Gays, Lesbians, AIDS And Homophobia Inside America's Paper Of Record
“Out at The New York Times: Gays, Lesbians, AIDS and Homophobia Inside America’s Newspaper of Record” is an article I wrote for The Advocate 20 years ago which began as an interview with a man who chose to speak out. The New York Times assistant national editor Jeff Schmalz bravely decided to tell me about being gay and about living with AIDS, recounting a dramatic health event that occurred in the newsroom, which led to the revelation that he was gay and appeared to contribute to setting the paper of record on a new course on gay rights.
In 1992, no one as high-level as 38-year old Schmalz, who’d been at The Times for 20 years, had come out as gay at the paper, even privately, let alone come out as a person with AIDS. Such a revelation would certainly get attention. But as it progressed the story snowballed into something much bigger: an admission that the paper had been negligent in its reporting on gays and AIDS and may have hindered a social movement. The curtain was pulled back on a discreet and powerful media organization, in a story that would garner headlines from other media, including The Washington Post.
The new, young publisher of The Times, Aurther Suzlberger Jr., who was a personal friend of Schmalz’s and whose family helmed The Times for generations, had decided to give me an interview for the article, discussing his friendship with Schmalz, his views on gays and his agenda for the paper moving forward on the issue of diversity. Then the top editors of the paper, including Max Frankel and Joseph Lelyveld, spoke with me about Schmalz, the paper’s coverage on gay issues past and present, and their own shifts on gay rights, as did popular columnists, such as Anna Quindlen. The word seemed to have traveled: No need to hold back. Reporters, editors, photographers, and others, several coming out as gay or lesbian for the first time, spoke frankly with me about their own experiences and about what they described as the antigay reign of terror of Abe Rosenthal, The Times’s former executive editor, still with the paper as an op-ed columnist at that time.
According to current and former Times staffers as well as gay activists quoted in the story, Rosenthal had assigned pieces that seemed to demonize homosexuality and discouraged positive pieces about gays. He was described as a man who used his power to negatively affect the careers of current and former employees he believed to be gay and who wouldn’t even allow the word gay to be used in the paper -- preferring the more clinical homosexual. Rosenthal practically ignored the AIDS epidemic in the early years, though activists such as playwright Larry Kramer railed against him and The Times for the catastrophic lack of coverage. As the most influential media organization in the country, The Times’ s refusal until the late 80s to use the word gay arguably slowed the gay rights movement’s fight for legitimacy. Its negligence on AIDS early on had a detrimental effect on bringing in-depth, life-saving attention to an epidemic that had been callously ignored by political leaders and sensationalized by other media.
Rosenthal had heard that people were speaking with me about his tenure and about his views on gay rights, and he decided to give me an interview to defend himself. His explanations and responses to the criticisms were nothing short of fascinating, as was his own turnaround on gay rights and AIDS, suddenly seeing the issues as important in his role as an op-ed columnist, particularly after Schmalz came out.
The progress at the Times after Rosenthal stepped down as executive editor, and certainly after the arrival of the new publisher and the coming out of Schmalz, was dramatic enough to be measurable -- a scan of Nexis’s database of searchable news articles at the time showed how The Times appeared to embrace gay rights at a sudden pace. What some had called the Lavender Enlightenment at The New York Times continued at the paper and other media outlets. The Times became a leader on coverage of LGBT issues as well as on addressing the concerns of LGBT employees.
Twenty years later, I’m moderating a discussion at The New York Times today about the article and its impact, with a panel that includes The Times’s openly gay op-ed columnist, Frank Bruni, as well as two of the interview subjects in the 1992 story, photographer Sara Krulwich, and former editor Richard Meislin. The invitation for the event describes the article, which had grown from a short interview into a two-part series (presented here in full), as having changed the lives of LGBT employees at The Times. But that credit truly goes back to one man, Jeff Schmalz, whose personal experience, courage and dignity, made the story possible.
It was an afternoon during the Persian Gulf war. The editors of the New York Times were gathered in the conference room adjacent to executive editor Max Frankel's office for a daily event: the page 1 meeting. As usual, people sat on chairs lining the room's walls. An inner circle sat around a long, narrow table, while Frankel and managing editor Joseph Lelyveld sat at the head of the table.
With the paper’s Washington, D.C. bureau staff participating in the meeting with the help of speakers and a microphone hidden somewhere in the room, editors from each of the paper's departments described the articles they had in the works for the next day’s paper and suggested what should be on page 1. On that particular day, there were at least five gay people in the room. When it came time for foreign news editor Bernard Gwertzman to deliver his report, he decided to relay a story. One of his reporters had written about the elaborate display of multicolored tents that stretched across the Saudi Arabian desert where U.S. troops were stationed. Something about the way the description was worded had irked Gwertzrman. "I told the reporter to change it," Gwertzrman explained to the group, laughing, "because he made the soldiers look like a bunch of faggots."
A cold silence came over the room for several seconds. Then the meeting continued, although in a tense manner. Later, a couple of the gay individuals who had been present privately told Gwertzman what they thought of his comment. But more significant, in what some say was a first, Frankel and Lelyveld took Gwertzman to task, letting him know that from then on gay slurs would not be tolerated at the New York Times. “They came down on him hard -- tore him out a new asshole,” quips Times deputy news editor Russell King, who is gay.
