Every June, the LGBTQ+ community celebrates Pride Month with parades, marches, drag shows, and other events that highlight queer history and culture. The participation of corporate brands in these celebrations has long been a point of contention: Do they show genuine support, or merely cash in? From the perspective of queer writers, the media and publishing industries present the same question. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and dozens of books were timed for release to coincide with that event. Every media outlet, it seemed, from The New York Times to small independent journals, published Pride- and Stonewall-themed stories throughout June. Pride Month was a content machine.
For queer writers, a more active inbox in June poses something of a dilemma. It can be a welcome boost in income, and an opportunity to get bylines in prominent publications. But some assignments reek of tokenism; in many cases, straight editors think of commissioning queer writers only during the month of June, and mostly for stories of personal trauma or cultural appropriation. No marginalized person wants to be invited to talk only about their marginalization or explain the validity of their existence to the non-marginalized.
Hugh Ryan, a freelance writer, historian, and author of the recent book When Brooklyn Was Queer, says that he had more assignments during this year’s Pride Month than any month in his career. He compiled a listicle of 26 books by LGBTQ+ authors for Mental Floss, recounted the queer history of the Women’s House of Detention for The Activist History Review, wrote about queer archives for Google Arts & Culture’s Stonewall project, covered the meaning of drag performance for History, and discussed the misremembering of Stonewall for the Times Literary Supplement—all while promoting his book. Ryan pitched his ideas for some of these assignments; for others, publications reached out to him.
Many of these interactions felt respectful. An editor at Poetry magazine contacted Ryan almost a year ago and asked what ideas he had. “The piece I landed on required I go into archives and really dig into it, and he said go for it,” Ryan says. “In terms of my experience, they’re the gold standard.” But other publications contacted him hastily, in mid-June, in what felt like a cheap bid to publish Pride stories before the month ended. Even more distressing was an experience Ryan had with National Geographic, who asked him to consult on an article about historic LGBTQ+ bars and landmarks in New York City. “It was a really bad piece, to be honest, with bad sources, and I told them so,” Ryan says. “Other historians had the same concerns, but they went ahead and published it.” Ryan refused to attach his name to the piece. “It’s a terrible experience to be brought on as an expert and be treated like decoration.”
John Paul Brammer, a freelance writer, was approached by Oprah Magazine to write about queer cultural appropriation. “They assumed what my stance would be as a gay Latino person,” he says. “The idea that they would treat me like a restaurant and take an order, it makes it look like we have no room for nuance, and we’re just yelling at people.” He wrote the story because he needed the money and was afraid to push back, but he didn’t share it on social media.
These experiences are common. While the industry’s investment in giving voice to marginalized perspectives is undeniably a good thing for both writers and readers, what gets published tends to be stories of trauma that put a burden on the writer—what Meredith Talusan, author of the forthcoming memoir Fairest, calls the “This Happened To Me” piece. For many new writers, a personal story of trauma is a way to gain entry into the media world. As Kyle Turner, a freelance writer, puts it, “Publications understand that when you include the voices of marginalized people, it sells. It’s not relegated just to Pride Month anymore. The far more complex question is how parasitic that is.”
QUEER WRITERS, REPORTERS, AND CRITICS remain underrepresented in media. Precise numbers are unavailable; this year is the first that the Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey, organized by the American Society of News Editors, is including LGBTQ+ journalists in its collection of self-reported data. (Results will be announced in September.) Last year, the Poynter Institute announced a new commitment to better serving LGBTQ+ journalists, asking for input and feedback from queer writers.
This year’s Pride Month was special for Ryan. “Things normally return to normal after Pride, but this year feels a little different,” he said. “My partner’s 70-year-old parents now know what Stonewall is, so that base level of knowledge gives you the touchstones you need.” Perhaps, he thinks, such understanding can precipitate long-term change. But he also feels frustrated by the imbalance between queer authorship during Pride and the rest of the year. Pinning a story to a timely “peg” is standard journalistic practice, but using Pride Month as a peg also has the effect of presenting queer stories as if they are of temporary interest. “Don’t only think about us during Pride Month,” Ryan says. “Think about how queer topics relate to what you publish already.”
Carol Grant, a freelancer and screenwriter, says that queer writers do all the same pitching, networking, and writing as cisgender hetero writers, “But on top of that we also have to be advocates. It’s exhausting.” So far this year, eleven Black trans women have been murdered or found dead—five in June alone—yet little of Pride Month’s massive content machine included work by Black trans writers. Grant feels “this need to fix the discussion,” and still, she also talked about being pigeonholed—a worry shared by all of the writers to whom I spoke. “When I pitch something,” Grant says, “often the ones that get accepted focus on a trans reading of something, and I’m happy to write about those things, because I’m good at it and I have that perspective, but at the same time I would love to just talk about a movie and nothing else.”
Turner, who published a story for GQ about Paris Is Burning, a landmark documentary about ball culture in New York City, says that his editor at the magazine is queer, and this was helpful to strengthen their rapport. The editor, he says, “knew I’m capable of writing about non-queer things, too,” like a review on Avengers: Endgame. Still, the goals of publications and of writers may never be aligned. “What does representation actually mean?” he wonders. “What is the actual goal? And how does one achieve those goals without the cost of the exploitation of people’s labor? I think I’ve found a way to take part in that system,” by working with queer editors when he can, advocating for his work, and making some concessions to make sure he is financially stable. For LGBTQ+ writers, that’s an enviable position to be in.
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