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A GAY VOICE
The landscape of mainstream journalism shifted on May 8, 1992, when The Detroit News profoundly shook up its readers. The News, the "conservative" paper in town, started the first gay column ever to run regularly in a daily newspaper. The Deb Price column "hit like an earthquake--8.5 on the Richter scale!" recalls Jan Stevenson, executive director of Detroit's gay community center.
Initial tremors of that powerful quake, which jostled assumptions of gay and straight readers alike, were felt hours before the main edition of the afternoon News landed on doorsteps and inside newsstands. At 6:15 A.M., when early copies of the News arrived, shock waves tore through the newsroom of Detroit's WJR radio. Within forty-five minutes the alarmed reverberations inside "the information station" had traveled 525 miles to my bedside phone: I was jolted awake.
Although I'm by no means a morning person, I caught enough of the words chipperly tumbling out of the receiver to understand that, while I slept, my life's terrain had forever changed. "Good morning! This is Rosanna Kelly. I'm calling from WJR radio in Detroit. I'm looking for Deb Price. I was hoping to talk to her and possibly do an interview with her on her new column that started in The Detroit News today on gay issues."
I'm not Deb Price, but the radio station had the right number. I'd crawled into bed with a fretful, expectant and obscure editor from the News' Washington bureau but woken up beside the mother of a groundbreaking newspaper column. The sleeping woman curled up beside me was the same; our world wasn't. Literally overnight, Deb hadbecome "the most widely read gay journalist in the world," as QW, a New York gay magazine, soon noted.
On the night of May 7, Deb and I had exhausted ourselves with worry and anticipation: What if her column was canceled at the last minute? What if it really did run? Since we live in a Washington, D.C., suburb instead of Detroit, a News carrier didn't deliver answers to our door. Yet with the WJR call, I knew Deb's new column had indeed run as planned. The instant I realized the column was a reality I also realized I wasn't about to shake Deb, hand her the phone and risk her being immediately put on the air while still half asleep. Deb had never given an interview, never been asked.
We were both journalists, well trained at keeping ourselves out of our stories. Yet, Deb's private life and our life together suddenly had become very public. In my newfound public role as "wife of" a minor celebrity, I told Rosanna Kelly that Deb would call WJR back shortly. Anyone who wanted to speak with the gay voice that was rattling coffee cups throughout lower Michigan would just have to wait until the voice had downed her morning Dr. Pepper.
By 7:50 Deb was on the air for a live, morning drive-time interview with Frank Beckmann, substitute host of the J.P. McCarthy Show, a decades-old program that's a Detroit institution. The exchange was friendly, newsy, professional. Only years later did Deb and I learn that before we were even awake on May 8 the WJR newsroom had been shaking with hostility toward Deb's new venture. Kelly, the McCarthy show's executive producer, recalls with a laugh that Beckmann and the program's newscaster "were all up in arms about the column. They wanted to speak to [Deb] because they were sort of outraged that this sort of column was going to be started."
What's so earthshaking about writing about life from a gay perspective?
Well, outside the gay press, no one in the entire newspaper industry was doing it. Not one of the regular columnists for the nation's fifteen hundred daily papers was devoted to writing about gay issues from a gay point of view. Even though voices within tens of millions of American families are gay, the chorus from the opinion pages of America's "family" newspapers was heterosexual or closeted. Gay readers felt frustrated and ignored; I know Deb and I did.
Then, on May 8, 1992, the newspaper industry lurched toward the twenty-first century. In a remarkable front-page letter to readers, Detroit News editor and publisher Bob Giles announced that he was pleased to introduce a gay issues column that is the first of its kind in a daily metropolitan newspaper.
While newspapers across America, including our own, have increased news coverage of gay issues, no voice is regularly heard that looks at life from a gay perspective.
The voice of this new weekly column belongs to Deb Price, news editor of our Washington bureau and formerly of The Washington Post. The column will be distributed to eighty Gannett newspapers nationwide.
I invite you to journey with Deb Price each Friday in the Accent section as she explores our changing world. I think you will find her column provocative and enlightening. We invite you to share your thoughts with her and our editors at the News.
Mild-mannered Bob Giles probably could not have surprised his city much more if he'd announced that the Detroit Pistons were bouncing across the river to Windsor, Canada. That very day, the first Deb Price column appeared, stripped down the entire left side of the front of the News' feature section. From the first week, Deb's voice was heard within Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, in daily papers from Rochester, New York, to Palm Springs, California. Soon her column was also being distributed through the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and appearing in such publications as the San Jose Mercury News, Chicago Sun- Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Atlanta Constitution, San Francisco Examiner, The Key West (Fla.) Citizen and Liberal Opinion Week. Seeing The Detroit News' example, a handful of papers launched regular gay columns of their own: Gabriel Rotello and Frank DeCaro write every week for New York Newsday; Victoria Brownworth and Mubarak S. Dahir appear in The Philadelphia Daily News on alternate weeks; Perry Deane Young's column runs every other week in the Chapel Hill, N.C., Herald; Leroy Aarons writes twice a month for The New York Times wire syndicate; Amy Adams Squire Strongheart writes a monthly column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Yet gay voices remain a rarity in mainstream journalism even though gay civil rights has finally broken into the news pages: During the historic gays-in-the-military debate of 1993, a tiny portion of daily papers published commentaries by an openly gay columnist. At more than 95 percent of American newspapers, straight columnists debated straight columnists on the future of gay people. Does that sound fair?
Fairness--or the lack of it--is a recurring theme in Deb's columns. But her first one didn't tackle discrimination head-on. A friendly round of introductions seemed a more fitting way to get acquainted.