The History of NABJ’s LGBTQ+ Task Force Part 2
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Submitted By Tre’vell Anderson, LGBTQ+ Task Force
Continued from The History of NABJ’s LGBTQ+ Task Force Part 1: Interviews with NABJers who were present along the LGBTQ+ Task Force’s now 16-year journey.
Jerry McCormick, former Board member: My first convention was in Detroit in 1992. It was the first time that I was surrounded by people “like me.” While I clocked a few people in the crowd, it was the 90s, the beginning of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So, we saw each other, had a couple of conversations — and some of us would go to the bar where people could not see us — but it wasn’t a “Let’s all go hang out” situation.
Michelle Johnson, former Academic Representative: There was a session scheduled at the 1993 conference on the topic of whether gay activists were appropriating the language and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. The panel featured former president and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett. I recall that the room was packed, and this was likely the first time that NABJ had a discussion about anything related to [LGBTQ] anything in its history. My memory is that Vernon was spitting mad that this topic was even being discussed at NABJ. He went off about it and chastised the idea that there was any comparison between the movements for Black and gay rights.
At one point, I’d had enough, so I did something insanely scary back then: I stood up and called him out on it. I said, who are you to hold up a ruler to anyone else’s pain and suffering? In my mind, discrimination was the evil, no matter the target. I just couldn’t see the value of measuring who suffered worse.
Patrick Riley, former co-chair of the Arts & Entertainment Task Force: I think it’s important to point out that NABJ is no different than any other Black institution in America. There is a film of homophobia that has no choice but to exist. It was no different than my family. They’re all like, “Patrick is great. And we hope he doesn’t talk about his personal life.”
McCormick: By 1995, I got all-in with the organization. I’d met a few people back in Columbia [South Carolina] and they told me that NABJ had changed and was changing.
In the late 90s, LGBTQ+ members of NABJ began finding community with each other, at and beyond the national convention. In some ways, this was aided by the presence of NLGJA: The LGBTQ Journalists Association founded in 1990 and had been holding its own conventions since 1992. Some were members of both organizations but didn’t want to have to hide parts of themselves to feel like a part of the NABJ family. At the same time, LGBTQ+ NABJers, like McCormick and Riley, were further establishing themselves as organizational leaders as region directors, chapter presidents and vice presidents, and task force chairs.
McCormick: At the Phoenix convention [in 2000], we started putting rainbow stickers on our badges so we could identify each other. I thought that was a cool idea because before you just had to rely on your gaydar. I can spot a man at 10 paces but I can’t tell women for some reason. [laughs]
Marcus Mabry, co-founder of the LGBTQ+ Task Force: After 2000, there built up a real presence of out and proud LGBTQ members, particularly men. We were pretty obvious. We didn’t hide. You couldn’t miss us. I think NABJ was shocked by this because there had been this illusion that there were no gay people in NABJ.
Frankie Edozien, co-founder of the LGBTQ+ Task Force: We used to have a pub crawl. Out of the five days of the convention, there would be one day where the “others” would get together and go out. When the convention was over, we’d say, “See you next year” when we’d do it all over again.
Mabry: It was awesome and such an act of self-love to be with my brothers and a few of my sisters, too, at NABJ — out and in the open. We were very much Gen Xers and our experience was often going through a closeted period in our 20s. But by the time we were in our 30s, we were living out and proud — and we weren’t going back into the closet, not for NABJ. Many of the baby boomers who were the first wave had a different experience. Many of them were still closeted or semi-closeted when it came to NABJ.
Mashaun D. Simon, former student representative: I got introduced to the politics of NABJ by assisting with the Atlanta chapter arm of Condace Pressley’s campaign for president. That’s how I met Patrick, Marcus, and eventually Frankie and others. I have to admit that I was severely intimidated by all of them. They were larger-than-life individuals who seemed to be so comfortable in their skin. But I soon realized that in NABJ, you really only have influence based on who you have access to.
I also began to recognize the ways in which there were so many gay and lesbian members of NABJ who were doing amazing things behind the scenes, but weren’t getting the respect or the due that I felt as though they should have. It made me feel like we were pushed to the side and only allowed out when it was beneficial [to NABJ].
