Karen Ocamb

Nuance & LGBT News [Photo Essay]

Filed By Karen Ocamb | April 30, 2012 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: ACT UP/LA, AIDS Memorial Quilt, Alan Bell, Alan Hergott, Barry Diller, Bill Clinton, BLK magazine, Bob Craig, Bob Hattory, Bruce Mirkin, Cecilia Estolano, Conrado Terrazas, Cory Roberts, Curt Shepard, Dan Levy, Daniel Warner, Darrell Cummings, David Drake, David Mixner, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Diane Abbitt, Diane Watson, Frontiers magazine, Gail Rolf, GLAAD, Harry Hay, Herb Hamsher, Hillary Rodham Clinton, HIV/AIDS, Ian McKellen, Jackie Goldberg, Jerry Brown, Jewel Thais-Williams, Jim Burroway, Jim Kepner, John Duran, Jonathan Stoller, Judge Rand Schrader, Judith Light, Judy Sisneros, Kristine Gebbie, LA Shanti, Lambda Legal, LGBT journalism, LGBT rights, Lisa Ben, Lorri Jean, Mark Kostopolous, Mary Fisher, Mary Lucey, Maxine Waters, Mayor Richard Riordan, Michael Kearns, Michael Weinstein, Morris Kight, Nancy McNeil, NGLTF, ONE Magazine, Paul Monette, Phill Wilson, Rev. Troy Perry, Richard Colbert, Richard Rouillard, Rob Roberts, Robert Desiderio, Scott Hitt, Sean Strub, Sgt Perry Watkins, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Terrence McNally, Terry Wolverton, Tom Hanks, Tom Stoddar, Tony Miller, Urvashi Vaid, Virginia Uribe, Wayne Karr, Winston Wilde, Xavier Becerra

This is an expanded version of my story in Frontiers magazine and posted at FrontiersLA.com.

Almost two weeks after California Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the long-fought-for gay rights bill AB 101, I found myself sitting next to Jim Kepner on the 384-mile bus ride from Los Angeles to Sacramento for yet another outburst of outrage over the ease with which government sloughs off LGBT people as second-class citizens. It was National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, 1991, and I marveled at how the 68-year-old was determined to drag his frail, stooped body out to a wildly unpredictable protest march at the capitol. But, as one of the original citizen journalists of the LGBT movement, he felt the need to participate in history being made, which I needed to dutifully record.

Jim Kepnter, Harry Hay, Morris Kight (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Without fuss or fanfare, this modest gay man with twinkling eyes treated me to an LGBT "oral history" and a master class in advocacy journalism. My thinking shifted. I was rooted in mainstream professionalism - the high bar of 'objective' reporting to which 'advocacy' was anathema.

But suddenly 'objectivity' itself was challenged. What if the truth lies not in the facts discerned by a mainstream reporter who parachutes into a scene and relies on statements by the loudest eyewitness, but rather on nuance and historical context unimagined, unobserved or unavailable to the outsider?

That's why there is such a need for LGBT, minority and 'specialty' press - to provide insight, balance and often accuracy to stories where chasing and grasping nuance is too often perceived as a chore or a luxury to mainstream reporters on deadline.

Los Angeles is the birthplace of the LGBT press. "Lisa Ben" - a pen name for Edith Eyde - started Vice Versa, the first known lesbian publication in Los Angeles, in 1947. The mimeographed newsletter/magazine enabled lesbians to connect with each other at a time when homosexuality was a ruinous crime, an official psychological perversion and a religious abomination for which 'cures' were imprisonment, lobotomies and castration.

Lisa Ben

A few years later came ONE, an outgrowth of the Silver Lake-based Mattachine Society. Jim Kepner met Mattachine founder Harry Hay in December 1952 and Bill Lambert, later known as W. Dorr Legg. Together with Martin Block and Dale Jennings, they launched ONE magazine in 1953; Don Slater took over later. The name ONE was taken from a Thomas Carlyle quote: "A common bond of brotherhood makes all men one," though women were welcome, too.

Most of the ONE contributors were amateur journalists. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, however, were university-trained journalists. They created the DOB newsletter The Ladder and wrote three books, starting with the iconic Lesbian/Women in 1972.

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin

The PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) newsletter transformed into The Los Angeles Advocate after a police raid on the Black Cat in Silver Lake in 1967. They reported on who was beaten, where, police raids and protests well before New York's Stonewall Riots in 1969.

The Gay Liberation movement sprung up at the same time as students, women, blacks and Chicanos were finding the power in their voices, too. They were more aggressive than the civil rights and early counter-culture movements that blossomed during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The sexual liberation movement picked up steam, too, with the publication of Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique and the wider use of the birth control pill.

