‘No one else is going to speak for us’: LGBTQ media rise in age of Trump

April 17, 2017
Photo via Flickr

Everything was quiet in New York City the day after the 2016 election. The city was stunned into silence. Matthew Breen remembers people crying randomly on the street, comforted by friends and strangers. “We were totally blindsided,” Breen says. “People were trying to look kindly on one another. It was such a raw and fragile moment.”

Breen, now the editorial director of LOGO, was in his final weeks at The Advocate, where he worked for nearly six years as the editor in chief. Having publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, Breen says his last issue as the publication’s EIC wasn’t the one he expected. The December cover of The Advocate depicted an American flag in which two of the stripes have fallen off. Meanwhile, a man and a woman stare out helplessly into the distance, struggling to figure out what’s next.



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The blunt title sums up the sudden and unexpected fear that gripped the LGBTQ community in those early days: “Time to panic,” it read.

The election of Donald Trump to the White House has radically transformed the relationship between the press and the Oval Office, a shift felt acutely among LGBTQ media as the industry has taken on a more adversarial role. Prior to the Trump presidency, many in the community wondered whether there would be a need for LGBTQ-specific news outlets in the future—that queer and transgender people would be so fully integrated into society that outlets like Out, NewNowNext, Washington Blade, The New Civil Rights Movement, and LGBTQ Nation would no longer be necessary.

But as publishers and editors tell CJR, that has never been the case. The past five months have illustrated the vital importance of LGBTQ media in US society, as these publications provided support, information, and comfort to a community forced to adapt to a drastically different political landscape. There’s an even greater responsibility to tell the stories of the marginalized, ones that might otherwise get left behind, in a news cycle dominated by Trump. And readers have responded by visiting LGBTQ media outlets more often and sticking around longer, editors tell CJR.

The past three months have been a call to arms for LGBTQ media, but five decades ago, The Advocate—the nation’s first monthly LGBTQ magazine—was founded in the wake of bar raids in Los Angeles. The first issue acted as a protest newsletter to help the community fight back. As much as the 2016 election was a wake-up call, it also represented a return to the movement’s roots.


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The fear of erasure in Trump’s America

Merryn Johns knew the election “would go badly.” Born in Australia, the editor in chief of Curve magazine, a monthly magazine for lesbian and bisexual women in the US, came to the 2016 election as an outsider. While all of her friends went out on the evening of the election expecting to celebrate America’s first female president, she stayed in and began working on an editorial explaining why Trump—widely expected to lose in a landslide—had won.

“Any time I heard Trump speak, I could hear him saying what a certain number of people wanted to have been said,” Johns explains. “I felt it was going to swing in his favor. He was tapping into a zeitgeist Clinton wasn’t.”

Johns says that for LGBTQ-focused publications, having Trump in the White House has been a huge reversal from the previous administration.

LGBTQ advocates had been gaining attention and notching wins for the past eight years—from Obama enacting nondiscrimination rights for federal contractors in 2014, to the Supreme Court legalizing marriage equality a year later. Many felt that progress would continue under a Clinton presidency, but feel President Trump has already begun to reverse those gains. On March 27, the POTUS overturned an Obama executive order preventing federal workers from being fired on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many of Trump’ Cabinet picks, including Secretary of State Jeff Sessions, have noted anti-LGBTQ track records.

“What we had under the Obama presidency was that he acknowledged us,” Johns says. “He mentioned us in his addresses. We were on the website. We were getting legislation pushed through. We were invited to the White House. That is all being rolled back, and it’s made us feel quite insecure. It’s not only a fear of not being seen. It’s a fear of being erased.”


A changing media landscape

If Johns claims that “the very concept of media” has changed under the current administration, it has also shifted the role LGBTQ media sees itself playing during a contentious political moment.

Lucas Grindley, editor in chief of The Advocate, says it has been important for LGBTQ publications to reflect what the community is feeling during an emotional time. During the week following the election, Grindley wrote an editorial taking his Republican family members to task for casting their ballot for a politician who campaigned on rolling back same-sex marriage. “I’ve been betrayed by my own family,” Grindley wrote. “Odds are, so have you.”


People felt like they’d been betrayed and it took awhile for people to be willing to say that.”


His op-ed, which was shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook, clearly touched a nerve.

“People felt like they’d been betrayed and it took awhile for people to be willing to say that,” Grindley tells CJR in an interview. “The goal of The Advocate is to make you forward on a story and say, ‘Finally, someone’s said what I’m thinking. I don’t feel alone.’”

