Roy Aarons is Smiling

I didn’t know Leroy Aarons, credited with being the founding father of NLGJA. He died shortly after I attended my first convention in New York and I never had the chance to meet him.

Yet, in the midst of the discussion over whether NLGJA should accept an invitation to join UNITY, Aaron’s presence was “visible” and his leadership was often evoked. On the historic conference call where the NLGJA board unanimously voted to accept the invitation from UNITY, someone said after the vote “Roy Aarons is smiling today.  We’ve fulfilled his dream.”

While I didn’t know him, I’ve heard a lot about him and read even more.  One of the most consistent threads in his life was his commitment to diversity in journalism.  It’s the reason he left a freelance job in Israel to join the Oakland Tribune at the request of his former colleague at the Washington Post, Robert C. Maynard who had become the first African-American owner of  a major metro paper.  Years earlier, Aarons had been one the founding board members of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education which was committed to encouraging diversity in journalism and training minority journalists.

Fairly late in his journalism career and after years of advocating for greater diversity in the newsroom, Aarons had his own “coming out” as a gay journalist by disclosing at the 1989 meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors that he was gay while presenting the first-ever survey of LGBT journalists which found:

most gays and lesbians were closeted in their newsrooms. An overwhelming majority said coverage of gay issues was “at best mediocre.” Fewer than 60 percent had told colleagues about their sexual orientation; fewer than 7 percent felt their working environments were good for gays.

As the story goes, four months after his speech Roy convened six journalists in his dining room to launch NLGJA. He became its first president, modeling its mission after the Maynard Institute’s, and held that post until 1997 and a board member until his death.

One of Roy’s goals while president and as a board member was to be invited to join UNITY. He led the efforts in 1994 and 1998 to join the coalition but ultimately those talks broke down, something Aarons is said to have regretted given his lifelong commitment to working for diversity alongside groups represented by the coalition.  Roy believed that while there were differences between the experience of LGBT journalists and journalists of color, there were similarities in the perceptions of how we did our jobs, what our “agendas” were, and whether we were limited in how we climbed in the newsroom.  Ultimately, Roy believed that working together was a more effective approach to achieving diversity in the newsroom and improving coverage than there was in remaining separate.  That’s why he wanted to join UNITY.

Later this week, I will have the honor of joining the board of UNITY as one of NLGJA’s four representatives along with NLGJA president David Steinberg,  fellow NLGJA vice president Jen Christensen and NLGJA board member Sue Green.  It will be a historic moment not only because of the inclusion of a group LGBT journalists as coalition member but also the addition of a group that is predominately white and male to an organization with “journalists of color” in its name.

While there has been some controversy surrounding the news of NLGJA joining UNITY, the majority of the reaction has been very positive and supportive and many see the inclusion of NLGJA as a step-forward for both the cause of diversifying newsrooms and improving the coverage of diverse communities, including communities of color and the LGBT community. NLGJA’s board members have been warmly received in anticipation of the first board meeting, Maybe most significantly, there has been an outpouring of support from LGBT journalists of color who are members of coalition groups and who see this move as especially affirming of their existence and experience as journalists.

Roy would definitely be proud.

5 Responses

  1. Well said, Michael. Roy was instrumental in my coming out process — as a journalist, and a human being — but whenever I thanked him for it, he just smiled. That smile — and support — were two of his many gifts.

    I will always remember the indescribable energy at the first NLGJA convention in San Francisco. There were about 400 of us, and the hotel was filled with a wild mix of emotions: joy, amazement, trepidation, wonder, fear. Roy was the reason we were all there; he held us all together; he kept us focused (and made sure we had fun) — and when the weekend was over, and we marched in the Pride parade down Market Street, Roy was proudly at the head of the line.

    As he still is.

  2. The one and only time I met Roy was when, as executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association, I was invited to an event to receive a check from NLGJA — a “repayment” of the seed money AAJA provided to NLGJA when it was just starting.

    When he introduced me to the crowd, he whispered to me if it was okay to say that I was gay. Of course I said yes (after all, I came out on national television, on CNN actually, when the network featured the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus which was then celebrating an anniversary.

    And yes, I am sure Roy smiling. . .

    • Rene, thanks for confirming this story. I thought I had the facts straight, but I couldn’t find the confirmation that AAJA provided NLGJA seed money when NLGJA started

  3. Congratulations on joining UNITY, and thanks for the tribute to Roy Aarons, who inspired many people.

  4. Michael, this historic step is one deserving of Roy Aaron’s legacy, and arm in arm, he did lead us here. Congratulations to you and the Board for this milestone for NLGJA.

    Bob Witeck

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