Several months later, Philip Gefter, who’d just been hired as aTimes picture editor, was sitting at the picture desk when he overheard a straight male editor retelling an event to a group of people. In his account, the male editor said the word "fruits" to describe gay men. A straight female editor who was present became incensed. She told the male editor his words were hurtful. Gefter, empowered by the woman, reeled around, looked the male editor in he face, and said, ''Yeah. You never know when there might be a gay person around.” The male editor mumbled an apology and loped off.
In January, two weeks after becoming the new Times publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. held a meeting with the editorial staff in the newsroom. It was a new year and a new Times. He told the staff that from then on "diversity" would be a priority at the paper, and eventually he blurted out the phrase "sexual orientation."
"We almost fell off our chairs," recalls photographer Sara Krulwich, a lesbian who’s been with the Times for 13 years. "It was the first time any top executive at the Times had ever used those words."
And just a few weeks ago, in an unprecedented appearance, Lelyveld spoke to the newly formed National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association at New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. He gave several reasons for appearing before the crowd of 250, including his desire "to show solidarity with my gay colleagues at the Times."
While what some have dubbed the Lavender Enlightenment was occurring behind the scenes at the Times in the last year or so, it seemed like all manner of gay and lesbian news was suddenly fit to print on the paper's pages as well. There were stories about suburban gays, Jewish gays in search of a rabbi, powerful lesbians in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, the paucity of gay and lesbian characters on television, and even a travel piece -- with recommendations from a New York hotel concierge -- on things for gay couples from Los Angeles to do while visiting the Big Apple. One Times headline asked, WAS ST. PAUL GAY?, while another queried, IS SCHUBERT GAY? But the eyebrow raiser of 1991 had to be MIL!TANTS BACK "QUEER," SHOVING "GAY" THE WAY OF “NEGRO.”
Throughout 1991and into 1992, page 1 of theTimes addressed such subjects as a battle between Irish-American gays and the organizers of New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade, the outcome of a gaybashing murder trial in Queens, children growing up in gay households, a controversy over banning military recruiters from college campuses in New York State because of the Pentagon's ban on enlistment of gays and lesbians, the mainstreaming of the gay press, and a Bronx hospital giving spousal benefits to gay employees.
The editorial page was lit up. President George Bush received a severe lashing on more than one occasion for his fumbling of the AIDS crisis -- with the Times actually nominating Earvin “Magic” Johnson for president the day after he revealed he tested positive for antibodies to HIV, the suspected AIDS virus. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was urged to end the Pentagon’s ban on enlisting gays and lesbians in the military in a lengthy editorial complete with a chart showing that the public was in favor of ending the ban. The Times went after the New York State legislature on several issues, not only demanding passage of a hate-crimes bill stalled by antigay Republicans in the state senate but also calling for something far more radical: complete civil rights for lesbians and gay men. The behavior of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the organizers of the St. Patrick's Day parade, was "deplorable,” according to the Times. And Marvel Comics was given a pat on the back for breaking ground in having one of its superheroes, Northstar, come out of the closet. Said the Times: “Mainstream
culture will one day make its peace with gay Americans. When that time comes, Northstar’s revelation will be seen for what it is: a welcome indicator of social change.”
0p-ed page columnist Anna Quindlen, who's always been out-front on gay and AIDS issues, seemed more personally moved by the AIDS crisis, writing, “This is what AIDS looks like -- good people, lovable people, people you want to hug."
Even op-ed columnist and former Times executive editor A.M. “Abe'' Rosenthal, long reviled by many gays and lesbians as the most homophobic force at the Times, went through a surprising transformation. As executive editor during the early and mid '80s, Rosenthal had the Times virtually ignore the AIDS crisis. "The lack of coverage in the early years of the epidemic was just criminal,” notes Stephen Miller, a spokesman for the New York chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GL AAD). But in 1991 Rosenthal wrote a column assailing Bush for remaining "silent" on the epidemic. ln yet another column last year, the man who some say tyrannized gays and lesbians at the Times for many years and who wouldn't even allow the word gay to be used in the paper, declared that "harassment and assault of gay men and lesbians is an illness in our society.”
To the the astute lesbian and gay reader, it was all very clear: Something had happened at the New York Times.
Jeff Schmalz has spent more than half of his life at the Times. He began there 20 years ago, at the age of 18, as a copyboy, and worked his way up to the position of deputy national editor. His path from there would be easy to predict: He'd probably become national editor in a short time, after current national editor Soma Golden retired or moved on. “I’d have gone to work abroad for a year or two first before taking over the national editor spot,” he says. And that would most likely have occurred after the 1992 elections; Schmalz was slated to oversee all the election coverage.
But on Dec. 21,1990, it became evident that his life would change dramatically. Schmalz came back from lunch that day, sat down at his computer terminal and began editing a news story on the computer screen. For weeks he'd had vision problems, and his left eye had been twitching. Assuming that he was overworked he had taken off ten days and gone to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to relax. But the twitching didn't stop. And now the words on the screen were getting blurry as he tried to edit. Suddenly, he got very dizzy. He stood up and took a few steps. Then he blacked out.
