Since Stonewall: How far LGBTQ coverage has come in 50 years

June 28, 2019 09:00

This banner headline blared out from the front page of section two of the July 6, 1969, edition of the New York Daily News:
New York Daily News Stonewall headline
The lede was even worse:
She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.
News reporter Jerry Lisker’s account of rebellions that had taken place a week earlier in New York City was representative of how most journalists – and most of our nation’s population, for that matter – viewed and described the LGBTQ community long before it ever had that acronym.
Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shot down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village.
The NYPD raid of the Stonewall Inn began at about 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28. There had been many raids at Stonewall and other New York City gay bars before. Homosexuality, after all, was illegal at the time, and was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. (In 1987 the APA decided it no longer deserved that designation.) This time, however, the patrons – who were mostly gay men, by the way, and were not dressed in women’s clothing – would have no more of it.
They fought back. Demonstrations – many characterize them as riots – occurred that morning and for five subsequent evenings. Today, what happened at the Stonewall Inn is considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
The Daily News’ report wasn’t the only one. A story in the now-defunct Village Voice, whose offices were on the same block as the Stonewall Inn in 1969, included sentences such as, “The police had difficulty keeping a d--e [pejorative term for lesbians] in a patrol car,” and “the sound filtering in doesn’t suggest dancing f-----s [pejorative term for gay men] any more.”
The New York Times and Washington Post barely mentioned the disturbances, and there were no television crews present, according to many people who were there and several historical accounts of the media coverage.
If that seems odd, remember the public’s overall attitude toward gay and transgender people during that time. Recall that broadcasters were still under the yoke of oppressive government regulation that likely caused newsroom leaders to be skittish about calling attention to people whom society considered (wrongly, as was determined later) deviants.
Stonewall happened only about two years after an explosive CBS News documentary, “The Homosexuals,” in which correspondent Mike Wallace reported:
The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his “love” life, consists of a series of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits, and even on the streets of the city – the quick, one-night stand – these are characteristic of the homosexual relationship.
Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of US gay and lesbian couples living together today in long term monogamous relationships, including marriage, many of them raising children.
To get a more comprehensive, up-to-date, sense of pre-Stonewall America, as well as the police raid and its immediate aftermath, spend an hour and 20 minutes watching the PBS “American Experience” documentary. It is well worth the time.
Now, of course, the entirety of June is Pride month in many states and municipalities across America, and in several countries around the world.
Unless you are sociologically tone deaf, you know that Pride month is a moment each year for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community – and its allies – to celebrate their places in humanity.
The Stonewall bar, which is still open for business in the Village, was designated as a national park by the Obama administration.
The occasion of this year’s Pride month, 50 years post-Stonewall, begs the question: Are you proud of your station’s or publication’s LGBTQ coverage?
Here are two questions to ask yourself as you contemplate your answer.
  1. Do you use the proper terminology when reporting LGBTQ issues? NLGJA, “The Association of LGBTQ Journalists,” has an excellent style guide that can help. Among many other things, it explains the difference between the terms “sexual orientation” and “sexual preference.” (Answer: The correct term is “sexual orientation,” since much of the scientific community believes that to whom one is attracted sexually is determined by nature and is not a choice.)
  1. Do you take into account in your coverage decisions the fact that a significant segment of society has sincerely held beliefs – often based on religion – that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is an affront? (Look at how the Supreme Court struggled to thread the needle last year in its Masterpiece Cake Shop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision, which favored a Denver-area baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple because, he said, it ran counter to his religious beliefs – but only in a narrow way that virtually guarantees the issue will have to be revisited by the high court in the future.)
Whether you realize it, you likely work alongside people in your newsroom who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. While such folks have always worked in journalism, since a series of landmark Supreme Court rulings during the last decade and a half – particularly 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted same-sex couples the right to marry – many have tended to be more open about their sexual orientations.
Whether you realize it, you likely work alongside people in your newsroom who earnestly believe that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is, for whatever reason, wrong. Because of regulatory or workplace policies many companies have in place, or both, such individuals have tended to be less open about their beliefs.