But it was ONE magazine that pried open America's Puritanical closet door. The FBI had been trying to shut ONE down for some time. But it was Kepner's March 1954 cover story "The Importance of Being Different" that prompted Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Alexander Wiley (R-Wis.) to write a protest letter to the U.S. Postmaster General about the "so-called 'magazine' devoted to the advancement of sexual perversions," according to research by Jim Burroway of BoxTurtleBulletin. The defiant editors subsequently asked their legal counsel to write up what the rules were for an October 1954 cover story "You Can't Print It!"

But in the same issue were a fictional love story with a happy ending, a poem about morals charges and two ads - all of which postal officials determined meant the magazine was "obscene." The L.A. Post Office seized the "You Can't Print It!" issue and charged ONE editors with sending an "obscene, lewd and/or lascivious" publication through the mail in violation of the 1873 Comstock Act. ONE sued, and their young attorney, Eric Julber, argued the case pro bono before the federal courts. He lost before the district and appeals courts. But then, to the surprise of many, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case, and in its first decision on homosexuality, issued a one-sentence ruling on January 13, 1958, overturning the lower courts' rulings and expanding freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The ruling also enabled the five-year-old Playboy magazine to be distributed through the mail, too, injecting even more excitement into the sexual liberation movement.

But the gay and sexual liberation movements abruptly ended with the revelation that AIDS was sexually transmitted. To compensate, new phone sex businesses emerged and became a solid financial advertising foundation for gay publications.

Michael Kearns in Dream Man

In 1987, all the pent-up grief and fear turned into a righteous and sexy outrage with the formation of ACT UP. The LGBT press covered the protests with excitement while most mainstream reporters followed the 'facts' as presented by the LAPD or other government officials. Dave Johnson, a onetime reporter for the old L.A. Free Press and the executive director of Being Alive, started writing a regular column for a thin gay activist weekly called The News, run by Sandy Dwyer. Johnson argued that it was the virus, not sex, that was bad. The mood in L.A. shifted again, as the long, dark pall of depression started to lift - though gay publications such as Frontiers, Update in San Diego and the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco still looked like the photo/print version of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Early AIDS Poster Boy Bobbi Campbell

Obit in the Bay Area Reporter

My friend Jack Reed

Names Project AIDS Memorial Quit in Washington DC

So much death yielded heady risk-taking. I was freelancing for The Advocate under Editor in Chief Richard Rouillard and Editor Mark Thompson when Rouillard challenged everything, promoting Queer Nation, starting the Sissy Awards and, in 1991, publishing Michelangelo Signorile's outing of Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams at a time when the Pentagon was purging gays. Rouillard also changed The Advocate's sub-head to read, "The national gay and lesbian newsmagazine."

The Advocate editor-in-chief Richard Rouillard (rt) with openly gay California Secretary of State Tony Miller (1994-1995) at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association event (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

My journey in LGBT journalism started in the late 1980s. So many friends were outed by and then died from AIDS, I felt morally obligated to come out. But I didn't know how to be useful other than to write about what I saw.

AB 101 hunger striker Rob Roberts talks with AIDS hunger striker Wayne Karr at Queer Village in 1991 in West Hollywood (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

My first piece was an essay for Frontiers entitled "Ten Days That Shook the FDA" about the August 1989 hunger strike in West Hollywood by ACT UP's Wayne Karr and Lou Lance, both of whom had AIDS. At the same time that Dave Johnson, then L.A.'s first AIDS Coordinator, was testifying before Congress and Mark Kostopolous, Michael Callen and so many others were storming the Food and Drug Administration demanding compassionate release of experimental AIDS drugs.

Iconic photo by Chuck Stallard of the ACT UP/LA demonstration October 7, 1989 at the Federal Building, Westwood CA

Two months later, in October 1989, 400 people surrounded the federal building in Westwood demanding access to experimental drugs in the glacial FDA pipeline. About 80 people were arrested, including Metropolitan Community Church founder Rev. Troy Perry who told the L.A. Times that mainstream apathy over AIDS was the result of such misconceptions as "only homosexuals contract the disease, and it's a punishment from God." Troy was hurt during the arrest - you can see him wince in the video my friend Tad Feldman and I shot and produced for West Hollywood City Channel News (go to tinyurl.com/6rp5jbt to watch it).

I wasn't trained as a science or medical writer, and I worried about getting the facts wrong. But I tried - learning about antioxidants and free radicals for a piece in Sean Strub's new POZ magazine in 1994, for instance. Fortuitously, Frontiers news editor Aslan Brooke was a former Army nurse who understood the emerging A-to-Z vocabulary of the new HIV medications. Eventually, ACT UP/L.A.'s Bruce Mirkin and I struck up a kind of unspoken deal - he covered mostly science and medicine, while I covered politics and events.