Schmalz was having a grand mal seizure in the middle of the newsroom at the New York Times. He fell to the floor and immediately went into violent convulsions. "It was absolutely frightening,” recalls one observer. "Everyone was horrified. It's of those situations where you just don’t know what to do. You're helpless.”
Dr. Lawrence Altman, from the science desk, was summoned downstairs, and soon a team of paramedics arrived. The entire newsroom was shaken, and reporters, editors and photographers stood dumbstruck and watched Schmalz come to. "As I was waking up, a crowd was gathered around me, and Max [Frankel] was holding my hand,” Schmalz remembers. "He was quite wonderful. He was just right there.”
It wasn’t until a month later that Schmalz found out what was happening to his body. But the newsroom grapevine had already surmised the truth. "I'd wondered about it,” says Frankel. "Previously, I didn't know he was gay. But there was speculation that it was AIDS and that he was gay.”
Schmalz tested HIV-positive. His Thelper cell count -- a key measure of immune-system health -- was zero. There was a fear that his vision problems and the convulsions stemmed from toxoplasmosis, a deadly opportunistic infection in the brain. But when a spinal tap indicated no presence of toxoplasmosis, Schmalz's doctors decided they wanted to do exploratory brain surgery to find out what was going on. "I had to tell the paper at that point -- I'd spent my whole life exploring the truth and reporting the truth," he says. "I just went in and told them I had AIDS.”
"It was a sad moment,” recounts Frankel, with a rasp in his voice. Frankel has been at the paper for 42 years. He watched Schmalz grow up there. And since Frankel took over as executive editor in 1986, their relationship has become closer. Schmalz also has a warm friendship with Lelyveld, who’s been at the Times since 1962 and who also began there as a copyboy.
"Max [Frankel] cried,” Schmalz recalls."Lelyveld cried. They were just deeply and genuinely moved. They told me that the Times would do anything it could. Historically, the Times has always rallied around employees who are sick and has always treated people exceptionally well, including people with AIDS.”
Throughout the '80s there were several people at the paper, mostly on the business side and therefore with no day-to-day contact with the editors, who'd quietly died of complications from AIDS. In 1988, 33-year-old Robert Barrios, a copy editor,
became the first person in the editorial department who was known to have died of complications from AIDS. Barrios was close with a few newsroom staffers, and his death certainly had an impact. But he'd been at the paper for only a little over a year. He hadn't become an intimate friend of the top editors and executives of the Times.
Larry Josephs, a former Times staffer who became well-known for two harrowing articles he wrote for the New York Times Magazine chronicling his battle with AIDS, also died of the disease, in 1991. In the mid-80s he'd worked as a news assistant on the editorial page. "I hired him, and I thought probably he was gay, but I didn't care,” says editorial page editor Jack Rosenthal. "But I later realized that I should have cared, in an affirmative way. I realized afterward that he was able to correct people who were being thoughtless because he had the experience of being gay and thus was more sensitive to the AIDS epidemic.”
Josephs's death was a big blow to many at the paper, but Josephs, like Barrios, was not a major force in the newsroom; he'd been with the paper on and off throughout the early and mid '80s and hadn't worked in the Times offices since 1987.
Schmalz, on the other hand, had a violent seizure right under everyone's nose. And though he's now stepped down as deputy national editor, he's working at the Times every day in the position of assistant national editor in charge of projects, providing the top brass with front-row seats to the most horrific epidemic in America. He's someone they know well, who's been in the newsroom of the Times for 20 years -- a wonder boy, admired by many of the executives. "He's a tremendously talented journalist and a very good friend," says current publisher Sulzberger. For several years Schmalz has socialized with Sulzberger and his wife -- regularly taking a gay date along for evenings out with the couple or spending much time at their home.
Quindlen, another close friend of Schmalz's, noticed the impact his getting sick had at the paper. "People were really affected by it,” she says. "This is probably the most vivid case of someone at the Times having AIDS. A lot of us knew Larry Josephs, but with Jeff actually being here, well, he's just so much a part of the place."
"I think things were already changing, but my illness couldn't do anything but make them more aware of AIDS,” Schmalz says. He now also sees his homosexuality from a different perspective. "I regret that I wasn't more out all along,” he adds. "I regret that I didn't do more talking about being gay, overall. It's important for people to know that the deputy national editor of the New York Times can be gay -- people both on the outside and at the paper."
Frankel shrugs off the notion that the awareness of Schmalz's illness might have influenced coverage. "I can't say that I've noticed a change," he says. "It's hard to measure change. It's evolutionary."
But one Times staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is adamant about the significance of Schmalz's experience: "There have always been gay people here at the Times, and I'm sure that Frankel and Lelyveld have always known gay people, but there’s never been anyone that high up, that close to them in the newsroom, who is so so well-liked. His coming out has had a profound effect."
Of course, one man's profound is another's incremental.
"I've noticed an improvement,” says Robert Bray, communications director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a political group. "But it's episodic. I don’t want any more articles about gays specifically. I'd rather see our visibility permeate the paper at all levels. I want to see the gay rodeo on the sports pages. I want to see gays included in the stories about Valentine's Day."
