De-Gaying Obituaries

Another chapter–and an interesting twist–in the question of handling LGBT issues in obituaries.  This time, the Associated Press obit of Midge Constanza.

As a geek when it comes to LGBT political history, I read about the death of Costanza and instantly remembered her involvement during the Carter administration in bringing the first delegation of LGBT people to the White House.

While she had a long history of public service contributions, in the annals of LGBT history, she may be best known for her role in facilitating a historic meeting of lesbian and gay activists in the White House, the first meeting of its kind, which took place in 1977, at the height of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign. The late Jean O’Leary, then the co-executive director (with Bruce Voeller) of the National Gay Task Force, said, “that meeting opened the doors for gay rights to be discussed on a national level.”

That fact, however, didn’t make it into the Associated Press obituary, where she is described as “assistant to the president, the first woman to hold that office” and “[s]he also worked for women’s equality, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, women’s reproductive rights and the appointment of more women to political offices.”

I’m not going to blame AP too much here because it’s hard to know when the obit was written and what was cut, although a quick Google search would have turned up Costanza’s place in LGBT history.  The press release announcing her death only mentions her involvement in LGBT history in passing.

Karen Ocamb, of LGBT POV, has a lovely remembrance of Costanza and makes a little news in the process: she outs Costanza as a lesbian. Here Ocamb described asking Costanza about being a lesbian:

Midge bolted upright, back straight, the force of her whole being roaring up like some 3-D mythological monster animation threatening to devour me: SHUT OFF THAT TAPE RECORDER!!!!!!

I was taken aback.  In my MSM journalism career, I had people walk away from me but never yell. Nonetheless, I complied, interested in seeing where this was going. By now the room had cleared – the guys were outside smoking and peering in curiously, protectively. Midge suddenly acted as if the whole interview was covert and I had somehow crossed a line – a line I didn’t even know existed. She explained that yes, she was gay (or lesbian, I don’t remember which term she used) and everyone knew it. BUT she HAD to remain in the closet because otherwise she would be limited in what she could do politically. (I heard this same argument later from Angela Davis, among others.)

It was a teaching moment for me.  AIDS was outing so many of my friends – one of the reasons I came out officially – and I didn’t understand why Midge insisted on staying in the closet or why I should protect her.

Midge got that. The mood shifted. The angry, formidable VERY IMPORTANT PERSON suddenly became very vulnerable. Staying in the closet wasn’t so much about keeping her secret so she could better infiltrate the straight political world – it was about how difficult coming out was for her personally. Now THAT I understood.  I agreed to only report on her presentation.

I had a long talk with Randy Klose about this later and looking back, I think it became a defining moment in my career as an LGBT reporter. If I was going to be a good reporter for my new “community,” I needed to earn people’s trust by being able to keep their secrets. As an heir to the Dairy Queen fortune, Randy told me he didn’t know if people liked him for himself or for his money. This proved he could trust me. Jean O’Leary also came to trust me and told me about her relationship with Midge.

I also learned there was a fine line to walk between being the LGBT reporter and having behind-the-scenes confidential friendships with some of the people I covered. That moment created a kind of bond between Midge and me – we would laugh when we saw each other, remembering how tall she grew trying to intimidate me.

In an email, Ocamb told me that it was an open-secret in California LGBT circles that Costanza was a lesbian who once dated Jean O’Leary, one of the people invited to the White House and an early leader of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

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