POZ founder Sean Strub and AIDS Hospice Foundation co-founder Michael Weinstein discussing in-home HIV test kits at designer Bruce Decker's house (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Mike Salinas, the news editor at the Bay Area Reporter, called me an "environmental" reporter because of my emerging "you are there" style. I started thinking of the homebound person with AIDS who would have loved to have attended the event I was covering. I imagined a friend reading my story out loud so the sick PWA could imagine being there. Here are just a few examples of stories and lives I covered.

Curt Shepard, Alan Hergott, Barry Diller and Urvashi Vaid at first Hollywood fundraiser in 1991 for gay civil rights thrown for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force by entertainment attorney Hergott and entertainment manager Barry Krost (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

ACT UP/LA die-in against President HW Bush (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Mary Lucey and Mark Kostopolous lead demo at the Academy Awards (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Judge Rand Schrader just received an award from LA Shanti's Daniel P. Warner (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Tom Hanks get a kiss from actor David Drake ("The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me") at the LA premier of the AIDS movie "Philadelphia" (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

ACT UP/LA's Cory Roberts, GLF's Morris Kight with Jerry Brown as he campaigned for President in WeHo (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

A courageous Sister of Perpetual Indlugence member stands up to haters (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Discharged Sgt Perry Watkins signs GLAAD poster protesting ban on open service (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

LGBT supportive Republican LA Mayor Richard Riordan with Log Cabin Republicans/LA president Ritch Colbert (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton praises his friend David Mixner for help with Clinton's presdiential campaign (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Rep. Maxine Waters and LA City Councilmember Jackie Goldberg at APLA AIDS Walk (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

CA State Sen. Diane Watson (far rt) with Jewel Thais-Williams next to her and Rue Thais-Williams (second from left) and friends at a "Paris Is Burning" style event (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Project 10 founder Dr. Virginia Uribe (rt) and longtime partner Gail Rolf at first-ever LGBT school prom for kids (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

ACT UP/LA's Judy Sisneros surrounded by cops while protesting homophobia in Hollywood (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Congressional candidate Xavier Becerra with Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos co-founders Conrado Terrazas and Cecilia Estolano (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Women Alive editor Nancy MacNeil arrested at AIDS protest (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Phill Wilson, co-founder of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

BLK publisher Alan Bell and LA City AIDS Coordinator Phill Wilson (I wrote the BLK cover on Phill for that 1990 story) (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

David Mixner arranged for me to interview Hillary Clinton after her appearance at APLA (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

HIV positive Clinton campaign aide Bob Hattory (center) arranged for Bill Clinton to talk to ACT UP/LA's Dan Levy with me tagging along after Clinton's historic speech to LGBTs in Hollywood. They agreed on almost everything - except needle exchange programs (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Jim Keltner, Frontiers publisher Bob Craig, LIFE Lobby board chair and attorney John Duran, and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's Tom Stoddard at a Clinton Inauguration event at AIDS Action Council in Washington DC (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

President Clinton names Kristine Gebbie as first AIDS Czar. LA Gay & Lesbian Center director Lorri Jean and chief of staff Darrell Cummings give her a tour of the center with ANGLE's Diane Abbitt and Dr. Scott Hitt (also chair of the Presidenti's Advisory Council on AIDS) in the background (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, whenever there was a benefit to help people with HIV/AIDS or LGBT rights, you'd find actress Judith Light, actor/writer Robert Desiderio and their managers Herb Hamsher and Jonathan Stoller and funny man Bruce Vilanch (center). They can't be thanked enough. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Judith Light, Robert Desiderio, Jonathan Stoller and Herb Hamsher rode the last 90 miles of the California AIDS Ride (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Playwright Terrence McNally and author Paul Monette at the first GLAAD/LA Awards where Paul accepted the first Stephen F. Kolzak Award on Stephen's behalf. Stephen, a Hollywood casting director, was Paul's lover. Kolzak and Monette friend Judith Light emceed. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Paul Monette's friends were very happy when he fell in love with Winston Wilde (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Paul Monette's book "Borrow Time" became the central work of non-fiction people read to learn the real story about the lives of people with AIDS. Actor Bruce Daivson said he relied on it for his performance in the PBS film "Longtime Companion." But Paul didn't just stay home and write. He was angry and showed it. Here he is at an ACT UP/LA protest of President George H. Bush outside the Century Plaza Hotel (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