If the Lavender Enlightenment is underway in the Manhattan newsroom, it has yet to reach the foreign bureaus or even the Washington and Los Angeles bureaus. GLAAD's Miller, who has met with Times management on several occasions, says that the organization "praises the Times for the progress" but still has problems with much of the coverage.
“Their political and Washington reporters don't ask the presidential candidates -- or even the President -- about gay civil rights, about gays in the military, or even about AIDS." he says. "The international coverage of gays is woeful. Their foreign correspondents are ignorant and not educated on gay issues. The pieces on China's repression, for example, never talk about the rounding up of homosexuals. The articles on skinhead violence in Germany never recount the horrible antigay attacks."
If you read only the Times for coverage of California's protests and rioting over Gov. Pete Wilson's veto of a measure that would have banned antigay employment discrimination, you didn't find out until six weeks after the demonstrations began that the daily protests by lesbians and gays marked a turning point in the gay civil rights movement. Actually, you didn’t even know they occurred until a week after they began, when the Times finally decided to run an Associated Press photo and a blurb. The Times's Los Angeles correspondent, Robert Reinhold, after writing one piece at the outset about the politics behind the veto (which landed on page A16), seemed to fall asleep at the wheel.
"I don't really cover demonstrations," Reinhold explains. “As I recall, I did tell them to pick it up on the wires. The [broad story that was written six weeks later] would have been done earlier had I not gotten involved in other things. We’re spread pretty thin here. But I think there was some advantage to the delay, to see whether the anger that had been stirred by the veto was more enduring and more substantive than just a few protests." By contrast, starting the day after the protests began, USA Today had the story on page 1A, 2A or 3A every day for a full week as well as on the editorial and op-ed pages.
When it comes to physical contact between homosexuals, the Times is still squeamish. Last year, assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegal removed from an article a photo of two women kissing on the television series L.A. Law. (Ironically, it was to accompany an article by television critic John J. O’Connor about how television makes gays invisible.) Siegal, the Times’s resident monitor of taste, also caused an uproar among gays at the paper last year when he pulled a photo of a Connecticut lawmaker kissing his male lover (as a public act of coming out) during a session of the legislature. The implication seems to be that kissing between men and woman, certainly something the Times has shown before, is OK, while same-sex kissing is in some way distasteful or even prurient.
And coverage of the AIDS crisis, while it has improved substantially, has never been up to its potential.
“The Times is slow on AIDS,” observes Peter Millones, a former metropolitan editor and former assistant managing editor at the paper, now an assistant professor at Columbia University School of Journalism. “Back then [in the beginning of the epidemic], it didn’t click, it didn’t register.”
Some even say that the coverage of the AIDS crisis, while it has improved somewhat from six years ago, may have actually declined again in the last two years, particularly around the issues of drug treatment and development. Two years ago the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct-action group, waged a campaign against the Times and later against one person specifically: science reporter Gina Kolata. She was charged with having "an unquestioning acceptance of the Establishment point of view of how to do research,” according to Mark Harrington of the New York chapter of ACT UP.
After a blistering article attacking Kolata's reporting appeared in the Village Voice (Kolata calls it “the nastiest article I have ever seen in my life”), some activists noticed she was taken off the beat for a while. Not true, says Kolata. “I had letters and memos from top management telling me not to stop what I was doing.”
But there certainly are fewer stories now regarding drug research. Harrington thinks the Times pulled Kolata back a bit because of the controversy. "In a way, our attacks on her weren't a success," he says, "because it didn't result in their improving the coverage but rather in their taking her off the beat without replacing her and then throwing the drug-development stories onto the business pages.”
The reason that the Times has been so carefully scrutinized is simply because it is the most influential, most important news organization in America -- not because it's worse than any other newspaper. ln actuality, the New York Times is better on gay and AIDS issues than most metropolitan dailies, including the country’s other largest newspapers: the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.
A comparison of the major dailies during the period from 1990 to 1992 using Nexis, a computer information service that catalogs numerous newspapers, showed that the LA Times, because it is a substantially larger paper than most, had significantly more stories about gays than any of the other three papers and almost double that of the New York Times.
The Los Angeles Times's Victor Zonana, who is gay, has done some of the most incisive AIDS reporting in the country and has written noteworthy pieces about the gay community. "As a member of an embattled community and a survivor of the AIDS epidemic, I feel a profound sense of responsibility to bear witness," he says. “But I use the same professional standards and ethics when I write about AIDS as when I write about the stock exchange. I'm critical of the community's organizations because I believe they are a public trust, and I hold them to very high standards." The paper's media and television critic, Howard Rosenberg, has also done some exceptional work on gay issues.
But a closer look at the Los Angeles Times shows that the stories about lesbians and gays turn up predominantly in the View, Calendar, and Metro sections of the paper and rarely in the national news section. While the Los Angeles Times had twice as many stories as the New York Times, the New York Times was twice as likely to put stories about gays and lesbians on the front page.