I should note, parenthetically, that there is by no means unanimity among religious denominations regarding this issue. While the Roman Catholic church strongly prohibits same-sex marriage, Pope Francis reportedly told a gay man last year that “God made you this way.” Even at some of America’s most ardently evangelical institutions of higher learning, there is disagreement.
But that is not the point.
Rather, the objective here is to help you report on LGBTQ issues in a manner that is accurate and respectful, during Pride month and all year round.
First, resist the temptation to show footage only of drag queens on floats during your coverage of Pride parades or other celebrations. Not all LGBTQ people dress in clothing usually associated with a different gender and then lip sync – sometimes badly – to pop songs or showtunes. Ensure your coverage reflects the best obtainable representation of who was there, even the many straight LGBTQ allies who show up.
Second, and perhaps more important, use the correct terminology. In addition to the NLGJA style guide referenced earlier, the Human Rights Campaign has a helpful glossary of terms. We are journalists. We are supposed to be accurate in our reporting.
Third, make it your business – again, for the sake of accuracy – to know the difference between “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” They are not the same. Last year, CBSN did a documentary on the subject. Watch it and learn.
Fourth, defy any instinct you may have to paint all opponents of LGBTQ rights as hate-filled bigots. Some most certainly are, but many have deep, thoughtful and, to them, well-reasoned beliefs that loving someone of the same gender, or identifying as someone with a gender different from the one with which he or she was born, is wrong.
Finally, use your air time or social media channels to help your viewers, listeners and readers understand LGBTQ issues specifically relevant to your community.
About a year ago, Nexstar-owned KARK-TV in Little Rock did just that on its Facebook page. Reporter Mitch McCoy, whose time at the station began in 2015 with him receiving a letter demanding the station take him off the air because he is gay, led an 18-minute Facebook Live interview with two LGBTQ advocates in the heart of Arkansas, one of the reddest states in America.
What McCoy – and Nexstar’s KARK-TV – did was use one of the station’s social media platforms to show members of the LGBTQ community that they have support networks available to them if they need them.
I wish I could say their efforts were met with universal praise, or, at least, acceptance. Sadly, though, one of the people who commented on the Facebook Live video wrote, “Sick nasty demons talk about the disease they are spreading.”
Here are the facts:
  • Whether you – or your viewers, listeners or readers – want or choose to believe it, there are LGBTQ community members in your midst.
  • The LGBTQ members in your community are human beings, worthy of the respect and the same accurate, unbiased coverage you provide to every other segment of your audience.
  • There are people in your community who think being part of the LGBTQ community is sincerely wrong – for religious, cultural or other reasons – and they deserve your respect and factual coverage, too, although you have an obligation to expose any ignorance and hypocrisies that may be behind the outrage of some.
  • Covering the LGBTQ community, and those who have legitimate religious and/or moral grounds not to support it, requires – in the effort to provide accurate, balanced coverage – your thoughtful and respectful journalistic consideration.
We, as journalists, have an important responsibility at all times but, on this issue, especially now, 50 years post-Stonewall, we must educate ourselves about LGBTQ issues. Then, we have an obligation to inform our news consumers correctly.
There’s plenty of name calling to go around, Who, if not us, will thoughtfully explore the real issues in a knowledgeable way, and in a way that educates the people who watch, listen to and read the responsible journalism we produce?
As the RTDNA Code of Ethics states, “Practitioners of ethical journalism seek diverse and even opposing opinions in order to reach better conclusions that can be clearly explained and effectively defended or, when appropriate, revisited and revised.”
There is no issue for which it is more important to follow that guidance than in our coverage of the LGBTQ community.
Our industry’s portrayals of LGBTQ issues have changed dramatically, and mostly for the better, since the Stonewall incident half a century ago, beginning with coverage of the first Pride celebration, in New York City, one year later, and continuing with the thousands of Pride festivities and observances across the country every year since.
It is our obligation, as those holding a bond to create a more informed and educated society, to keep improving that coverage throughout the year, not just during Pride.