*Watch Your Asterisk
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Ten years ago this paper was criticized by some in the gay community for placing the picture above, taken at the Jackson Heights Pride Parade, on our front page.
“Watch your asterisk!” I thought out loud quite a number of times as we wrapped our arms around the subject of gay (and lesbian) Queens. “Watch your asterisk.”
It seemed in speech and certainly in writing we were super-analytical of each word, each intonation, each and every subtle meaning, double entendre and each and every nuance of language.
Those who know me — either the real me or my written words — know that I’m fairly comfortable with language and pretty confident talking or writing on just about every subject – except organic chemistry. Well, when we began this issue a month and a half ago, I realized that this well-read, well-rounded, confident wordsmith, wasn’t so cocksure of himself when it came to the language of the LGBT community – that’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community. (No, it’s not transsexual).
Basically, I knew early on that this progressive community weekly lacked the expertise to report effectively in depth utilizing appropriate language when it came to a significant and growing portion of the Queens community.
So this issue’s editor Josh Parish set out to take a crash course in gayness. Hmm, “gayness”? Is that offensive?
And therein was our problem: the changing use of language to describe an evolving movement. Those on the leading edge of any movement want to use language to help direct social action.
Trying to mold society’s perception by demanding a new usage of language seeks to create a political correctness to facilitate social change.
I’m frequently not an adherent of political correctness. However, I certainly do not want to offend.
When you turn the page, you’ll discover a “Gay Glossary,” a small offering to provide insight into the language used in and to describe the gay community. It was compiled from expert sources and reviewed with local activists. It is not official; it is to help you verbally fumble, a little bit less.
What’s In A Name?
In contrast to our front cover of ten years ago, the Trib staff worked hard looking for appropriateness, accuracy and acceptance in creating the words and graphics for this issue’s front, but still found itself in the midst of controversy.
Way back when we sat down to develop the concept for this month’s Tribune magazine, I proposed a working title that we all thought was clever and appropriately captured the broad essence of gay life in our borough: “Queens…And Other Alternative Lifestyles.”
We believed it was accurate and would not jangle the sensibilities of some of our longtime, older, less progressive readers like say, “Queer Queens” might.
It was a wonderful play on the word “Queens.”
Our only concern was that some members of the gay community might consider derogatory a newsroom of straight people using the word “Queens” to describe them. As ethical journalists — and human beings — we didn’t want to label a culture something they didn’t want to be labeled or something inappropriate. However, we weren’t looking for the politically correct police to dictate language usage to us. So, to test the reaction to the word “Queens,“ we ran the title past a few gay Queensites.
Man, were we wrong.
While almost no one had a problem with the word Queens, many took affront to the phrase “alternative lifestyles.”
It implies a choice of sexual orientation, some said, and we didn’t choose to be gay. It doesn’t identify me, others said. My “lifestyle” is the same as any heterosexual’s—job, mortgage, watching television on the couch. I just sleep with people of my same sex.
And so, this issue suddenly took on new importance. With so many un-straight people under the umbrella of “gay” — lesbians, bisexuals, transgender — how do you define them all — in a title?
Our options were: 1) Let them define themselves in the pages of this issue, and leave this month’s issue without a title as suggested by one former editor consulted. 2) Print the title that taught us something so you, the reader, can learn something. 3) Add the asterisk* and try to explain it here.
Stepping On Toes
Ten years ago we had a run-in with some activists in the gay community. When we covered the 1995 Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade in Jackson Heights, we selected a photo for our front page of bare-breasted women — who we believed were transsexuals — on display atop a convertible parading down the street. We carefully covered those parts we felt crossed the line and headlined the front page “Too Queer For Queens.”
Our edit, “Parading Pornography” scolded:
“For the most part, the parade was an impressive array of ethnic groups, professions and even religious organizations marching to prove that gays and lesbians are from all parts of the city, not just Greenwich Village.”
“The positive aspects of the march, however, were seriously tarnished by the actions of a small – but very visible and audible – group of exhibitionists and lewd performers,” continued our ‘95 edit.
“Their antics were disgraceful on a street lined with children in a residential community. If the parade is to prove that the participants are really just your family, friends and neighbors, then it has to show that they do not come form the bowels of Times Square or Coney Island freak shows.”
We never apologized to Times Square, Coney Island or the gay community. Our critics did not object to our editorial stance – as a matter of fact most agreed. They objected to our selection of the photograph to depict their parade: a parade of pride and unity.
I’ve been asked why this issue is not being published to coincide with the Gay and Lesbian Pride Celebration.
This is not their issue. We are not proselytizing; we are not preaching anything new. We are not selling gayness.
We are reporting. We are telling their story – as well as we can.
In June of 1992 – three years before our controversial “Too Queer” front page, we published our first special edition celebrating our multicultural borough, “We Are The World.” We have published many since. We have preached about and lauded the wonders of diversity of our borough.
However, we have never told the story of a vital community which is a meaningful part of our borough. We have never presented to our largely straight readership a picture of their friends and neighbors who have a different sexual orientation.
It has been a wonderful learning experience for those of us involved in the effort. Andrew Moesel, a relatively new Trib reporter who took part in the discussion of the appropriateness of the term “Alternative Lifestyles,” related this memorable vignette from one of his favorite American cultural institutions, The Simpsons:
“At first Homer has a problem with this gay guy Tom that Bart starts to spend time with, but by the end of the show, after the gay guy saves the day, Homer’s heart softens. That leads to the following exchange:
Homer: From now on I’m going to stay away from offensive terms like fruit or homos and call you guys fags, no wait, queers, queers is what you like to be called, right?
Gay Guy: Actually, I prefer Tom.”
Others in the office who recalled the pop culture moment remember the details differently, but agree it tells our story rather well.
So remember our diverse borough.
Be accepting of others.
And please, watch your asterisk.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at:
Not 4 Publication.com by Dom Nunziato