Media Beat
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Published by Seattle Times, May 1, 1993

Forsaking The Cold Comfort Of The Closet

Columnists often hope that their work will change other people's lives. Two years ago, Juan R. Palomo wrote a column that changed his own.

As a columnist for the Houston Post, Palomo sometimes shared information about himself. Once in a while he wrote about family or friends. But he had always carefully avoided letting on that he was gay.

Back in 1987, working as a reporter at the newspaper's bureau in Washington, D.C., he'd been "so in the closet" that he was afraid to suggest the paper assign a reporter to cover a national gay rights march there. He didn't, and it didn't.

But when a Houston man died at the hands of gay-bashers over the July 4th weekend in 1991, Palomo - in his ninth month of writing a three-times-a-week column - decided to leave the closet forever. He turned in a column denouncing anti-gay violence, and identifying himself as gay. In response, editors refused to print the article until he revised it to omit any reference to his own sexual orientation.

A city weekly got wind of the incident and called Palomo, who acknowledged what had occurred. When Palomo declined to promise that he would never again talk publicly about what had happened, he was fired - by a newspaper that had employed him as a journalist for a dozen years.

But that was not the end of the story. Most of the Houston Post's reporters and editors signed a petition calling for his reinstatement. Gay and Latino activists denounced the firing.

Subscribers phoned and wrote the paper in protest. A picket line went up. National publicity ensued. In the face of the uproar, the newspaper re-hired Juan Palomo.

Why is it important for gay and lesbian journalists to be open about their sexual orientation? For one thing, surveys consistently show that anti-gay hostility is far greater among those heterosexuals who live under the illusion that they don't know any gay males or lesbians.

"A recent New York Times poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of those who said they know someone who is homosexual have a more accepting view of us," Palomo points out. "That is why it's crucial that all of us stop hiding in the cold comfort of the closet."

When we spoke with Palomo a few days ago, he was emphatic about urging journalists to forsake that "cold comfort" and take the risks of openness. "The action of coming out educates your co-workers," he said. And when that education takes place in newsrooms, it reverberates to the benefit of media consumers.

In Palomo's words, "People are anti-gay because they are ignorant. People fear what they do not know and do not understand. . . . There are a lot of people who have a rigid stereotype of homosexuals. It's important for people to know that homosexuals do all kinds of work." Openly gay and lesbian and bisexual journalists "help to spread the word that we indeed are everywhere."

During the past couple of years, journalists at many news organizations have come out. Several hundred have joined the two-year-old National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

"I'm happy to see a TV reporter who is free to sing with the gay-associated Seattle Men's Chorus in his off hours and also do all kinds of stories, not just stories on gay men," says writer Abba Solomon (a brother of one of us), who reviews for the Northwest Gay and Lesbian Reader.

Regular columns by open homosexuals are now being published in several big-city dailies including the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Post. Last summer, a column covering "life from a gay perspective" - by Deb Price, a lesbian writer for the Detroit News - went into national syndication and now appears in about 20 papers.

"Being in the closet is a real mistake for a journalist," Price contends. "It's an asset for a newspaper to have openly gay journalists in the same way that having African Americans or Hispanics or people with disabilities is an asset."

What's clear is that sexual orientation tells us nothing about the content of someone's character or the integrity of someone's work.

The burden of challenging the straight-and-narrow of newsrooms, and creating workplaces that dispel stereotypes, should not fall only on gay and lesbian journalists.

If journalists - and readers - of all sexual orientations had not taken up that burden a couple of years ago, Juan Palomo would not be writing columns for the Houston Post today.

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