Compared to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune both had pitifully little coverage on gay issues for the two-year period, each with half the number of stories the New York Times had and with very few on page A1. On AIDS issues alone, the New York Times beat out all three other papers, with 20% more stories that the Los Angeles Times, 50% more than the Washington Post, and 75% more than the Chicago Tribune.
But perhaps the most telling figures are the percentage increase of stories about the gay community from 1990 to 1991. The Los Angeles Times had 40% more stories in 1991 than in the previous year (but this includes last fall's protests, which occurred in the paper's own backyard). The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune each had an increase of less than 10%. But the New York Times showed a whopping increase of 65%.
“We have a long way to go but I think the Times is moving in that direction,” says Sulzberger, regarding his ambitious master plan to make the paper more representative of different cultures. "I believe fundamentally that diversity is the single most important issue that this newspaper faces -- corning to terms with the diversity of its work force. I want to create a workplace where all people -- black, female, gay, disabled -- are comfortable and can succeed. Diversity of the workplace is also important because we reach a diverse audience. I'm more interested in how the coverage is viewed, and it has to be influenced by my people who are gay."
In mid January of this year, 40-year-old Sulzberger became the fifth publisher of the New York Times since his great grandfather, Adolph S. Ochs, bought the newspaper in 1896. Sulzberger succeeded his father, Arthur Ochs "Punch' Sulzberger, when the elder Sulzberger retired at age 65 after running the paper since 1963.
The younger Sulzberger has been described in the media as "brash" and even as an activist. Currently, he serves on a committee of the Newspaper Publishers Association aimed at combating racism and sexism in the workplace. He made sure that sexual orientation was part of the program of a recent conference on diversity that he held at the Times for newspaper publishers from around the country.
It was under Sulzberger's supervision that Gerald Boyd, an African-American, was brought in as metropolitan editor. "Boyd has a genuine interest in the disenfranchised,” observes a Times staffer. "When Boyd was told about the importance to the gay community of the Julio Rivera murder trial [in which the victim, a Queens man, was gay-bashed], he made sure that it was given the same prominence that the Howard Beach racial murder trial was given.”
And it was under Sulzberger's supervision that openly gay and outspoken Adam Moss, the former editor of the now-defunct New York weekly 7 Days, was brought in under contract as a consultant at the Times. While it is unclear what future the Times and Moss have together, some say that Moss, who has Lelyveld's ear, has been very vocal and has had an effect on the the newsroom regarding gay issues.
Sulzberger has worked in various departments of the paper since 1978 and has gotten to know much of the staff. About seven years ago, he separately approached a number of staff members whom he knew to be gay. Anticipating his eventual role as publisher, he wanted to discuss the problems they faced as gay people at the Times. "Actually, he took me to lunch and asked, 'So when are you going to tell me that you're gay?'" laughs Schmalz. "He was genuinely interested in what I had to say.”
Of course, first and foremost, Sulzberger is a businessman. He is said to scrupulously study market research. Having worked much of the time on the business side of the paper, he knows that diversity does more than serve humanity: It's also the only commercially-viable way to go now. He’s taking over the Times during the biggest slump in the newspaper industry in history. Nationally, USA Today has taken center stage, becoming the largest-circulation newspaper in the country; much of its success can be attributed to the fact that it's the most culturally diverse news organization in America. Locally, the bulk of the Times’s straight, white, upper-middle-class readership is increasingly fleeing the city and turning to the Times less and less.
"New York Newsday has made no secret of the fact that it is intensely covering gay and lesbian issues,” notes Stuart Elliott, the Times’s popular advertising columnist, regarding the tabloid competition whose circulation is steadily increasing. "It's clear that Newsday is prominently placing these stories so that gays will turn to it.”
Elliott, a gay man, spent three years at USA Today, which he describes as, “the gorgeous mosaic. They're in the forefront on gay issues. It's about wanting to be inclusive of gays, but it's also a dollars-and-cents issue. We"re a target audience that they would like to reach."
Sulzberger has made his mark on the paper in recent years, and now, as a full-fledged publisher, he will no doubt make a much stronger impression. However, it’s myopic if not unfair to suggest that the changes at the Times are occurring only because of the new publisher or even solely because of the impact of Schmalz's illness.
In actuality, the Times has been subtly changing for the past six years, battling institutionalized homophobia that was embedded in the very fiber of the paper by an editor who ran his empire not unlike recent Eastern European despots. And, like them, he would live to see his monuments toppled.
In 1963 Abe Rosenthal arrived back in New York. The Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who began his career at the Times in 1946 had been away for nine years. He'd spent those years as a correspondent in India, Poland, Switzerland, and Japan and wrote from many other countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. He was now the paper's metropolitan editor. His focus would be on New York City.
Shortly after settling in, Rosenthal noticed something while walking down Riverside Drive. New York had dramatically changed while he was gone: There was a thriving male homosexual subculture emerging. Men were meeting on the streets and touching on the streets. To Rosenthal, this was alarming.
The next day he raced into the office and assigned reporter Robert Doty a story that would forever take a place in the paper's history. On Dec. 16, 1963, a headline blared from the front page: GROWTH OF OVERT HOMOSEXUALITY IN CITY PROVOKES WIDE CONCERN. "The overt homosexual -- and those who are identifiable probably represent no more than half of the total -- has become such an obtrusive part of the New York scene that the phenomenon needs public discussion,” the story read.
