Some of the coverage of rioting outside the gay bar — unimaginable today in mainstream publications for its mocking tone — was itself a source of the fury that led Stonewall to become a synonym for the fight for gay rights.
Fifty years later, media treatment of the LGBTQ community has changed and is still changing.
“The progress has been extraordinary, with the caveat that we still have a lot to do,” said Cathy Renna, a former executive for the media watchdog GLAAD who runs her own media consulting firm.
Coverage nonexistent or negative
Before Stonewall, mainstream media coverage of gays was generally nonexistent or consisted of negative, police blotter items.
When a small group demonstrated against government treatment outside the White House in 1965, a newspaper headline said, “Protesters Call Government Unfair to Deviants,” noted Josh Howard, whose film “The Lavender Scare,” about an Eisenhower-era campaign against gays and lesbians in government, aired on PBS this week.
A 1966 Time magazine article called homosexuality “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste and above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”
This is the sort of thing that Howard, who was 14 at the time of Stonewall, read about people like himself when he was young.
“It’s a hard way to grow up,” said the longtime CBS News producer. “I sort of realized that it was safe for me to be in the closet.”
Stonewall got some straightforward coverage at the time, although stories in The New York Times and the New York Post ran well inside the newspapers. An Associated Press story from June 30, 1969, said “police cleared the streets in the Sheridan Square area of Greenwich Village early Sunday as crowds of young men complained of police harassment of homosexuals.”
New York television stations ignored it, so the visual record amounts to a handful of still pictures.
Wake-up call for the media
The Daily News story was filled with slurs, and it began: “She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave.”
At the time, many demonstrators were more upset with riot coverage by the now-defunct alternative newsweekly The Village Voice, said Edward Alwood, author of “Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media.”
One Voice writer holed up with police inside Stonewall and said he wished he was armed.
“The sound filtering in doesn’t suggest dancing faggots anymore,” Howard Smith wrote. “It sounds like a powerful rage bent on vendetta.”
Another Voice writer, Lucian Truscott IV, repeatedly referred to “faggot” and “faggotry” and said of the rioters at one point, “limp wrists were forgotten.”
“That event has generally been seen through political lenses,” Alwood said. “It was also a wake-up call for the media.”
Discomfort, stereotyping persisted
The immediate impact was growth and a heightened profile for news outlets specifically oriented to gays and lesbians, said Eric Marcus, author of the book “Making Gay History” and host of a podcast of the same name.
Marcus wrote in an essay this week about how Time magazine’s 1966 story “just about burned the skin off my face as I read it.”
Time didn’t cover Stonewall, but in October 1969 published a cover story about the emerging civil rights movement. While more straightforward in its reporting than the essay three years earlier, the story “was still dripping with sarcasm and contempt,” he said.
Time published Marcus’ piece as part of its Stonewall anniversary coverage, although it didn’t apologize for its past work.
While outright hate within the mainstream media subsided through the years, discomfort and stereotyping persisted. The go-to gay image for most publications was a silhouette of two men holding hands.
Coverage of gays in the military, for example, focused on “showers and submarines,” Renna said, or the unease of straight males in the presence of gays. Lesbians were barely mentioned, a sign of little awareness of diversity.
Through her work at GLAAD, Renna saw how Ellen DeGeneres’ revelation that she was a lesbian, both the ABC sitcom character she played at the time and the comedian in real life, was pivotal to promoting understanding.
Attention to language
Renna has urged journalists to pay attention to their language. Being gay is not a lifestyle, she notes; “Having a dog is a lifestyle.” She also urges the use of “sexual orientation” as opposed to “sexual preference,” a recognition that being gay isn’t a choice.
“The vast majority of journalists are not homophobic,” she said. “They’re homo-ignorant.”
Renna, who wears her hair short and favors tailored suits, is used to being mistaken for a man. Until about a decade ago, people she would correct generally shrugged. As a sign of changing attitudes, “now people fall over themselves to apologize once they realize I’m a girl,” she said.
A handbook of terminology for news organizations that is put out by LGBTQ journalists has helped increase awareness.
There are still missteps. The AP decreed in 2013 that its journalists would not use the word “husband” or “wife” in reference to a legally married gay or lesbian couple. After a protest, the AP reversed its call a week later.
Two 2017 entries in the AP Stylebook, considered the authoritative reference for journalists on the use of language, illustrate how far things have come since the “queen bees” days 50 years ago. The AP endorses the use of “they, them or theirs” as singular pronouns (replacing he or she) if the story subject requests it, although the AP urges care in writing to avoid confusion.
The stylebook also reminds readers that not all people fit under one of two categories for gender, “so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes.”
Gender identification remains an object of confusion for many journalists. Activists also urge news organizations to be aware of people who are emboldened to lash out at the LGBTQ community by the divided politics of the past few years.
A newspaper apologizes
With the Stonewall anniversary, Marcus, of “Making Gay History,” has been busy working with news organizations doing stories about the event.
One publication he finds particularly interested and responsible in marking the occasion is the New York Daily News. The News on June 7 wrote an editorial recognizing its unseemly moment in history.
“We here at the Daily News played an unhelpful role in helping create a climate that treated the victims as the punchline of jokes, not as dignified individuals with legitimate complaints about mistreatment,” the newspaper wrote. “For that, we apologize.”
It was the newspaper’s second apology for its 1969 story in four years.