by Karen Ocamb
(This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Blade. It is republished with permission of the Los Angeles Blade.)
It was the last day of Passover, a calm and tranquil Sunday in West Hollywood. And then the news started bubbling up about an attack on the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in San Diego County by a 19-year-old with a semiautomatic weapon. One woman was dead and three others, including the rabbi, were wounded.
The shooting came one day after President Trump’s speech before the National Rifle Association and major news coverage of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign announcement video using the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville where white supremacists carrying tiki torches chanted “Jews will not replace us!” The teenager arrested for shooting up the Poway synagogue apparently left an anti-Semitic screed on the Internet. Authorities said they would investigate the attack as a hate crime.
I read these news reports through rainbow-colored glasses. White supremacy isn’t limited to anti-Semitism or racism. But hatred for LGBT people is such a given, we often don’t even get a mention in their screeds.
|Los Angeles Blade’s Karen Ocamb
That’s what I look for or extrapolate as an LGBT reporter.
LGBT people live intersectional lives and feel an empathetic gut-punch when any bias-based attack hits the news. But LGBT African Americans are not included or cross-indexed in an overview of racist hate crimes. And there is a whole separate category for the epidemic of murders of trans women of color. The Consumer Health Foundation, taking in access to healthcare, housing, jobs and violence, for instance, said in 2018 that the life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 31. Bamby Salcedo, founder and CEO of TransLatin@ Coalition, puts it closer to 22.
This horrifying statistic is ignored, as are other facts and assessments. The Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress have reported that those most at risk for poverty are African-American lesbian couples with children in the South. How can you put food on the table if you can’t get a job because of your real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity? But where is discussion of the Equality Act in the mainstream media?
LGBT people are officially second-class citizens, no matter how much money we do or don’t have; or how much we contribute to politicians or non-profits; no matter how many voters we turn out; no matter if the media is taken with one of us credibly running for president of the United States.
To be sure, the mainstream cares when there’s a big newsworthy event or a phenomenon like the epidemic of gay teen suicides that led to the It Gets Better movement. Remember that? Well, LGBT kids are still killing themselves.
But for the most part, we are ignored or erased from the narrative. For example: on Feb. 22, 2019, Thomas T. Cullen, US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, “The Grave Threats of White Supremacy and Far-Right Extremism,” which is posted on the Justice Department’s website.
In it, Cullen writes: “In 2009, Congress took an important step in arming federal investigators to deal with hate crimes by passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law makes it possible to prosecute as hate crimes violent acts committed against victims because of their race, color, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity or disability. The law provides stringent maximum penalties, including life imprisonment, if someone is killed during a hate crime.”
Matthew Shepard was gay but Cullen curiously omits sexual orientation when talking about the hate crime bill.
The LGBT press offers an alternative to that void, to that willful and benign ignorance. And we have since at least 1947 when Lisa Ben typed Vice Versa onto several carbon copies to distribute the “magazine” to other lesbians she met covertly. Homosexuality was criminal in many states until 2003 when the Supreme Court overturned a Texas law criminalizing consenting adult gay sex in Lawrence v. Texas.
But ironically, it was the Supreme Court that enabled gay people to find one another through the distribution of ONE Magazine. ONE Inc, which had broken off from the Silver Lake-based Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay, started publishing ONE Magazine in 1952. But in 1954, the Los Angeles Postmaster Otto Olesen refused to mail the publication, describing the October 1954 issue as “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy.”
But ONE fought back and while it took until 1958, it prevailed in the landmark First Amendment case. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner credited the victory in One, Inc. v. Olesen with enabling him to distribute Playboy magazine through the mail, thus jump-starting the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
ONE reported in the next issue: “For the first time in American publishing history, a decision binding on every court now stands, … affirming in effect that it is in no way proper to describe a love affair between two homosexuals as constitut(ing) obscenity,” according to a report about the case in the LA Times.
That perception, however, didn’t hold with the general public and the LGBT community is still fighting harmful beliefs that we need to change or die.
Nonetheless, LGBT people have persisted throughout our history: Jim Kepner, a writer for ONE Magazine, collected many of the publications aimed at informing and bolstering LGBT people, all of which he turned into an archive that now resides with ONE Institute at USC. That includes The Ladder, published by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, from 1956 to 1972, and The Lesbian Tide, published by Jeanne Cordova, who ensured that ONE had a lesbian section curated by Yolanda Retter. ONE also houses Alan Bell’s BLK Magazine and other publications such as The LA Advocate, first published before the Stonewall Riots to let gay people know about protests against LAPD bar raids.
Perhaps most importantly, the LGBT press recorded the devastation of the AIDS crisis — and not without financial risk and consternation. When Frontiers publisher Bob Craig reprinted Larry Kramer’s explosive essay, “AIDS 1,112 and counting…,” — first published in the New York Native, Issue 59, March 14-27,1983 — bar owners threw the magazine out lest it scare off patrons who didn’t want to even think about the mysterious new disease killing gay men.
As the alternative to the mainstream media, it often falls to us to ask the questions other reporters may not even think about. That’s what happened in April 1992, after the LA Riots finally forced longtime anti-LGBT LAPD Chief Daryl Gates to resign. Mayor Tom Bradley and the LA Police Commission introduced new Chief Willie Williams at a news conference broadcast live to the city.
I sat up front. LGBT civilians had major problems with the LAPD — the Christopher Commission Report indicated that cops often dubbed gays “NHI” – meaning “No Human Involved.” But gay and lesbian officers also felt harassed on the job — as evidenced by Sgt. Mitch Grobeson’s lawsuit that included testimony that he did not receive backup in a dangerous situation.
When I asked Williams about how he would treat gay officers and how he would enforce non-discrimination policies, the whole room went silent. Officials blanched with consternation since they clearly had not prepared him for the question. Seconds later, the clicks from photographers’ cameras deafened the air as Williams answered that he had a track record in Philadelphia of working with the city’s gay community and would do so here. One of his first stops after being sworn in was at the LA Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center. It was all major news, but mostly to us.
Today, we have Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon as broadcast stars and the general public seems more inclined to like us. But on the ground, it’s still hard to come out, LGBT teen suicide is still prevalent, trans murders are still an epidemic, and Trump and some states are still trying to roll back or stop LGBT rights.
And yet we continue to prevail — and the LGBT press continues, as well.
Take Luis Sandoval, who recently came out on Univision. It’s had a big impact on him and his audience. “I finally was honest and transparent with the audience and by doing so, I was opening a little door to start the conversation about important issues that have been part of my own experience: such as bullying, suicidal thoughts, lack of rights, depression and many more issues that affect our LGBTQ community,” Sandoval told the Los Angeles Blade.
“Growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, most of the gay males I would see on TV were dying of AIDS. It was terrifying to think I was also gay,” he said. “There were no role models to look up to. Now that I am on the other side of the screen, I feel it is my responsibility to make a difference, even if it is only one person at a time. If I can save one life, or make someone’s life a little easier, it will be worth my while.”
And this is why reporting on LGBT people not as a “social issue” but as human beings fighting for civil rights is central to the mission of the LGBT press.