Gay Community News: 30 years later
by Scott A. Giordano
Thursday, January 16, 2003
Boston is known as a city rich in history, and that reputation holds true for the glbt community. It was 30 years ago in Boston that the nation’s first weekly gay and lesbian newspaper began publication.
The first issue of Gay Community News (GCN) was published on June 17, 1973 from the Charles Street Meeting House. The group behind GCN was officially named the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation (BSEF) in 1982.
To both longtime gay activists and former GCN staff, the paper is recalled as one that helped define and shape today’s gay rights movement and also helped cultivate a generation of its leaders both locally and nationally. First and foremost, however, GCN was the first mechanism through which GLBT people could be informed of the events that touched their own lives.
“I think [GCN] played many roles, a role that was most important was that it was the first paper out there to disseminate news in our community. There was nothing else available at the time,” reflects longtime lesbian activist Anne Maguire, who now runs a guesthouse in Provincetown, Mass.
Sue Hyde, now the New England field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), was GCN’s news editor from January 1983 to May 1985. Hyde says she came to Boston from St. Louis specifically to work for GCN.
“GCN was a weekly publication that reflected its own political movement and community. It was a very interesting kind of publication that hardly exists any longer in 2002. It existed primarily for the purpose of moving forward a particular community’s political hopes and dreams and aspirations,” Hyde said.
“The whole culture was so different at that time. You wouldn’t open up the Boston Globe and see an article about gay people as you would now,” adds Amy Hoffman, GCN features editor from 1978 to 1980 and managing editor from 1980 to 1982.
GCN initially was conceived as a newsletter and community calendar, according to David Peterson, one of eight GCN founders. But after its first printed edition, the paper quickly grew into an eight-page, tabloid-style periodical published from 22 Bromfield St. in Boston. GCN began using color in 1975, and expanded its scope and distribution to the national level by 1978.
When Hyde came to the paper in 1983, there was a staff of 10 people that published the then 24-page paper. It was about that time when Hyde says the AIDS epidemic changed the gay community forever, and GCN was at the forefront of mobilizing the gay community into action at a time of crisis and confusion.
“I came on in 1983, just when the word GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) was going out of use and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was coming into use. We were at the dawn of what was going to be the most community-changing experience ever for GLBT people in the United States. Gay Community News staff, board and the community of stake holders were fraught with fear, anxiety, tension and curiosity about this thing that was just beginning to happen,” Hyde recalls. “People close to the newspaper were becoming ill, and people close to the newspaper were becoming involved in a very small committee called the AIDS Action Committee, which at that time, was a working group housed at the Fenway Community Health Center.” (Today, the AIDS Action Committee is the largest AIDS-service organization in Massachusetts.)
“The beginnings of the coverage of the AIDS epidemic in Gay Community News, I think, were marked by investigatory zeal and eagerness to understand this new and very complicated phenomenon. I well remember not just news stories, but a lot of coverage in the paper that was analytical and theoretical,” Hyde said. For example, Hyde cites a two-page center spread written by Cindy Patton that was one of the first to focus on safe-sex information as it relates to AIDS.
As GCN staff watched more of their own community become inflicted with the deadly virus, they worked ever more diligently to create a government response to the epidemic.
“It is hard to describe the daily experience of the early epidemic because we knew so little. There was so little scientific information that one could rely on, and yet our community and our male leadership was chewed up every day,” Hyde said. “So on the one hand, there was this sort of huge gap of reliable scientific data that was getting filled in, but at the same time, people were literally disappearing from view. Previously vigorous and productive and creative leaders in our community were just wasting away into nothing just right in front of our eyes.
“I think our coverage of AIDS, particularly early in the epidemic, was key to developing a political understanding of the government’s negligence and the Reagan Administration’s eagerness to do absolutely nothing about this,” Hyde continued. “That was the national story of unmistakable significance when I was news editor of the paper. It was the story everyone had to cover.”
Hyde remembers another ground-breaking story when she was leaving GCN in May of 1985.
