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Rainbow Journalism

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Amid lapses in journalistic integrity and increased competition from the once queer-shy mainstream press, can San Francisco's gay press remain the voice of its community?

Story by Dara Colwell
Illustrations by Steffan Schlarb

One evening early in 1950, a handful of men met in a Los Angeles home for an informal discussion. They locked the door, pulled down the shades and began to discuss--somewhat hesitantly at first--the nature of their deviancy. Their homosexuality, a subject silently dropped from polite conversation, was painfully isolating, but tonight they spoke freely. As midnight disappeared they voted to meet again. Within the next few months, they formed the Mattachine Society, and within a few years they began printing material for the homophilic press. Soon other publications appeared. And little by little the gay press grew, evolving decades later into a powerful force that galvanized the national gay and lesbian community.

As the gay alternative press expanded throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, it became marked by constant upheaval: turf wars, internal staff conflicts and, frequently, bankruptcy. Steering an uncertain and erratic course, most publications were short-lived, but new voices quickly emerged to continue the momentum and arouse social consciousness. Like the gay movement, the gay press had struggled to survive, and it grew more and more vocal--until the AIDS epidemic, for a time, muffled some of its cries.

Today, the gay and lesbian press enjoys a new level of respectability and prominence. Despite increased coverage of gay news in the mainstream media, the queer press still plays a decisive role in covering issues affecting the community, such as civil rights laws and legislation over same-sex partnerships.

But as in any community, dissenting voices are questioning the integrity, quality and politics of the press that represents them. Likened by one veteran reporter to a "dysfunctional family which spends half the time fighting among themselves," San Francisco's gay press is in a period of transition.

While it has struggled to weather continuing financial difficulties and maintain its traditional advocacy role, the local gay press faces a unique situation--a straight female editor, Lauren Hauptman, now heads Frontiers, a magazine geared predominantly to gay men.

This poses some interesting questions: If the most qualified man for the job is a straight woman, is the gay press still serving its community? What, in general, is its role, and how well is it received as the community itself gains wider visibility and acceptance?

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A survey of what the gay man and woman on the street is reading.

A telling study of the covers of a few gay publications.

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Advocacy vs. Objectivity

Hauptman is not the only straight woman rocking the boat. Pat Christen, executive director of the SF AIDS Foundation, has come under the aggressive scrutiny of the gay press, raising the issue of advocacy gone too far.

"The gay press plays a very important role in the community, but there's no doubt in my mind they go overboard," said one longtime AIDS educator who wished to remain anonymous. "At some point they stop being journalists and start being protagonists." The debate over advocacy versus objective journalism is as old as the gay press itself. As the voice of a minority community, the gay press historically has put a strong spin on news. Anything perceived as an attack was condemned outright.

And in matters close to the heart, such as the running of the SF AIDS Foundation, the dialogue within the community can prove contentious. Like when the Bay Area Reporter (a.k.a. the B.A.R.), a news weekly with a circulation of 35,000, ran a front-page photograph of Pat Christen being hit with a 25-pound bag of urine-soaked cat litter by a member of ACT UP/SF with the subhead "It was a real shit fight." While maybe over the top, these words do sum up the war between the B.A.R. and the SF AIDS Foundation.

Allegations that the nonprofit turned away patients without explanation, had lost its ties to the community and was instead more interested in institutional self-preservation have all surfaced in the debate over Christen's leadership. But the way the dialogue was framed, according to Derek Gordon, communications director at the SF AIDS Foundation, was divisive as well as sexist. "Between the outrageous headlines, sensationalist drop quotes, editorials and letters to the editor calling her a 'ball-busting bitch' and other incredibly misogynist terms, the B.A.R. either directly or indirectly lambasted her based on nothing other than her sexual orientation."

Mike Salinas, news editor at the B.A.R., sees it differently. "To say that she is a heterosexual woman is a convenient argument which deflects attention away from the real debate," Salinas said. "The Foundation spends too much time making its critics sound crazy and not enough time getting the organization into better shape."

A proverbial 800-pound gorilla, the SF AIDS Foundation is the largest service organization in the western United States. Recently, the AIDS activist group ACT UP/Golden Gate (not to be confused with the kitty-litter-throwing ACT UP/SF), wanting to track the Foundation's use of huge government funds, set up the Accountability Project Web site, revealing financial information on major U.S. AIDS charities and nonprofits, including their directors' salaries. Salinas said he was concerned that the community had no effect on or input relating to Christen's $162,000 salary. "There's the perception they don't believe it's anyone's business, when the whole point of the organization when it was founded was just that--it is the community's business."

But in San Francisco's insular gay community, political and personality conflicts are linked and often mistaken for one another, according to Tim Kingston, a news reporter for Frontiers and formerly for the Bay Times. "Sometimes a paper can develop a fixation on a particular personality to the point that if the person sneezes, there's a news story," Kingston said.