At the time of the article's appearance many other media organizations were beginning to break the silence on homosexuality. Noted historian John D'Emilio observed in his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in United States that in their articles, “the Washington Post and Life acknowledged a range of opinions, including those of homophile leaders and metal health professionals who took issue with the sickness theory [of homosexuality].” But the Times story, he pointed out, “emphasized the stance of vice squad officers and the segment of the medical professional that categorized homosexuals as ‘crippled psychically.’”
In 1969 author Gay Talese, a close friend of Rosenthal's and a former Times reporter, wrote in The Kingdom and the Power, his book about the Times, that “it seemed to Rosenthal that homosexuals were more obvious on city streets...and this led to a superb article that was, by old-time standards, quite revolutionary.”
Shortly after he arrived at the Times in 1972, Jeff Schmalz, who began working as a copyboy, remembers hearing “much screaming and yelling over various articles” about gays. The modern gay rights movement had come into being with the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations in New York City in 1969, the same year Rosenthal was named the paper's managing editor. Many writers and editors at the Times were eager to cover the burgeoning movement and report on the gay and lesbian community. “We'd done a piece about a gay cruise on the cover of the travel section,” Schmalz recalls."'There was a lot of shouting about it. Abe thought that it was a total mistake and that we never should have done it. And we'd used the word gay. He said we could never use that word again."
Throughout the '70s and into the '80s, most gay men and lesbians who worked at the Times were deeply closeted. "There was some sleeping around among people in the newsroom,” Schmalz says, "but we didn't even nod or wink at each other while in the office." Gay people at the Times say that they were immensely frightened and frustrated under Rosenthal, who moved into the top position of executive editor in 1977. They couldn't complain because to do so they'd have to come out. But they felt they couldn't come out because it would definitely jeopardize their jobs.
Times assistant news editor Russell King remembers writing a first-person piece in the early '80s about AIDS that he was going to submit to the New York Times Magazine. "I showed it to a friend at the Times who said, 'You can't [submit] this. Everyone will know you're gay,’” King recalls. "I then showed it to my editor. He was a good person, knew I was gay, and accepted it but agreed that it would be trouble for me if it was printed, that it would hurt me.”
Charles Kaiser is the author of 1968 in America and is a former staffer at both the Times and the Wall Street Journal. In 1982, having worked as a news clerk for Rosenthal at the Times, he was the media critic at Newsweek. He wrote a column criticizing the Times and Rosenthal specifically, saying that Rosenthal had used the paper to reward his friends and punish his enemies. Rosenthal, never able to stomach criticism, flew into a frenzy.
Though years later, in 1991, he would opine that "the outing of gays who want to keep their sex lives private” is a form of "sexual harassment," Rosenthal revealed Kaiser's homosexuality to people throughout the media industry, Kaiser asserts. ''Within days Rosenthal was telling everyone he knew that I'd written this article about him because I'm gay,” Kaiser says. "I assume that what he meant was that because he had a reputation for being homophobic, I was doing this to retaliate against him, which was a complete non sequitur. I was a media critic, and I was doing my job." At the time, Kaiser was completely closeted and hadn't ever discussed his homosexuality with Rosenthal. "He outed me,” Kaiser asserts. "I kept hearing it from people in Washington [D.C.], people in New York. It was very uncomfortable.”
Rosenthal denies the entire scenario, claiming to only vaguely remember the attack in Newsweek. "He's a fantasizer,” he says of Kaiser. “He obviously fantasized about the New York Times, and he fantasized about my attitude toward him. He has a grievance against this paper. It comes from his inability to be successful."
In the mid '80s, Times reporter Richard Meislin, who had a plum spot as the bureau chief in Mexico City, got sick while abroad. There was speculation that it was AIDS (it wasn't). When news of his illness got back to Rosenthal -- who was then informed that Meislin was gay -- he blew his stack. Staffers say he chastised two editors for not telling him previously that Meislin was a homosexual. Rosenthal apparently decided that Meislin, as a homosexual, shouldn't represent the Times in Mexico and eventually pulled him back, though Meislin was doing what some editors considered to be exemplary work.
Meislin was not assigned another foreign post or sent to Washington, D.C., which would be a usual next step. Instead, he was brought back to the New York newsroom to do a job he hated. "What kept me from leaving the paper," says Meislin, "was that one of the [other] editors took me in his office and said, ‘We know you've been screwed, but don't do anything rash. You have a long career ahead of you, and Rosenthal will be leaving soon.’"
Peter Millones, an assistant professor at Columbia University School of Journalism, was at that time an assistant managing editor at the Times. He recalls hiring Meislin. “It didn’t occur to me to tell Rosenthal or anyone else that [Meislin] was gay,” he says. “I don’t recall why the decision was made to bring him back, but it would make sense [that it was because he was gay]. Abe was a tyrannical executive.”
Rosenthal says the entire incident "never happened," claiming that "this is the first time I've ever heard of that.” He also comments that "people who are used to being discriminated against will sometimes take certain acts as being discriminatory when they're not.''
