Glad to be gay journalists

An American editor is leading a group of 1,200 fellow gays dedicated to fighting homophobia in the media. By Peter Markham and Aziz Rashid
In an editorial on the subject of same-sex marriage, the New York Post, a tabloid daily, recently ranted about the "links" between homosexuality, child molestation and sado-masochism.

It is just this kind of treatment of gays in the American media that led to the creation of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

This month, 500 journalists gathered in Miami's Hyatt Regency hotel for the NLGJA's fifth annual convention. Participants ranged from a senior vice-president of ABC News to the entertainment editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

The NLGJA was founded in 1990 by Roy Aarons, a former editor of the Oakland Tribune, after he was asked by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to co-ordinate the first survey of gay and lesbian print journalists. He found 200.

Aarons says: "I had to decide whether to come out in front of my peer editors, to whom I was reporting the results. Or did I hide behind the white, straight editor type of guy?"

He chose the former. Six years on, the NLGJA, a non-political organisation, has almost 1,200 members in 19 chapters across the United States and Canada, the majority of them from the "mainstream" press. There is no equivalent in Britain, but the National Union of Journalists has been making noises about setting up some sort of division with similar goals.

The North American chapters have successfully taken up cases of inaccurate or misleading coverage on gay issues directly with newspaper editors. And they have helped secure $500,000 to monitor media coverage of minorities, which for the first time will include lesbians and gay men.

One way of achieving fairer coverage is to change attitudes from within. By creating an atmosphere in the workplace in which gay men and lesbians feel comfortable and recognisable, NLGJA members act as a resource to colleagues as they grapple with the complex issues surrounding homosexuality.

One of the conference sponsors, Knight-Ridder, which owns 31 newspapers including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald, has introduced a sexual orientation programme which was developed with the help of NLGJA. The need for an education in minority issues was also highlighted by Ray Suarez, who hosts National Public Radio's nationwide call-in news programme, Talk of the Nation.

"When I head off to some city for the Association of Hispanic Journalists meeting, someone in the newsroom will invariably grouse, 'Maybe we should start a middle-aged white guys' organisation, and get an extra two days off.' I say, 'Actually, you already have an organisation, it's called the news business." He adds, "It is middle-class, straight, materialist, European-descended, capitalist. That does not make it bad. But, it is a narrative voice that supports order over chaos, simplicity over complexity, and seeks comfort through the acquisition of things."

Although there have been marked improvement in the coverage of gay issues, some journalists think there is still a long way to go. According to a survey by several American universities, homophobia can create serious physical and mental health problems. At worst, it can kill. There have been some estimates that a third of all teenage suicide victims are gay or lesbian, but no one knows the real figure.

Some believe that a sensible way to try to prevent such tragedy is through education in schools. Debra Chasnoff, who won an Oscar for a documentary about the nuclear weapons industry, has turned her attention to this controversial issue. She challenges the assumption that children are ever "too young" to talk about homosexuality.

The Texan barnstormer, Linda Ellerbee, a former anchor on two national network news programmes, is also no stranger to tackling difficult subjects head on. "As a woman, I know what it's like to come out and say things that may not be popular. They can't eat me. They can't put me in reporter jail. The worst thing they can do is fire me, and I keep a lot of canned food at home."

Such is the respect commanded by the NLGJA that top management from all four major national TV news outlets, including the president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, came to face questions from delegates at the convention. They all expressed views supportive of gay people at work, bringing their personnel recruiters to prove the point.

One of those executives was Joanna Bistany, a vice-president of ABC News and the division's highest-ranking woman. We asked her what would happen if the ratings dropped as a result of a top anchor coming out. "These people are in a fragile position. But, yes, we'd support them regardless. There is a dilemma and a reality here, however. Would we really be doing anyone any favours if a ratings drop forced us to lose our franchise on a programme? Frankly, it hasn't happened and I don't know if there is a simple answer."

Joanna Bistany knows how difficult it is for some people to come to terms with their sexuality. She supported one of them; her friend and colleague, the senior vice-president of ABC News, Bob Murphy. By the age of 40 he was on a downward spiral of alcohol abuse, unable to reconcile a secret homosexual life at night with maintaining a straight persona at work. Most of his close colleagues had long realised the cause of his problems, and helped bring him back from the brink - just in time.

Sitting by the pool at the Hyatt Regency in Miami among other lesbian and gay journalists, it was clearly still difficult for him to recall those times. Of his life today, he says: "I can engage with people at a fairly intimate level professionally, personally and without hesitation. That has allowed me to be myself and, as humbly as I can, to show others who are just starting their journalistic careers that you can be gay and be successful."

The writers are producers at BBC World Television. They are interested in hearing from journalists who might want to set up a similar organisation in the UK. Please write c/o the media pages of 'The Independent'.