at major gay organizations and progressive groups and non-profits - HRC, Color of Change, the LGBT Center - and they're staffed with GLAAD alumni. What happens, as an astute colleague of mine noted, is that they work at places like GLAAD and they learn to "handle" the press. (And too often, we comply.) And then they parlay that into good jobs, with the mindset that any criticism of their organization, them or their boss is anti-gay.
A current GLAAD employee called my legitimate reporting on Testone an "attack" that he wished would stop. It was no such thing. It was journalism. I expect the executive director of New York City's LGBT Center to answer questions from the Village Voice. She is paid, at least partially with public money, a salary of about $175,000 a year. That's a tad more than the Governor of the State of New York makes, and perhaps a little more than some of you in this room make. She is a publicly subsidized servant of the people, and owes the people answers in exchange for her share of the dole. And it is our job to ask any such public figure questions - tough questions -- lesbian or not. We cannot, as journalists, say we will give a free pass to the Testones of this world simply for being lesbian, any more than we can give a free pass to Christine Quinn for being lesbian, or to Chad Griffin or Tim Cook for being gay, or to Barack Obama for being black. We must use our access to hold them accountable. We are journalists, and we must ask tough questions of those in power without ever, ever fearing that it might mean we won't be invited to the next gala dinner.
Now, I might sound kind of angry. But the truth is, I actually don't like writing about the powerful all the time and dreaming up ways to make them have heartburn. Long before my days recording for the NPR StoryCorps project, I've actually been far more interested in writing about the voiceless, about those who hold little formal power.
This, I believe, is equally important, my fellow journalists. In the other direction, we have access to the lowest amongst us in our communities. And we have access to share their experiences in ways they never can. They are all around us, their stories silently screaming to be told.
Tales of poverty might not drive SEO. So will we still access them?
Last fall, the New York Times printed a story that my editor and I worked on for seven months, about one of the few homeless shelters run for LGBT youth. It was a terribly run shelter, and it was run, sadly, by LGBT people. Our reporting showed that those kids were in precarious, unsanitary, dangerous conditions. Some LGBT activists were not happy with my writing something critical of our community. Any roof is better than a gutter, they said. Why give homophobes ammunition against us? But if not us, who else will write honestly about these kids? Should we as LGBT journalists turn a blind eye on the kids in our community, as we have judged those in other communities of doing? Don't our readers deserve to know the real deal - not PR spin - about a world they might not otherwise see?
We are, as a colleague of mine put it, "Detectives for the people," so that they may know something true about LGBT life -- no matter how unpredictable or messy or beautiful or ugly that may look. That's all that matters.
We are not here for people to "like" us.
We are not here in the hopes that a nonprofit or a politician will hire us someday.
It's a depressing thought, but I've come to realize that the longer I am a journalist, the more likely it is that no one will ever hire me to do anything else, ever again.
But that's OK. I think I'm in this for life now.
As journalists, we must be tough in our work, but we must also support each other. And I have been so supported by so many people. I want to thank just a few tonight: my family, represented tonight by my brother James, my sister-in-law Guadalupe, and my nephew Wyatt; my faith community, represented tonight by a man I've been down on my knees with a lot -- in church -- Mekado Murphy; my fellow writers who've helped me along the way, represented here by Michael Luongo and Sharyn Jackson; and the editors I've worked with, especially David Shipley. When he bought a piece the Des Moines Register killed and printed it on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, he altered the course of my career forever.
I have been supported endlessly by the sources who have trusted me with the most intimate details of their lives.
And now, I have been supported by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. I am so extremely grateful for your vote of confidence in my work. It is touching (not just for me, but for so many others) to have the kind of long form storytelling which I practice recognized in this way. Thank you for helping keep us on the long form path.
Thank you for being an organization I don't just "like," but more importantly, which I respect.
I want to end by coming out about what I think about when a story is going to be published, and I am nervous about the controversy I know it will create.
I think about my parents, the bravest people I knew.
I think about my brother James' advice that the truth can make people comfortable, and that's just fine.
I think about Howard Smith inside the Stonewall Inn, and the queer protestors who stood up to the police in 1969.
I think about those amazing homeless kids I hung with last year. It was tough for me to get through writing that story - and I had a bed to go home to at night. Those kids did not. Those kids had been told by the world that they were garbage. Their parents told them that when they kicked them out for being gay or trans. The people at the shelter told them that when they said, "You can sleep with rats on the floor."
And yet, they still had the courage to say, "I think this is wrong. I deserve better. And I will speak out about it."
It is then when I realize: it takes no courage to publish my stories. It is merely a gift to have access to them. All I have to do is not screw up the gift.
NLGJA, I humbly thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the chance to live up to the trust my subjects place in me.
And I give you my word that I will continue to use whatever access I have in the best way I know how -- even on those days when I want to crawl under the bed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.