“Our friend, [Massachusetts] Gov. Michael Dukakis, promulgated a state policy that effectively barred gay men and lesbians from being considered as appropriate to be foster parents in the state of Massachusetts. … It was really among the first times [that] a gay family issue hit the mainstream press, and hit the community press in such a way that we were mobilized to vigorously oppose the policy and defend our community’s reputation and name,” Hyde said.
“From the platform of GCN, Michael Dukakis’ anti-gay policy got such huge notice that, when he ran for president in 1988, just two and half years later, gay people all over the United States knew about the foster care policy and criticized him vigorously at many of his campaign stops. So GCN had this huge local story that had become a huge national story when this guy Dukakis ran for president. And the coverage in Gay Community News was absolutely key to the nurturance of this organization called the Gay and Lesbian Defense Committee.”
Hoffman recalls GCN reporting on a range of other turning points in the national gay rights movement.
“One story was about Anita Bryant, who introduced anti-gay legislation in Florida. Also, there was the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have mandated firing of gay teachers or teachers who discussed gay issues in their classroom. That was in 1978. GCN covered the assassin of Harvey Milk in 1979. It covered the first GLBT March on Washington in 1979,” Hoffman said.
Former GCN contributor Richard Burns describes the paper as having been one of the “absolute centers of gay and lesbian liberation” with subscribers in every state and 12 foreign countries.
Now New York City’s executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, Burns started at GCN as a volunteer in the fall of 1977 before becoming its managing editor in the Spring of 1978 and then president of its board of directors in 1983. He remained a GCN member through 1986, when he moved to New York City.
“It was definitely a newspaper about activism and community organizing. We did not identify as journalists; we identified as activists. We saw GCN as an engine of gay liberation,” Burns said. “Our movement was made possible by the black civil rights movement, the women’s feminist movement, the anti-war movement. These movements laid the foundation from which the gay liberation movement sprang. GCN articulated that connection and the understanding that the gay civil rights struggle is not one that exists in isolation but is part of a larger social movement committed to freedom, sexual liberation and social justice.”
Michael Bronski, who now writes for the Boston Phoenix, had become one of GCN’s most prolific and prominent writers through the years. He first began writing for GCN in 1975 and continued until the paper folded. Bronski wrote primarily about culture, theatre, arts and book reviews. He had similar views about GCN.
“As a newspaper, I think it grew very much out of the early gay liberation movement, so that it always had a progressive mandate for itself which made it unusual because most of the gay press in the country was more ‘mainstream.’ So from the very beginning, Gay Community News had a commitment to a broader range of community concerns. The paper was filled with both cultural reporting and news reporting,” Bronski said.
Yet Peterson, a Cambridge resident, said he views GCN with a mix of pride and disappointment, like a child that took on a life of its own.
“I never expected nor did I want it to take on the political terms that it did over the years. … I felt that, ultimately, it didn’t represent a cross section of the community,” Peterson said.
“For my time at GCN, it was a tumultuous time with a lot of conflict because I dearly loved the concept and most of the people involved and the sense of community it did bring about. At the same time, I was very frustrated and angry that it seemed to represent a very narrow, leftist segment of the community and turned up its nose at middle-class and, God forbid, wealthy conservative segments of the community,” Peterson said. “I feel very proud to have been involved with GCN and proud of what it accomplished. At the same time, I have some differences with what it became. But overall, I would strongly vote for it to happen again because it accomplished so much in its lifetime.”
Working at GCN
The former GCN staff described GCN as a “collective” that made all key decisions as a group, and one that was split fairly evenly between gay men and lesbians.
“Not every story was agreed upon by consensus, but overall, the GCN really was a 25-year history of lesbians and gay men working together, which is hardly ever, ever the case today,” Bronski said.
“It was a very broadly accountable project in the sense that there were literally hundreds of people who contributed to it and felt a sense of ownership and felt a sense of responsibility for the publication’s life,” Hyde added.
