Friday, December 08, 2017

Born Today in 1933: Pioneering Reporter Leroy F. Aarons, Founder of Gay Journalism Group

Leroy "Roy" F. Aarons was born today, in December 8, in 1933. He was a journalist, editor, author, playwright, founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), and founding member of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. In 2005 he was inducted into the NLGJA Hall of Fame.

Born in Bronx, New York, Aarons graduated cum laude from Brown University and earned an MS from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He served in the Navy and Naval Reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant, then took a copyediting job with the New Haven Journal-Courier. The Washington Post hired him away.

Aarons remained at the Post for many years. As an editor and a national correspondent, he served as New York bureau chief and later established the paper's first Los Angeles bureau. He covered major events of the 1960s and 1970s such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, urban riots, and government scandals.

Aarons had a front-row seat when the Pentagon Papers story surfaced. As Los Angeles bureau chief, he covered California-related events in the case, including what work Daniel Ellsberg had been doing for the Rand Corporation and how he managed to remove the Pentagon Papers from Rand headquarters.

Because of his role at the paper during Watergate, Aarons was hired as an accuracy consultant for the Post-centered film about the scandal, All the President's Men. He also had a bit part in the movie.

In 1981, Aarons met Israeli computer consultant Joshua Boneh at his Jewish Community Center in Washington D.C. "He followed Boneh to Israel" in 1982 where he covered the Lebanon War for Time. The two celebrated their 20th anniversary with a commitment ceremony at the same JCC where they met. Aarons joined the Oakland Tribune at the behest of his former Post colleague Robert C. Maynard. Maynard had purchased the declining Tribune—thus becoming the first black owner of a major metro paper—and recruited Aarons to be its features editor.

In the 1970s Aarons had joined Maynard in founding what would become the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE). Maynard had been working with a summer program for minority journalists at Columbia University, and he urged Aarons to join its faculty. In 1976, the program moved to the University of California, Berkeley as the Summer Program for Minority Journalists. It later became MIJE, a model program in training and supporting minority journalists.

At the Tribune, Aarons quickly rose to executive editor and then to senior vice president for news, where he worked for greater staff diversity. He led his team to a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The following year he retired from journalism.

Aarons led his Tribune team to a 1989 Pulitzer Prize.
In 1989 the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) asked Aarons to coordinate a first-ever survey of gay an

d lesbian journalists. Responses from 250 print journalists revealed that 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 said their work environments were good for gays.

At ASNE's national convention in 1990, Aarons presented the results. Aarons closed his speech by coming out to his peers.

Four months after his speech, Aarons convened six journalists in his California dining room to launch the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). Modeling its mission after the Maynard Institute's, he was elected its first president, a post he held until 1997. Aarons remained on NLGJA's board until his death in 2004. By then the organization counted 1,200 members in 24 chapters nationwide.

On its 15th anniversary in 2006, NLGJA established the annual Leroy F. Aarons Scholarship Award for a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender student pursuing a journalism career. CNN provided $100,000 to fund the scholarship.

Aarons believed that coverage of the gay community, as with other minorities, required sophisticated training of journalists. He began to lobby journalism schools to include gay issues in their diversity training and achieved some success. In 1999, as a visiting professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, he founded and directed its Sexual Orientation Issues in the News program. Adapted by universities around the country, the program analyzes how the media have shaped public perception of people and issues since the early 20th century. In 2003, Aarons, Dane S. Claussen, David L. Adams, and several other U.S. journalism professors relaunched the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

In 1985, Aarons started We the People - The Voice North Bay's LGBT Community, which was a monthly newspaper that was in print 27 years, and lives on as

Aarons had a lifelong love of music, and often invited colleagues and friends to his home in California for sing-along parties. Everyone joined in on Broadway show tunes, but Aarons would solo occasionally with a ballad like Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat."

In the last decade of his career, Aarons turned to opera, writing the libretto for Monticello. Composed by Glenn Paxton, Monticello portrays the love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. L. A. Theatre Works produced the original work in 2000.

After the terrorist attacks of Sep 11, 2001, Aarons wrote the libretto for Sara's Diary, 9/11, an opera composed by his collaborator on Monticello, Glenn Paxton. Actually a song cycle, this work is a fictional account of a pregnant woman, who, after her husband dies in the tragedy, experiences deeply mixed emotions. The opera premiered at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center on Sep 8, 2003, in commemoration of the unprecedented attacks.

In 1989, Aarons read a newspaper article about the suicide of a young gay man, Bobby Griffith, and its effects on his mother. Mary Griffith had tried throughout her son's adolescence to pray away his homosexuality. Bobby suffered enormously from his family's lack of support and acceptance and his church's condemnation of homosexuality; at age 20, he jumped to his death from a freeway bridge. Her son's death eventually led Mary to moderate her religious beliefs and become one of the most visible activists for PFLAG, the nationwide association of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. She used this platform to urge parents to understand and accept their children's homosexuality.

After he left daily journalism in 1991, Aarons researched the story in depth. The result was his first book in 1995, Prayers for Bobby: A Mother's Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son. He worked to present the story to a large viewership but did not see this happen before he died. Prayers for Bobby premiered on January 24, 2009, as a Lifetime TV film starring Sigourney Weaver in her first made-for-television film.

On November 28, 2004, Aarons died of cancer. He was 70 years old.

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