No mater how much activists protested, Rosenthal refused to let the word gay be used in the paper -- even after 15 years of pressure -- except in names of organizations or in quotes.
Dudley Clendinen, who recently stepped down from a position as a managing editor at the Baltimore Sun, was a reporter at the Times in the early '80s. "Abe had a dinner party at his home on Central Park West for me and [theater critic] Frank Rich when we joined the Times in 1980,” he recalls. "Part of the conversation that night was about the Times policy with regard to the use of the word homosexual instead of gay. I argued that homosexual was a clinical word that robbed people of their humanity. Abe didn't agree. His attitude was that the general culture only saw the subject scientifically. The conversation went nowhere."
Rosenthal now says that he banned the word gay in the early '70s because he "felt at that time that the Times should not use a word for political purposes until that word has become accepted as part of the language,” as if the Times is merely a barometer of public opinion and not also a powerful catalyst for change. How could the word be "accepted as part of the language” if the Times refused to acknowledge it? And wasn’t it equally “political” to not use the word? By not using gay, the Times held back a social movement, refusing to give it legitimacy. Rosenthal admits, “It may be quite possible that I should have approved of the word gay earlier.”
But perhaps the most devastating of Rosenthal's misdeeds was his callous indifference to the AIDS crisis early on in the epidemic, a catastrophic ignorance on his part, the outcome of which can never be reversed. In 1976, when a mysterious illness struck several American Legion convention attendees in Philadelphia, the Times immediately ran the story on the front page (where it stayed for months), ensuring that the government, the medical establishment, and the rest of the media switch into emergency mode. Within days, the nation's resources and attention were focused on what came to be called Legionnaires' disease, an illness that killed 29 people.
But as the number of AIDS-related deaths of gay men rose steadily into the hundreds and later the thousands, the Times coverage of the disease amounted mostly to minuscule reports buried in the B and C sections. Ironically, Rosenthal, who attacks anti-Semitism in the media, never realized that the way he was treating the AIDS epidemic wasn’t much different from the way that news organizations treated the Holocaust early on.
When asked about this failure, Rosenthal becomes defensive. "I'm not going to talk about all that," he says. "I'm not going back to then. Look, it's quite true that we should have or could have had more stories about AIDS, but then again, there wasn't much known about it." But isn’t it the Times's job to explore that? “Well, yes,” he responds. "It is the Times's job to explore that, but, well, I guess we all should have done more.”
“The way the Times worked under Rosenthal,” explains Kaiser, “was that everyone below him spent all of their time trying to figure out what to do to cater to his prejudices. One of those widely perceived prejudices was Abe’s homophobia. So editors throughout the paper would keep stories concerning gays out of the paper.”
As soon as Rosenthal retired in 1986 to become a twice-weekly op-ed columnist at the paper and Max Frankel took over as executive editor, the walls of repression came tumbling down, staffers say. “I knew they had a hard time,” recalls Frankel, “and I knew they weren’t comfortable identifying themselves as gay.” Almost immediately Frankel let it be known that things were going to be different. One way was in quickly allowing the use of the word gay in the paper. A former staffer recalls seeing a memo that Frankel sent to then publisher Punch Sulzberger soon after taking over: "Punch, you're going to have to swallow hard on this one: We're going to start using the word gay."
Photographer Sara Krulwich, a lesbian, says Frankel was immediately "a positive force" that helped her and others to relax. Agrees Schmalz: “Things changed completely with Max."
"Previously, everyone was terrified,” notes deputy photo editor Nancy Lee, a lesbian. "I was away when Max took over. When I came back the entire newsroom had changed. There was a general loosening up. The next year I organized a bunch of people for the [gay pride] parade, and we marched holding hands. We haven’t marched since, but every year now we have a party. Last year we had about 60 people. I now have pictures of my partner under the glass on my desk. Everyone on my staff knows, and I take Marie to any Times function that she cares to go to. I didn't do that under Abe.”
Lee, who has been with the paper for 11 years, feels that her being out of the closet has changed attitudes at the paper. “On my staff, which is photographers, editors and lab personnel, I was the first person many of them ever knew was a lesbian, '' she says. "I'm sure they were grossed out at first. You got the sense that they disapproved. But because they know me, they like me, and so it helps them to accept not just me but other gay people and homosexuality in general.”
The combination of the departure of Rosenthal, the efforts by Frank to dismantle ingrained homophobia, the attempts by the new publisher, Arthur Suzlberger Jr., to achieve diversity, and, perhaps most importantly, the coming out of people like Lee, Schmalz, and many others has created a general feeling in recent months among gay staffers at the Times that they can speak up about their experiences.
“People are now very vocal when they need to be,” says Lee. In January, Times business reporter Kim Foltz wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed his HIV-positive status, discussed his gay relationship, and even complained that the paper’s health plan would not be adequate for him when and if he is unable to work.
While the editors may not always follow the advice of gays and lesbians in the newsroom, gay staffers say they are now asked their opinions about sensitive issues.
Regarding the decision on whether to out Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams last August, Schmalz says, “I argued that we should have outed him. He was publicly defending the Pentagon’s policy excluding homosexuals. I argued that it was a case that fit into the guidelines, that it was a case of hypocrisy.” The Times, still smarting from the controversy around having named the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her, decided against naming Williams in a story that referred to his outing. But Schmalz thought it was significant that he was brought into the discussion.