Burns remembers the collective holding weekly four-hour meetings in which they discussed the paper, page-by-page. “If you went to three meetings in a row, you could become a member of the collective and would be eligible to vote,” he said.
Members initially were able to vote on who was hired and types of advertisements that would go in the paper, but later, the collective would vote for a board of directors who would then be responsible for most hiring decisions.
Peterson recalls the collective voting not to print ads that used sex to promote unrelated products. “You couldn’t use body image to sell something in a way that you barely noticed the product. There were long discussions about that, and a lot of advertising revenue were turned down because of that. I personally supported that decision,” Peterson said.
However, Peterson expressed disappointment in other business decisions that were made. “Most of the full-time people at GCN had the political philosophy that the people in business who had money were perhaps not as legitimate community members as some of the rest of us. It was basically OK not to treat them totally fairly,” he said, while adding that GCN was “always operating on a deficit and was obviously desperate for money.”
The latter was reflected in what Hyde called “poverty level” wages. Burns remembers working for $62 and change, after taxes, in 1978. Hyde recalls working for a $96 weekly salary in 1983.
Eric Rofes, GCN features editor, board member and writer from 1976 to 1984, remembers GCN coming under attack on more than one occasion.
“Our building was burned down. Bullets were shot through our windows on Bromfield Street. Several staff members died tragically, in suspicious circumstances, to this day. It was through GCN that I realized that gay liberation was threatening to many of the foundational assumptions and central interests of our culture,” Rofes said.
Building a movement
But Hyde says the gift in working at GCN was that it created skills and connections that helped build today’s generation of gay and lesbian leaders. Former contributors include Kevin Cathcart and Suzanne Goldberg, who would become pioneers with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; Abe Rybeck from Boston’s Theatre Offensive; former NGLTF leader Urvashi Vaid and HRCF (now HRC) leader Tim McFeely. GCN also helped foster prominent writers such as Bronski, Rofes and Boston Globe writer Neil Miller.
“The gift of Gay Community News to the movement is that it was a really important opportunity for training and growth for a generation of leaders. The kind of publication that GCN was offered an opportunity to people that really is not available any longer in the current crop of community-based newspapers,” Hyde said. “What we have developed now is a more professional kind of journalism with publications run much more for the purpose of business rather than growing a political movement. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that kind of model, but it does not and will not produce a network of leaders in the way the other kind of publication was able to do.”
The former GCN staff who spoke with Bay Windows all say their experiences with the paper helped influence their own leadership today.
“I’m still an activist almost 30 years later, even as a middle-class academic. My closest friends and colleagues to this day are other GCNers who remain active and political in today’s depoliticized world,” Rofes said. “GCN provided a forum for progressive queers to create a body of thinking about a vast range of issues and their relationship to our incipient movement, everything from abortion, to racism, to corporations, to the US imperialism. As a 20-year-old, when I arrived at GCN’s doors, it shaped not only my sexual politics but my overall politics. And I think it contributed to keeping a progressive gay vision alive in Boston well past the time it had departed other communities throughout the country.”
BSEF also acted as an advocacy organization, itself. In 1975, it began the Prisoner Project, sending books and legal references to prisoners in addition to writing about homophobia in the prisons for the pages of GCN. GCN officially changed its name to BSEF in 1982, prior to becoming the first gay organization to receive a non-profit, tax-exempt status in 1984.
GCN restructured itself, due to financial difficulties, in 1992. After temporarily ceasing publication, it returned as a 28-32 page bimonthly newspaper. GCN became involved with OutWrite, an annual GLBT writers’ conference, in the early 1990s. By the mid 1990s, BSEF sponsored Off-the Page, a semi-monthly event in which gay writers were invited to speak about their works at Boston-area restaurants. The Queer Progressive Organizing School (QPOS) was organized by BSEF and took place in Craigville, Mass., from July 4-6 in 1997. GCN continued to experience changes and financial difficulties until it permanently ceased operations in 1999.