Gordon agrees and noted a downside to his having to respond to the near-constant attacks from the B.A.R. "It's not a good use of my time," said Gordon. "Very often I find myself going round and round, over and over, on issues that have little or nothing to do with ending this pandemic."

While most journalists--in the alternative or mainstream press--would argue there is no such thing as total objectivity, the lack of balanced reporting on Christen's career upset fellow AIDS workers enough to send a letter to Salinas. While agreeing with Salinas that the Foundation should be held accountable, the signers argued that there was a big difference between criticism and vilification. "There is simply no excuse for the kind of viciousness aimed at Pat which we've seen exhibited during the last several years, particularly in the pages of the Bay Area Reporter," the letter read. "We are disturbed that she gets treated much more roughly than any male leader in our community." The letter was printed only in part and out of context within a Salinas-penned editorial attacking it as being an "appalling bit of whimsy."

While observers of the gay press are well aware of the developed egos that operate within it, many believe there is a pressing need for balance to achieve credibility. "Advocacy journalism has its place and the gay press voices valid concerns," said Fernando Quinteros at the News Watch Project, an organization affiliated with San Francisco State University's journalism department whose aim is to monitor the fairness of news coverage of people of color and lesbians/gays. "But bringing in an outside perspective would certainly be novel. Gay journalists should work to uphold the basic tenets of good journalism and seek to go beyond an editorial tone."

But if objectivity is the goal, it can be argued, the gay community can look to the mainstream press, which has increasingly covered gay issues. For gay activist Jeff Sheehy, however, objective journalism hides a deeper societal bias. "So-called objective writing can actually be harmful. Reporters always look for counterbalance with a negative, homophobic view that reinforces the status quo." Recognizing the bias inherent in the gay alternative press, Sheehy still believes that advocacy is necessary. "We have a sophisticated, empowered community. People challenge those who speak for it and how they speak for it," he said. "Here, there are thousands of different voices screaming."

Elizabeth Weise, president of the Northern California chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association, sees the situation as a perpetual Catch-22. "There is real strength in vigorous journalism. I think the gay press certainly had that in the beginning at a time when the straight press was calling us perverts and faggots. There were clearly strongly held views." Weise says that while there is a definite need for the niche press, "I expect the standard of journalism to be higher. Things need to be substantiated. How can I take something seriously if it is totally one-sided?"

Similarly, reporter Kingston thinks there are few good writers who do the necessary research to report fairly. And given the diverse nature of San Francisco's gay population, a greater variety of journalism should be expected. "But," he said, with a trace of sarcasm, "follow the money--you get what you pay for."

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Following the Money

"Most publications are free. What they pay or say they can afford to pay is not a lot," said Randy Alfred, media watchdog and a former editor of the now defunct Sentinel. "For the most part, the quality of reporting is not really up to a professional standard." Alfred said that for a generation, people in the Bay Area have expected gay publications to be free, and it would be difficult for any new publications to compete. "You pay for the difference; you pay for professional quality," he said.

Similarly, Jeffrey Winter, an arts writer for the Bay Times who also runs a video production company to make ends meet, said that the chronic lack of money does affect writing. "You're a writer because it's either your job and it pays, or you enjoy the response. But there's little pay and little response here. In New York I was a full-time writer. I came here and made five cents a word and no one cared."

Although no editors would go on record about how much they pay writers, the average falls between 10 and 15 cents a word. Bruce Mirken, a writer who freelances for the gay and mainstream press, said the local press is at the bottom end of the pay scale. "I did something for the B.A.R. back in '93 and got $25 a pop. The last I heard, it hasn't changed that much." Mirken decided he couldn't make a living writing solely for the gay press because "it either pays little or it pays slowly and irregularly. There are plenty of flakes out there in publishing land."

The publication targeted by many writers as causing the most financial strife was the Bay Times, the 40,000-circulation biweekly devoted to ongoing news and arts coverage, which is run by publisher/editor Kim Corsaro. According to someone familiar with the local press, "it has a reputation that precedes it." While many writers chose not to air their dirty laundry in public, Winter wanted to go on the record because he thought he was treated well by the Bay Times. But, he was willing to admit, "other writers are treated horribly."

Matt Lewis, an advertising salesman formerly of the Bay Times and currently at the B.A.R., successfully filed a lawsuit against Corsaro for a backlog of wages and commission. Lewis, fired for being "10 minutes late one day getting back from lunch," said Corsaro pulled the same tricks repeatedly. "Maybe by some act of God, Jeffrey [Winter] is in her good books," said Lewis, who doesn't know the Bay Times writer, "but I've received countless phone calls from her [current] employees who know about the lawsuit and say they are being cheated out of money, they haven't been paid for two months or their checks have bounced. Unfortunately, you have to learn the hard way." Corsaro was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Financial difficulties are by no means restricted to the Bay Times. The gay press has always struggled to stay afloat. As most publications are free, they often cannot afford to pay writers regularly. And in order to pay writers, they need to get advertisers. Their desperation has often led to what David Boyer, former media manager of the STOP AIDS Project and current associate editor of this publication, refers to as "blackmail." Explains Boyer, "It's the either-you-buy-ad space-from-me-or-we-won't-run-stories-on-you approach to journalism."