"The changes regarding gays at the Times are a little bit commensurate with the situation with women here," says Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen. "There was a period when women had to pass. When you're passing, you can't really come
to the office with your particular life concerns. You don't want to draw attention to the fact that you're female. But when you don't have to pass any longer, you can come in with your life stories and say, ‘At least half of our readers are interested in this story, and I know about it because it's part of my experience.’" Quindlen has noticed that gay people at the Times are now much more at ease socially. "My gay friends now talk openly with me, out loud in the newsroom, about their dates,” she says.
Philip Gefter, who is training to become a picture editor, says that even longtime gay staffers are amazed at how many gays and lesbians there are at the paper whom they previously didn’t know about. “Every time I want a ‘proclivity check’ on a man I find attractive,” he says, “I’ll ask a gay man who’s been here a long time and that person will say, ‘No, he’s not gay,’ but then I’ll find out later that the person in question is, in fact, gay.”
One observer who’s worked at several New York papers is astonished: "The closet doors are just flying off their hinges up there and everyone has been talking about it.”
The Lavender Enlightenment’s effect on Rosenthal, who wrote gay-positive columns last year, is probably the most interesting of all. "All this time people have assumed I had certain attitudes, but they weren’t really true,” he claims. “They say that I'm suddenly interested in gays and AIDS and that I’m now writing about these issues. But I’m interested in it because I've always had an interest in it; I just never had occasion to write about it.”
"It's like the guy who yells 'nigger, nigger, nigger!' and then goes into work one day and sees that everyone is black,” says one staffer. "What happened was that Abe realized that some of his own clerks and some of the people he's worked with for years are gay because they are suddenly more open.These were like his spiritual sons. And it just blew him away."
Meislin, who was pulled back from Mexico City’s foreign desk by Rosenthal, is now back on track and content in his position as graphics editor at the Times. "You can't live in the past when the present is much improved,” he says.
But others don't forget so easily. Shortly after Schmalz had his seizure in the newsroom and subsequently revealed that he had AIDS, Rosenthal began asking about him. "He told somebody that he wanted to hear from me, that he wanted me to call him." Schmalz says. "I never called. It was just too late. You can't wait until somebody's dying and then decide to be there. Where was he all those years?"
On a Friday evening two weeks before Christmas 1991, several hundred lesbians and gay men were crammed in an upper East Side townhouse for a joint Christmas party of the Publishing Triangle, an organization of gays and lesbians in the book publishing field, and the newly formed New York chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Everyone was there -- a who’s who of queer writers, editors, photographers, reporters, publicists, and literary agents. They came from Time and Newsweek, Reuters and the Associated Press, Random House and Simon and Schuster, People and Entertainment Weekly, New York Newsday and the New York Post, ABC and CBS, and many more media outlets. The party went on far longer than expected, as people commented about the unstoppable energy in the room. This was all very new, and power was what they were all getting off on -- the collective power that they all realized could be harnessed if they worked together.
The first meeting of the New York chapter of the New York chapter National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association had occurred just six weeks before. At that meeting, attended by 60 people, there were at least 15 people from the Times, some of whom didn't even know each other or know about each other's sexuality. “That was important,” says Gefter. "I think that as people at the Times become more and more visible to each other, there are more informal avenues of dialogue that create a kind of advocacy block.”
That advocacy block is only just beginning to form at the Times. "There is now a loose, informal social network of gay men and women here at the Times." says real estate reporter David Dunlap. "We have talked about the possibility of sitting down with some editors and managers. There is no specific agenda of which I’m aware, though there certainly are issues we want to raise in time, like spousal benefits.”
Other staffers talk about asking for a full-time reporter to cover gay issues and the gay movement, arguing that during the black civil rights movement there were reporters whose beat was solely that movement as it was crystallizing. Still other staffers have agendas ranging from adding commitment ceremony announcements to changing obituaries (currently the Times will not use the word lover and will not say the deceased is “survived by” his or her companion). In almost all cases, gay Times editors, reporters and photographers are guarded, in that New York Times way, about sounding too much like what they call advocates because they are, after all, "journalists.” But at least one, propelled by forces beyond his control, has comfortably crossed that line.
“Sometimes greatness is thrust upon you,” says Schmalz, grinning. “Having AIDS has changed my politics. The paper trains you to be apolitical. I grew up at the paper and have been apolitical. Now I'm having a political awakening.”
Schmalz has been in and out of the hospital six times in the last year and a half, has had brain surgery, survived pneumonia, and outlasted a rare and immediately fatal brain infection, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. He's lived far longer than his doctors had hoped for, looks great, and has tremendous energy. He's now pondering what direction he'd like to go in, what kind of of meaningful writing about his experience he'd like to do for the paper.
"I have a voice that needs to to get out now,” he says, beaming with the glow of activist. “AIDS is not just a disease. It is a revolution in your life.”
Jeff Schmalz died at the age of 39 of complications from AIDS in November of 1993,18 months after this article appeared. This article first appeared in the May 5, 1992 edition of The Advocate.