Although hard data can be difficult to quantify, LGBTQ publications report that traffic has been up as readers seek out spaces that reflect what they’re feeling about the Trump administration. The Advocate reports a nearly 50-percent increase in overall pageviews for the first quarter of 2017 over the first quarter of 2016, while subscriptions have held steady. (CJR requested subscriber information from other LGBTQ publications, but they declined to provide hard data.)

Given that demand, many LGBTQ publications have shifted greater resources to covering the daily happenings of the Trump administration and telling community members how to take action. In the days after the election, The Advocate started The Resistance, a Friday newsletter listing protests taking place in your area; that newsletter morphed into a video series. NewNowNext created Five Dollars/Five Minutes, a recurring feature that offers quick and easy action steps for readers who want to get involved. Go Magazine, which covers queer and lesbian nightlife, includes demonstrations and political activities in its monthly calendar.

One challenge is striking a balance between taking a hard look at the current reality and offering healthy escapism for readers, says Trish Bendix, editor in chief of GO Magazine.

“It’s an everyday battle,” Bendix says. “There’s definitely people out there who aren’t just interested in going out and dancing, but you don’t want to be too depressing and to pump out stories that make us feel things are hopeless. Our community has enough problems with suicide, depression, and self-harm as it is, so there has to be a way to keep it positive while being very clear about what our missions are and what we have to do now.”


Our community has enough problems with suicide, depression, and self-harm as it is, so there has to be a way to keep it positive while being very clear about what our missions are and what we have to do now.”


Bringing everyone’s stories to the table

The Advocate has aimed to balance not only levity and advocacy but coverage of topics that aren’t traditionally viewed as specific to the LGBTQ community. During the 2016 primaries, Grindley sent out a memo to staff to “treat Donald Trump as an LGBTQ issue,” meaning anything he does is news for Advocate readers. Since that time, the publication has covered the effort to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations, and Trump’s stated intent to increase the deportation of undocumented workers.

“Because the Trump administration is attacking different marginalized communities, it’s brought all those communities together,” Grindley says. “We’re all combating mutual opposition.”

LGBTQ media has been criticized in recent years for marginalizing issues that affect people of color. #GayMediaSoWhite, a hashtag that went viral in 2016, drew attention to the fact that the covers of Out, The Advocate, and Attitude, a British gay publication, regularly feature straight white celebrities to sell magazines. Critics claimed that bottom line is calculated at the expense of non-white people, women, and transgender people yearning for the same platform. A Fusion survey found that between June 2011 and May 2016, 85 percent of the faces on the covers of these three magazines were white.

Les Fabian Brathwaite, a senior editor at Out who is black, admits that LGBTQ publications have done a “terrible” job of racial inclusion in the past—and stressed that fixing these issues is crucial to addressing the intersectional problems posed by a Trump presidency.

“People are well-intentioned, but if you only have a bunch of gay white men talking about diversity, you have to have other people to in the room to address that as well,” Braithwaite says. “Our responsibility is to bring everyone to the table, tell everyone’s story, and make sure, as much as possible, that everyone has a chance to tell their own. To speak truth to power, you have to make sure everyone’s voices are represented in the conversation.”


We need LGBTQ media because no one else is going to speak for us.”

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It’s particularly important for LGBTQ publications to be more inclusive watchdogs because, as Breen argues, many stories impacting vulnerable subsections of the community may get lost in a media cycle dominated by Donald Trump.  “Trump has swamped the news, and it has crowded out stories about all kinds of populations, marginalized or not,” he says.

Three months into the new year, eight transgender women have been murdered as hate crimes against the LGBTQ community increase across the country. Nearly a dozen LGBTQ centers have been vandalized in 2017, and an employee of Casa Ruby, which offers support and services to Washington, DC’s trans community, was attacked by two men who targeted the building. These stories have received attention in mainstream press, but they have yet to receive the traction such important subjects deserve. It is not only the responsibility of LGBTQ publications to fill that gap, as Johns argues. It’s why these outlets will continue to be irreplaceable.

“We need LGBTQ media because no one else is going to speak for us,” she says. “We are planting a flag in the sand to say: ‘We’re here, we exist, and you can’t get rid of us.’”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story had incorrect online traffic data for The Advocate.

Nico Lang is an award-winning reporter, essayist, and editor. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire and others. Follow him on Twitter @nico_lang.