On Monday, with relatively little fanfare, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) announced the recipients of their annual Excellence in Journalism Awards. That makes today like Christmas for gay media nerds – the exhausting but rewarding version of Christmas where all your presents are actually long, weighty articles. Just scanning the list of winners is a great way to mentally recap The Year In Queer, providing a sort of “previously on The L Word” for world events. Remember when the U.S. Department of Justice drilled the first little hole in DOMA? When everyone was horrified and riveted by the previously untold story of a boy forced to undergo gay prevention therapy in the 1970s? When a well-known “lesbian blogger” outed himself as a straight man? Good times.
If you have a few spare days, I recommend searching out the winning authors and reading their pieces. Assiduous Googling allowed me to piece together Brett Zongker’s breaking news coverage of the National Portrait Gallery’s first gay-themed art show, and the maelstrom of censorship, protests, and boycotts that invariably follow things like that. June Thomas’s Slate series on the rise and fall of the gay bar was probably my favorite piece overall – it’s two parts history, one part memoir, and one part sentences like “Grindr reflects the world in all its messy serendipity.”
Thumbs up also to Steven Thrasher, who responded to his Journalist of the Year award by thanking “the brave men, women, and children who have . . . entrusted me with the honor of sharing their stories of what it’s like to be LGBT in America in this moment.” I was unfamiliar with Mr. Thrasher until today, but after reading a few of those stories, his voice – measured and lyrical, with just the right amount of appropriate outrage – is firmly and happily in my head. He’s earned his crown, which I’m imagining as a glittery newspaper hat.
Lists like this can also help us gauge how different types of media stack up against each other when it comes to smart coverage of LGBT issues. For example, I was surprised to find that a few of the winning articles in the “Feature Writing” category used a certain kind of shock value bait-and-switch opener that, by 2012, is starting to seem dated. Early in “2 gay dads, 12 happy kids,” Karina Bland’s article about a gay couple’s struggle to navigate Arizona’s complex adoption laws, we get this paragraph:
“The six littlest children fit on the 9-foot-long bench along one side of the table. Andrew and the four other big kids sit in chairs on the other side. Olivia, the baby of the family, is in a high chair. Daddy sits at one end, Papa at the other.”
When I read it I feel like I’m supposed to do a spit-take with my coffee. Big family, cute kids, all-American picnic table setup, WHAT HANG ON TWO DADS!?! The rest of the article is so sympathetic and well-researched that the beginning seems cheap. I have similar feelings about “Becoming Katie,” Cary Aspinwall’s story about the first transgender girl to graduate from high school in Ohio, which is taut and touching but marred by overdramatic attempts at symbolism (“She was born on Mother’s Day”) and an obviousness that sometimes borders on insulting (“[Katie] is a person, not an ‘it'”).
Of course, anyone who writes about minority groups for a wider audience is going to have to make some tough decisions. My frustration with certain authorial choices is, in the end, really just impatience – that someone reading The Arizona Republic might have actually been shocked by the idea of “Daddy and Papa” having a family; that the general public is so far removed from trans issues that a reporter felt it was necessary to reassert her subject’s personhood. If you give your readers too much credit (say, by assuming they know the difference between sex and gender), you risk confusing or alienating them; overexplain things that are common knowledge and you might bore or insult them. Meanwhile, if you harp too hard on what makes your subject “different,” it can come across as exotification, but if you only emphasize similarities, why even write the story? It’s a hard wire to walk, and it’s interesting to watch the best of the best try not to fall off (June Thomas, for example, repeatedly reassures her readers that “the average gay bar is not much different than the average straight bar” right before pointing out their extensive aesthetic, social, historical, and metaphorical differences – sneaky).
It’s also an issue some writers get to avoid entirely – I noticed no such tension in any of the winning pieces in the “Online Journalism” category, all of which were from sites that cater specifically to queer audiences and so don’t have to worry about explaining the basics, or making sure everyone is comfortable. This frees them up to mine narrower, richer topics – Michael Luongo won for his Advocate profile of human rights activist Ezra Nawi, which explores “pinkwashing,” the intersection of sexual, ethnic and political identities, and other tricky and worthwhile gray areas. Although Steven Thrasher deftly avoids pandering or sensationalizing in his work for mainstream news outlets, you can almost hear him sigh with relief when he gets to throw the word “vogue” around, undefined, in an article for Out. It’s an entirely different kind of writing – equally valuable, but for a different audience and a different purpose. It can be easy to get wrapped up in media like that, and to forget that much of the world gets its information elsewhere. Those who manage to strike the right balance, and bring mainstream attention to topics that others might relegate to niche publications, and aren’t total dicks about it, deserve a lot of kudos – maybe even their own separate award. Think about it, NLGJA. (No more acronyms, though. Those confuse everyone.)