Mabry: We certainly saw the side-eyes, and we’d hear things and people would also report back but no one was much bolder than that. We knew some people weren’t comfortable with us but we really didn’t care.
In 2003, a prominent and well-respected NABJ member published an editorial opposing gay marriage that circulated nationwide in Black newspapers. After being called out by media monitoring organization GLAAD, the member remarked publicly that no one had ever been killed for being gay, but plenty of folks had been killed for being Black, Edozien recalled. This commentary prompted LGBTQ+ NABJers to respond.
Edozien: That was the thinking of that time, but I resented it so much. I was incensed. I remember sitting with Kai Wright and Marcus saying, “This cannot stand.” At the time, a Black lesbian woman had just been killed in Chicago because she was butch. I wrote a rejoinder and it was really angry. Marcus re-worked the letter by removing all of my wig-snatching.
We circulated it for about 10 days to everyone we knew who had come with us to the pub crawl. About 13 of us signed our names. Some people didn’t, which showed me how serious it was, because we’d be outing ourselves, putting ourselves in a position to be ostracized by NABJ and our newsrooms. I remember thinking that we do all the work for NABJ, but so many of us were scared.
Richard Prince wrote extensively about it at the time. I remember somebody sending [the Op-Ed] to my father in Nigeria, like “Look what your son is doing over there.” But that was around the time that the idea of a task force had first been floated by Mashuan D. Simon who was an NABJ baby.
Simon: The LGBT members of NABJ were not being respected or recognized or represented in any way, but when it came time for elections or to raise money or to put on an event, we were called on. That was problematic for me. I thought it was ridiculous for us to be used like that. Just like the arts and entertainment folks had a task force and the visual journalists had a task force, I thought we should have one to represent our concerns.
The other motivation behind it was, I had a mentor who told me that if I came out before my career really jumped off, it would be career suicide. This was someone who was a successful journalist who hadn’t come out that felt that was the best advice to give me.
Edozien: There were maybe 30 of us at the time, but nobody knew how to get a task force. But we all agreed that if we had a task force that could respond on behalf of the community, maybe we wouldn’t have had to send that letter.
When I told Thom Morgan about our intention — at that time he was retired and not coming to NABJ anymore — he was very supportive. He made it feel like it was worth the trouble we were facing.
Creating a task force, which needed to be approved by NABJ’s Board of Directors, wasn’t easy. They were battling not only folks’ Bible-based homophobia but also institutional red tape. Jerry McCormick, who’d recently been elected to the national board and had witnessed how task force-related business took place, guided LGBTQ+ members on how to navigate opposition leading up to the winter 2005 board meeting.
Mabry: We actually asked for a task force in 2003, but they said we were out of order and said it had to be proposed at a Board meeting and on the agenda with advance notice.
Simon: There were some very vocal people, who are still very vocal people today and have served terms on the board, in opposition to us. I remember there being conversations on the NABJ forum about it. I would go toe-to-toe with people in those email groups pushing why it was necessary and why it was important.
My statement every time somebody protested was because representation matters, and if we are an organization that claims that we are fighting for representation for journalists of color across this country and across this globe in newsrooms and outside of newsrooms, then how dare we not provide representation for a subset of those journalists. How can we not say that we also represent them and that there’s space for them, space for us?
Sarah Glover, former NABJ Secretary (2003 to 2005) and President (2015 to 2019): There is a backchannel of homophobia that exists in every space, including an organization like NABJ, that serves to be inclusive. People didn’t recognize their ignorance.
As I reflect on it, years later, it has always bothered me that as a Board we stuck to the agenda while President Morgan sat in the room and waited for us to finish our business. We as a Board should have inverted the agenda and tended to the business that brought him to us. What I can’t get out of my head is that this man sat there, in effect dying, and it wasn’t important enough for us to stop what we were doing to hear what he had to say. He sat quietly and patiently.
Mabry: We made a plea of why we needed to recognize the LGBTQ members of NABJ. The speech I gave was all about acceptance and who we are as Black gay people and how NABJ should be the last place that would shut out our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. The time had come and we weren’t willing to be in the closet.
At the start, the vote was fairly evenly split. Then Thom gave this impassioned speech about why we needed to be accepted and I remember there were tears. It moved a lot of people.