I met Mary Fisher at the Clinton Inauguration. She is the straight Republican woman with HIV/AIDS who spoke at the 1992 Republican Convention. During her trip to LA, I took her to meet Michael Callen (living in WeHo) and Paul Monette. Paul's dog Puck made an appearance. Paul wrote a moving story about how Puck, "the noble beast,"helped him survive the deaths of two lovers. The essay is published in "Last Watch of the Night," but a version first appeared in Frontiers. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Winston Wilde and Paul Monette holding a photo of the Pope which Paul told me secretly he planned to rip during his keynote speech about religion and AIDS at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Creating Change convention. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Paul Monette rips a photo of the Pope during his NGLTF Creating Change keynote. He castigated the Pope for failing to approve condom use to prevent the spread of HIV. Many LGBT Catholics were upset and walked out. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Paul Monette having a good laugh with actor Ian McKellen who presented Paul with GLAAD/LA's Stephen F. Kolzak Award (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Poet/author Terry Wolverton, pictured with Winston Wilde) was one of many friends and artists who attended a GLAAD/LA event honoring Paul Monette after he won the National Book Award. Paul spoke about his failing health (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Paul Monette continued to write as long as he could in the house he shared with Winston on Kings Road, above the Sunset Strip. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Paul Monette and Winston Wilde attend the Episcopal Church at Hollywood Blvd and Gardner where he gave a World AIDS Day speech and stayed for the service. Judith Light and Robert Desiderio came to hear him. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Robert Desiderio, Judith Light, Herb Hamshir and Jonathan Stoller rode the entire 575 miles from San Francisco to LA in teh California AIDS Ride to honor Paul Monette after Paul's death in 1995. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

At times, covering some of these stories was humorously challenging. I had to ask the guy from the GAP sitting next to me at an LA Shanti event what was so fabulous about this new Isaac Mizrahi collection, which looked to me like the models (and Sandra Bernhard) were wearing shag carpet jackets.

But even more difficult was trying to capture the textures, backstories, subplots and nuances in a very limited space on the printed page. And herein, perhaps, lies a big difference between mainstream and minority reporting. The L.A. Times, for example, wrote about the 1995 L.A. Shanti "Tribute to Joe Layton" in the Entertainment section as a "Pop Music Review: Midler, Others Pay Tribute to Joe Layton." Reporter Don Heckman actually reviewed the event.

Nowhere in the story does Heckman mention that Layton died of AIDS complications, as the Times had previously reported. In fact, AIDS is only mentioned once - in the context of the kinds of services L.A. Shanti provided. But for me, the whole event was about AIDS. The show was hosted by comedian Bruce Vilanch, who by this time joked that he had emceed so many AIDS benefits, he should have a card that read "AIDS-R-US." The Times reviewer only mentions Carol Burnett, but gays and PWAs know her as the actress/comedienne who did the first TV PSA for the new American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985, the year Rock Hudson died and Elizabeth Taylor, Dr. Michael Gottlieb and Dr. Mathilde Krim started amFAR.

Heckman closed his review thusly: "Closing her headliner segment of the show, [Bette] Midler's tribute of 'Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe' and 'Wind Beneath My Wings' was both tender and heartfelt, a fitting conclusion to a well-produced evening."

Twelve years later, I still remember that L.A. Shanti event - how a large black-and-white portrait of Joe Layton was unfurled, taking everyone's breath away and prompting Bette Midler to step backwards slightly, momentarily overwhelmed. She recouped and explained who Layton was to her, sharing with people who she knew would understand. As her voice choked, she turned to the portrait of her friend and sang, "Did you ever know that you're my hero, and everything I would like to be? I can fly higher than an eagle, 'cause you are the wind beneath my wings."

There was not a dry eye in the Wiltern Theatre as Midler concluded, the thunderous standing ovation an emotional outlet for all the love and grief stored up inside so many. I didn't feel worthy or skilled enough to capture that miraculous moment. But I knew I had to struggle through it. I cried as I typed, imagining the homebound PWA listening to my words.

It is a privilege to capture such moments, the gems of our LGBT history and the legacy upon which the next generation stands. The irony is that, for all our maturation, we still ask similar questions as Kepner did in that March 1954 cover story for ONE magazine, written under the pen name Lyn Pedersen:

"Are homosexuals in any important way different from other people? If so, ought that difference be cultivated, or hidden under a bushel or extirpated altogether?" Homosexuals are "natural rebels. ... Most become inured to breaking the rules. They must reject what they learned as children and still hear repeated about them. … It should barely be necessary to state that I am interested in defending my right to be as different as I damn please. And I've picked up the notion that I can't protect my own rights without fighting for everyone else's."

Jim Kepner died on Nov. 15, 1997. He was 74. By then, Kepner's massive collection of LGBT books, publications and me morabilia had become the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, which merged with ONE Institute. His memorial in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences auditorium was packed with LGBT pioneers.

I sat in the back, dutifully taking notes, wondering about the nuanced common bond, the history shared among these LGBT brothers and sisters over the dark years and the brighter years to come.

I continue to work for the LGBT press, now as news editor for Frontiers magazine. Here are publishers (straight) Mark Hundahl (left) and David Stern (rt) with LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who I've covered since 1994. This event in WeHo launched a year-long celebration of the 30th anniversary of Frontiers magazine. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)


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