In June, Ideas staff reporter Leon Neyfakh wrote about Boston’s underappreciated role in the gay rights movement of the 1970s. The article challenged the idea that all the meaningful activity around gay rights took place in San Francisco and New York, and it also prompted others to take another look at Boston’s contributions: Inspired by the article, the annual conference of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, which took place in Boston this August, included a panel called “In The Beginning: Boston’s Role in the Birth and Development of LGBT Media.”
Boston was home to a number of early, influential gay publications, including the Gay Community News, Fag Rag, and the lesbian journal, Focus. Together, they helped organize the gay community and bring gay issues to mainstream attention. As the participants on the Boston panel noted, however, these successes can obscure the precarious position that gay media outlets occupied when they were just starting out.
“There were these obstacles to how an organization shares its information when its typical channels are denied,” says Andrew Elder, a panel participant and librarian at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has been involved with archiving materials from the Boston gay rights movement.
At the time, any association with a gay organization was a politically charged act. Many newsstands wouldn’t carry gay publications, and subscribers felt the need to be circumspect about what they read, which is why the Gay Community News was stuffed into plain envelopes each week before being mailed out. Reaching a wider audience was difficult, too. Elder explains that in 1973, the Boston chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a national lesbian organization, was initially refused when it tried to take out an advertisement in the Boston Globe’s book review section that included the word “lesbian.” (After a brief battle, the Globe’s editorial staff ended up approving the ad.)
The fact of being a gay publication was complicating in other ways, too. When the Gay Community News applied for non-profit status in 1973, it took the name “Bromfield Street Educational Foundation” so as not to raise any red flags with the IRS.
“They didn’t even dare ask for non-profit status with the word gay in the title,” says Robert David Sullivan, a Boston-area journalist (and occasional Ideas contributor) who helped to organize the panel. “That was just by itself considered political activism.”
Gay publications operate in a difficult climate today, too, though the challenges are very different than they were in the 1970s. Beginning in the early 1990s, the gap between gay media outlets and the mainstream media began to narrow—WFNX began running One in Ten, a radio program about gay issues, and shortly thereafter the Boston Phoenix introduced a whole section by the same name intended to appeal to gay readers.
The trend has continued so that now there’s not a lot of difference between the way the Boston Globe covers gay news and the way gay focused publications like Bay Windows do. As a result, gay publications have in a sense become victims of the overall success of the gay rights movement.
“Bay Windows is on hard times now because acceptance has gone so far that the Globe has covered so many things that are interesting to the gay community,” says Sullivan. “There’s less niche marketing now.”
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.