Veteran Journalist Knows The Joy And Pain Of Covering Gay Life
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
As we noted the signing of the bill is an important victory for activists who have been fighting for the rights of gay and lesbian Americans. Today, we hear from a journalist who has been working for decades to cover the stories that matter most to that community. From civil rights marches to political campaigns to hate crimes, Lou Chibarro Jr. has covered it all working as a reporter for the Washington Blade.
The newspaper was founded 40 years ago this month as the Gay Blade. And Chibbaro has worked there for three decades himself from a time when many of the Blade's writers kept their sexuality and their real names a secret to today when their reporters are out in front reporting stories on a local and national stage. And Lou Chibarro Jr. joins us now. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LOU CHIBARRO JR. (Journalist, Washington Blade): Nice to be here.
MARTIN: Why did the founders of the paper feel there was a need for a gay oriented paper?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: They basically felt this information was not available elsewhere. So, we started very small. I was not with it at the very beginning. But right from the beginning, though, they determined two things, one that it should cover information that we were not getting that the community collectively was not getting through the mainline press. And number two, that it would be a supportive and sympathetic to the overall community but it would not be an arm of some of the gay movement organizations that were in existence then.
MARTIN: Why did you want to write for The Blade?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: I guess, I started writing for it - it goes back, I hate to say it, but 1976 was my first story as a freelancer. And when I came to the determination that I was gay and a member of the gay community, I was interested in politics and current events I was in the reporting field already. So, I thought this is an interesting subject to report on and that's how it started.
MARTIN: Do you mind telling me how you came out?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: Yes I was in the - very much involved in current events. I first came to Washington as a student in a Washington semester program from the State University of New York in the thick of politics and the thick of public events. But I didn't really come to the full realization or take that bold step as many people do when they do realize that they are gay until I started working as a reporter and finally had a chance just to contemplate, well, where am I coming from. And so it was at that time, right around between '74 and '75 that I came to that determination and acted on it by getting as much information as I could from the very community that I knew nothing about at first.
MARTIN: I understand that your first byline for the Blade, the Gay Blade at the time was a pseudonym, Lou Romano, is that right?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: That's right. And the reason was that at that time, the Blade did not have the financial resources to pay a fulltime staff. So, I was working elsewhere. I was working at the time when I first started for a newsletter company that reported on energy and environment issues. And I thought that probably even if I came out to them - and I wasn't sure how they would receive me if I did - they wouldn't be comfortable for me working for another or writing for another publication anyway even if they were not gay related.
MARTIN: That was going to be my question. Was it because it was gay related that you felt you had to hide your identity?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: That was part of it. That certainly was part of it. We didn't know what would happen if I were to go into another part of journalism whether this would be an impediment if they knew most of the writers then did use the pseudonym. That changed right around 1978 and the editor at that point preferred that people use their real names.
MARTIN: What made you start using your real name?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: What happened was I was covering a story of a fire in Washington, D.C. at the Cinema Follies, it was a gay adult movie theater, eight or nine men died. And it turned out, as they were identified, most were unknown to be gay by their families and their coworkers, and it evolved into a story about the closet and some said the prison of the closet. And I thought to myself, this I think is no longer appropriate for me and I said it's time. So, I just used my real name.
MARTIN: To that point, how have you, as a reporter, over the years addressed this question of people and whether they disclosed their identities or not? You know, there have been stories with, say, public figures or people who have been critical of the gay community, have been found to be gay. I'm thinking about the former Maryland congressman, Bob Bowman Jr., who was married, came from a conservative district, but then who eventually revealed that he was gay but only after a set of circumstances. For example, he had been involved in a number of sort of physical confrontations where he'd been beaten up.
And so then the question becomes, do you disclose this person's identity or not? If you have a, you know, a strong reason to believe or know that this person's gay but who's living in a sort of a public way, now how have you addressed that as a reporter over the years?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: Well, that's always been a very tough question. The issue of outing, as it's often referred to, and at the Blade, we've discussed that in great detail over the years and almost always we do respect individuals' wishes to remain confidential unless they seem to be actively working against the rights of the gay community, and that has happened with some members of Congress.
There is one other instance too where it's very difficult but in covering the crime beat over the years, there's been a number of murders. Some have been gay bashings, but others have been known as pick up murders and some think they are a form of gay bashing where an individual might go to a gay bar with the purpose of targeting a gay person and may be getting himself invited to that person's home and then beating him up and stealing and robbing and sometimes that's led to murder. And often, the murders go unsolved. And the police need information from the community and others to try to find out who the perpetrators are.
So we have often reported that these individuals were gay upon their death, because we feel the overriding concern is who else may be a victim. And the more important consideration is to help the authorities track down and make an arrest rather than possibly sparing a family a little embarrassment because their loved one is gay.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with long time Washington Blade reporter Lou Chibarro Jr. Have you ever had a time when you were reporting on something you just thought this just hits too close to home. I have to put this down. I just can't do it.
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: It came close with AIDS. We were covering that from the very beginning. I was there, and you know, in the early years when there was really no hope other than community support, it was kind of tragic because, you know, so many were dying. Our obituaries were just growing exponentially.
MARTIN: And you're saying, why was it tough? Was it just because you were losing people? So that's why it was so depressing?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: Yes, we were losing people including some of our staff. So, you know, you have to try to build the strength among your friends and supporters and move on.
MARTIN: What keeps you at it? A lot of people think of journalism as a young person's game, as it were. I remember Barbara Walters talking about this. I mean, she's obviously still in it and has been doing this for a long time, but I had the opportunity to have an interview with her. And she was talking at one point about, you know, you know, you sort of get tired of beating on people's doors.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You know, standing outside the door waiting for it to open and do you ever think, oh, enough already?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: You sometimes think that. But with me, though, I find that there's always something new coming around the corner. And if you're interested in government and politics, this gives us a chance. Some people say, well, don't you get tired of reporting on the same subject only? But the same subject cuts across a lot of lines. I get a chance to cover the Supreme Court, the Congress, the White House, the military, the Department of Health and Human Services. So it's - I find those areas very interesting, and you always have to learn something new as each story develops.
MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: I - that's always a tough question.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, if you were talking to another you, a younger you, somebody out there who's starting his or her career?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: I would say it's, I mean, it's a great field and I would say keep at it. Do what you can to move in the direction that you're interested. The world is changing in terms of the venues whether it be print or broadcast or the Internet media these days. But the bottom line, though, I think, is the same and that you've got to dig out the story, get all the information and get it out there as best you can in the fairest way.
MARTIN: You have a big scoop coming?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: Well, we're looking into what's going to happen in this marriage battle locally, D.C. We continue to follow the fight for the legislation on a number of fronts, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. And there's always the hope of possibly getting called by the President of the United States at a press conference. But that's not the be all and end all certainly. But it would be nice only, if nothing more, to hear what he has to say about your question.
MARTIN: Have you ever been called on at a presidential press conference?
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: No. I've gone to many but haven't had a chance to be called on at this point.
MARTIN: Wow. Well, Lou Chibarro Jr. was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Lou Chibarro, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CHIBARRO JR.: You're very welcome.
MARTIN: Coming up, for many years the alarming HIV infection rate among African-American women has been increasingly blamed on African-American men who keep their relationships with other men a secret on the down-low. But new research shows those assumptions are just not true.
Dr. KEVIN FENTON (Director, National Center for HIV AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TD Prevention): About two percent of black men will report being bisexually active and therefore you need to look at the risk factors which are far more prevalent in the community.
MARTIN: We'll have that conversation just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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