Riley: I wasn’t there for the vote but because people knew I was in support, I would hear later that as they were mining votes, that one of the anecdotes was, “Are you willing to do NABJ without Patrick Riley?” I’m told that was something that was said as they were trying to talk a couple of those homophobes off the cliff.
Glover: My participation as a Board member of NABJ at the Winter 2005 Board Meeting who voted affirmatively for the founding of the LGBTQ+ Task Force was the most important contribution I’ve made to NABJ, and I have made many. It is unfortunate that it ruffles feathers when you do something different. But change always creates concern for some. But when you’re moving an organization forward, it’s important to do the right thing even when the right thing might be perceived negatively or judged.
McCormick: There was one Board member who made this speech about why couldn’t we — the LGBTQ members — go and found our own organization. We were like, “Why should we be bothered? You’ve been taking our money all of this time. We run some of these companies you work for. You cannot pretend that we don’t exist because we did your hair and your makeup. We are your producer.” That person said they were never coming back to another board meeting, and they didn’t.
The NABJ Board voted 13-5 in favor of the LGBTQ+ Task Force, a move that, according to Glover, “changed the course of media history.” Less than a month later, NAHJ approved their own LGBTQ+ caucus followed by AAJA. “So it was like, ‘Oh, NABJ once again is a trailblazer,’’ recalled Edozien. “But look at all the effort that it took.”
Edozien and Mabry were the first co-chairs of the Task Force. At their first convention, they hosted a standing-room-only panel and a reception. They also put on a tribute to Morgan, an event that would be his last at NABJ before he died in 2007.
From the outside looking in, the group had gotten the recognition that they wanted. In reality, it was a continuous struggle.
Mabry: We wanted to increase the comfort of queer members of NABJ, people who were not yet in our group, and comfortable hanging out with us. But we also wanted to educate our peers to make us better journalists. We wanted to help NABJ members understand how to cover the LGBTQ+ community and improve their craft.
Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig, current Parliamentarian: The first person I came out to [in NABJ] was Jerry McCormick. We were walking to the reception and I pulled him to the side. He just hugged me and embraced me. I knew then that I would be accepted in my profession.
When the Task Force was formed, I remember our receptions would always be the one everybody wanted to go to. It felt like another place where we could be ourselves.
McCormick: Had we been getting the support we need and deserve from NABJ? No. In the beginning, they seemed supportive but a lot of times we had to do things offsite. We would not get prominent displays for our events. It would almost be treated like an aside.
Riley: When I brought my partner of 15 years, Anthony, to the 2007 NABJ convention, it was as if we were Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. I didn’t really think about it, because in my life by that time, I was sort of just living. I wasn’t editing who I’m bringing to the NABJ convention, but people ended up saying “I can’t believe you brought him …” It was no different than when I took my man home to Savannah for the first time and he met my own family who had their reservations about my truth.
By the time I joined NABJ in 2016, the LGBTQ+ Task Force had lost its luster. Though it was still sponsoring panels and ensured there was a reception, it struggled to get people to care. Much like many other task forces, it was in the shadow of the Sports and A&E task forces which were better sponsored, platformed and respected.
A year later, in New Orleans, Ernest Owens and I were elected co-chairs. He is a flamboyantly and unapologetically gay man who is NABJ’s 2017 Emerging Journalist of the Year and current president of the Philadelphia chapter. I am a similarly unapologetic non-binary person of trans experience and immediate past president of the Los Angeles chapter. I’m currently the Region IV Director.
Both of us had been on the receiving end of homophobic or transphobic behavior at the hands of NABJ members, some who were leaders. We wanted that to change, if not for us, for the younger LGBTQ+ members who were pulling us to the side at convention or DMing us on social media asking for advice, fearing as LGBTQ+ NABJers before them had, that their careers would be in jeopardy if they lived out loud.
I’m now in my fourth year as co-chair, now serving with Femi Redwood. Along that journey, this Task Force has fought tooth and nail to make NABJ safer for LGBTQ+ people, and to better equip the broader membership with the proper tools to accurately cover LGBTQ+ communities.
But like our foreparents, it’s been tough. While some LGBTQ+ members don’t yet consider NABJ a home for them, many of us have found somewhere to lay our heads within the organization. We all sleep with one eye open, though, knowing that homophobia and transphobia lurks in the air.