Closet doors are swinging open in newsrooms everywhere. Gay and lesbian journalists say they've kept quiet long enough.
To reporter Lily Eng, being Asian American and a woman were obstacles enough in the white, male-dominated world of journalism.
Being a lesbian was an even bigger hurdle. But it was one she could avoid. To colleagues at the San Francisco Examiner, she appeared to be just another young, single--and straight--rising star.
"In essence, my lover had a sex change," she says. "When I told people what I did over the weekend, I changed names and pronouns. I became quite good at it."
It was not without irony, then, that Eng found herself on an Examiner reporting team that produced the acclaimed 1989 series, "Gay in America."
"I was writing all of these stories about people coming out, but I still couldn't do it myself," she recalls. "If I came out, I would be known not only as a lesbian, but as a liar."
Eng came out of the closet after joining the Los Angeles Times in 1989, but it wasn't until she became an education reporter at the Seattle Times earlier this year that she was more open about her sexuality.
"I'm not the kind of person who will wear a big L on my T-shirt," she says, but she did place a framed photo of her partner on her desk, and a bumper sticker urging other gay reporters to "Come out, come out, wherever you are" is displayed nearby.
Many journalists are following this advice. Since the late-1980s, an unprecedented number of gay reporters and managers have come out of the closet and by their very numbers begun to challenge the newsroom's traditional "heterocentrist" culture. In the process, they have fought for more and better coverage of the gay community, organized diversity workshops to promote tolerance and lobbied for workplace rights such as insurance benefits for partners.
A sign of the movement's momentum came last summer when 300 journalists gathered in San Francisco for the first convention of the two-year-old National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). It now has 12 chapters and 600 members.
In many ways, gay journalists are following colleagues of Asian, African and Hispanic descent who have launched national organizations with similar goals. But it hasn't been as easy to attract members. Some gay journalists, including several interviewed for this article, remain uncomfortable with the idea of going public, fearing they would jeopardize their jobs or careers. (Registrants at the NLGJA convention were warned that CNN and print reporters would be covering the event.) Further, many newsroom employment policies don't forbid discrimination against gays.
Even so, newsrooms are changing. Gay activists have forced the public and the press to take notice of a wide variety of issues, ranging from AIDS prevention to discrimination in the armed services. These activists have also emboldened gay journalists to be more assertive in the newsroom. And finally, some publishers and editors are becoming more open to the needs of their gay employees as well as the need to cover gay issues.
Closet Doors Open
Before the 1980s, gays were virtually invisible in American newsrooms. They either hid their sexuality or pretended to be straight in order to get along with their colleagues. In a groundbreaking New York Times Magazine article in 1971, presidential biographer and former newspaper editor Merle Miller wrote about his experiences as a closeted gay man.
"I became city editor of the Daily Iowan [while attending the University of Iowa shortly before World War II]," he wrote, "and modeled myself after a character out of 'The Front Page,' wearing a hat indoors and out, talking out of the corner of my mouth, never without a cigarette, being folksy with the local cops, whom I detested, one and all. I chased girls, never with much enthusiasm I'm afraid, and denounced queers with some regularity in the column I wrote for the Iowan. …