Also, until recently, the majority of ads have been sex ads aimed at men or ads that use overtly sexual male imagery to attract them as consumers. This, it seems, isolates the lesbian community and may make publications lose credibility with their audience--not to mention the mainstream.

"I stopped reading the gay press years ago because it pitches mostly to gay white men--the gay community in its most insular sense," said Lisa Roth, a graphic artist.

Nadia Delan, who works at A Different Light bookstore in the Castro, said she thought the lack of lesbian representation in the gay press was clearly a matter of business. Flipping through an issue of the B.A.R. she pointed to the erotic ads of men in the personals section. "OK, on this page there's eight men and only two women, and here, on this page, there are five men and only one woman. Gay males are much more visible and catered to--this doesn't speak to me."

Why the market has not seemed to support a dedicated lesbian press is fodder for many theories: women historically make less money than men; lesbians have different spending habits than gay men, whose culture revolves around the bar scene advertisers appeal to; American society in general is focused on men; the majority of people who own publications--either gay or straight--are men. Whatever the reasons, hunky torsos, pecs and nipples sell.

In the last few years major advertisers such as Virgin Atlantic airlines and Apple Computers have courted the national gay press as a lucrative market. But as new money comes in, it brings with it new investors. The recently launched New York Blade News, half-owned by a straight-owned publishing company, came under harsh criticism for choosing objective reportage over advocacy. Some of its critics, dubious that the paper's financial backing by heterosexuals was a sign of progress, claimed the paper was not gay enough. But if the road to success means allowing heterosexuals to help pave the way, will the gay press sacrifice its voice for integration and wider credibility?

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Gay Enough?

"I have the credentials, not the orientation. I'll never implicitly understand what it is to be gay," said Lauren Hauptman, editor of San Francisco Frontiers, a spinoff of its L.A.-based parent. Hauptman, who followed her gay brother out to the city from New York, was initially reluctant to accept the job. "I was petrified. My brother told me not to take it. All the concerns raised about me being straight and being a woman were ones I raised myself--I thought, 'Will this be good for the magazine? Will it be good for my career?' "

Hauptman's arrival last July raised few eyebrows at first. An active member of PFLAG in New York City for nearly 10 years and a former senior editor at POZ, she was regarded as a talented ally sensitive to the gay community. But then in late September came what Hauptman refers to as the "penis debacle." Offended by a dance-party flier depicting a naked man with a full erection, Hauptman wrote an editorial decrying the abundance of overt sexual images in the Castro. The editorial led to an uproar. The hate mail poured in as a number of advertisers pulled out and the gay press went to town on Hauptman's lack of gay sensitivity.

"I thought she went too far," said a veteran gay journalist who asked to remain anonymous. "In terms of deciding where moderation is needed, it shouldn't come from a straight person--we have the mainstream doing this enough already. Outsiders shouldn't strike our compromises." Activist Sheehy said he was reluctant to criticize Hauptman, who he said faced many unfair critics, but he thought she was lecturing. "Seeing the male nude as offensive contradicts 20 years of gay liberation. She needs to look where she is--she's in the queer community, publishing a queer publication."

While Hauptman admits she didn't realize she was touching upon such a sensitive and wide-reaching issue, she said it was a trying, and ultimately valuable, learning experience. A few months after the furor died down, the model who had posed for the flier came by Frontiers to give Hauptman an autographed copy of the flier. Hauptman was in a meeting at the time, but said she appreciated the gesture.

The "penis debacle" aside, can a straight editor still contribute the expertise and provide a worthwhile product?

"It's a tough call," said Diane Anderson, executive editor of Girlfriends magazine. "In an ideal world, if you are trained to know your job and know the market, then you're the right person regardless of your sexual orientation. My only criticism would be, Does she have the same commitment as a gay person to the community?"

Hauptman believes her long-term commitment prior to Frontiers speaks for itself. Still, her arrival in the gay press marks a tangible shift within the community towards greater integration. And with increased coverage of gay issues in the mainstream press, the question "do we still need a gay press?" must be raised.

"The gay press is a vital and powerful force because it allows us to experience our connection to one another," explains A.M. Williams, an anthropologist with a focus on gay life in San Francisco. "However, the gay press must be mindful of its responsibility to represent the plurality of voices, beliefs and ideas in its coverage. Otherwise, its ability to be a catalyst in the queer community will be severely limited."

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From the June 1-14, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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