Whitewashing the Gray Lady: Old Bias Back in the Closet

Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America , by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney. Simon & Schuster, 716 pages, $30.

Finding the Boyfriend Within: A Practical Guide for Tapping Into Your Own Source of Love, Happiness and Respect , by Brad Gooch. Simon & Schuster, 171 pages, $21.

Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Challenges Politics as Usual , by Richard Tafel. Simon & Schuster, 253 pages, $25.

Social gadfly Brad Gooch checked into the Chopra (as in Deepak) Center for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif., not long ago; he re-emerged to pen Finding the Boyfriend Within: A Practical Guide for Tapping Into Your Own Source of Love, Happiness and Respect . In this book we learn that at the many dinner parties the author attends, gay men approach him and tell him they find it incredible that he doesn’t have a boyfriend since he is “great looking” and “a good writer” and “a nice guy” who appears in “little inch-by-inch photos … in gossip columns and magazines.”

Thankfully, Mr. Gooch’s is not the only gay-themed book Simon & Schuster has on its roster for June. An engaging and provocative read, Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Challenges Politics as Usual , is a manifesto whose name speaks for itself; the author is the executive director of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, Richard Tafel. And then there’s Out for Good , the book that Simon & Schuster is hyping big, claiming that it will do for the lesbian and gay rights movement what Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters did for the civil rights movement.

This 716-page journalistic history by openly gay members of The New York Times ‘ staff, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, begins in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots in New York and the formation soon thereafter of the radical Gay Liberation Front; it takes us through to the late 80’s, when the AIDS activist movement came into full swing. Mr. Clendinen, an editorial writer at The Times , and Mr. Nagourney, a political reporter, interviewed 330 individuals over a period of seven years. A theme that stitches much of the book together is the often white-hot conflict between moderate-to-conservative activists and activists further to the left. Rather than imploding due to this conflict, the gay movement has consistently advanced. “The movement for gay identity and gay rights has come further and faster, in terms of change, than any other that has gone before it in this nation,” the authors note in their introduction.

Unfortunately, Out for Good is neither balanced nor objective–nor is it the “definitive” history Messrs. Clendinen and Nagourney clearly set out to write. The book is personality-driven, with subjects’ physical and other attributes described in ways that are at times adolescent and at other times offensive. The authors gratuitously label various male and female activists as “ugly,” “pudgy,” “unattractive” and “bulky.” One activist who is an albino is described as “300 pounds of damp pink flesh.” Far more troubling, however, is the book’s omission of any reference to the historic animosity between gay activists and the authors’ employer, The New York Times , even as the authors document homophobia at other news organizations, from The Miami Herald to The New Orleans Times-Picayune .

The New York Times played a critical role in both hampering the early gay rights movement and affecting the initial national response to the AIDS epidemic, which for years was relegated to little blips in the back of the paper. Much of this was due to the bias of Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of The Times during those years. Under Mr. Rosenthal, the word “gay” was barred from The Times for much of the 70’s and 80’s. The Gay Activists Alliance, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and later, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act Up–all groups that Messrs. Clendinen and Nagourney discuss at length–took on The Times , launching letter-writing campaigns, phone “zaps,” and public demonstrations, often to no avail.

Gay staff members at The Times in those years have claimed they were mistreated and that they feared for their jobs, and coverage of gay issues in the paper for most of those two decades was often either overtly homophobic or nonexistent. Much of this has been documented in books, and reported on at length in recent years in the media. The Times ‘ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as well as former and current Times editors, columnists and reporters, have openly discussed Mr. Rosenthal’s and The Times ‘ past sins with regard to coverage of gay issues.

Even Mr. Rosenthal, though quite defensive, has acknowledged gay activists’ anger toward him and has admitted that The Times could have done more to shed light on the emerging AIDS epidemic. And in his recent memoir, The Times of My Life, and My Life With ‘The Times’ , former executive editor Max Frankel, who worked under Mr. Rosenthal for many years before taking the helm of the paper in 1986, devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of The Times ‘ dismal past coverage of gays. Mr. Frankel concludes that his newspaper dropped the ball on AIDS. Strangely, Mr. Clendinen is one of those staff members who has in the past spoken candidly about Mr. Rosenthal’s shortcomings and the paper’s overall homophobia during the Rosenthal regime. However, Mr. Clendinen made his disparaging remarks in 1992, during a period when he was not working at the paper. He only recently rejoined The Times , where Mr. Rosenthal is an Op-Ed columnist.

Mr. Clendinen not only seems to have lost his memory, but he and Mr. Nagourney actually float the idea that The Times had somehow become a bastion of good will toward gays as far back as the early 70’s. Writing about the days immediately following the 1973 gay pride celebration in New York, the authors state: ” The New York Times that Monday morning, in a demonstration of how much the attitude toward gays had changed in its newsroom and in Manhattan, featured a large, friendly story and photograph in its metropolitan report about the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade.” This was in fact in the midst of Mr. Rosenthal’s reign of terror over gays in the newsroom, a regime publicly criticized by several staff members, including Jeffrey Schmalz, a reporter who died of AIDS in 1993–and who was a close friend of Mr. Nagourney. Out for Good is dedicated to Jeffrey Schmalz.

Why is Mr. Nagourney obscuring The Times ‘ homophobic past? Perhaps because if he acknowledged the paper’s dismal record he would then have to be more generous to a prominent activist with whom it appears he has had a falling out: playwright and AIDS firebrand Larry Kramer. As Mr. Frankel discusses in three poignant pages in his memoir, and as Mr. Kramer documents in Reports From the Holocaust , throughout the 80’s Mr. Kramer wrote blistering letters to The Times and had heated public and private exchanges with the editors regarding the paper’s coverage of AIDS.

Mr. Kramer is an important if controversial figure in the history of both the gay and AIDS movements. He co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Act Up, published articles and books that galvanized thousands, and wrote a critically acclaimed and controversial play, The Normal Heart , which focused attention on AIDS and on the negligence that surrounded it. Messrs. Nagourney and Clendinen give short shrift to Mr. Kramer, however. They portray him as an annoying sideline character whose critique of the gay sex scene in his 1978 satirical novel Faggots was universally rejected by gays. (That, of course, does not explain the book’s immense success, nor the loyal following of gay men it brought Mr. Kramer.)

In the revised edition of Reports From the Holocaust , Mr. Kramer recounts arguments he had with Mr. Nagourney regarding Jeffrey Schmalz’s memorial service. Schmalz’s sister had happily agreed to have Mr. Kramer, who had befriended Schmalz, speak at the service. Mr. Nagourney, who was among those organizing the service, was opposed to this; Mr. Kramer told him he was going to speak whether Mr. Nagourney liked it or not. According to Mr. Kramer, at the memorial service Mr. Nagourney told the audience, many of whom were New York Times editors and staff members, that he was allowing Mr. Kramer to speak only because Mr. Kramer had threatened him with an Act Up demonstration (Mr. Kramer has denied this). When it was his turn at the podium, Mr. Kramer blasted The Times , and blamed Jeffrey Schmalz’s death in part on the editors’ negligence in not covering AIDS early on. Quite a few editors walked out.

Did a personal squabble shape how Mr. Kramer was portrayed in Out for Good ? Were Messrs. Clendinen and Nagourney afraid of offending their employer by dredging up old embarrassments? For whatever reason, they have consciously chosen not to report on how an influential American institution damaged the emerging gay and lesbian rights movement.