A half century is a long time in the history of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, encompassing more change than could have been imagined in the early 1970s. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the archives of the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), “America’s longest continuously published and highest-circulation LGBTQ newspaper,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with special coverage, events and a new online exhibition with the GLBT Historical Society. The exhibition, “Stories of Our Movement: The BAR at 50” is made possible by generous support of the Bob Ross Foudation, and will debut on the society’s website on April 26; information is available here.
“Back in 1971, the mainstream media wasn’t really covering gay and lesbian people, much less bi and trans people,” said Cynthia Laird, the BAR’s news editor for the last 22 years, who joined the paper as assistant editor in 1996.
From its first issue, published April 1, 1971, the BAR laid out its independent but unifying mission: “This publication is in no way connected with any organization and will publish the views and thoughts of all groups. This paper will also try to help bridge the communication gap that seems to exist between groups in our own community.”
A RELIABLE WORKHORSE
Surely, this goal is still a work in progress, but over the intervening decades, the Bay Area Reporter became a reliable workhorse of original LGBTQ political and cultural reporting and, like many alternative weeklies around the country, an advocacy paper, influencing elections and helping to advance a civil rights movement that changed the world. Bob Ross, who founded and published the paper until his death in 2003, “had a real keen vision and foresight to see that a newspaper could bring the community together,” said Laird, one of a very few women news editors in LGBTQ media.
As the LGBTQ community and the broader culture have evolved, so has the BAR, said Michael Yamashita, who began working with the paper as an assistant editor in 1989. Now the publisher and perhaps the first LGBTQ Asian man to publish a legacy LGBTQ newspaper, he notes a more inclusive trend in the paper’s coverage and intended audience. “During Bob’s time … the focus really was on the, how would you say it? The power brokers in the gay community, which was really a lot of men,” Yamashita said in a recent interview. “White men who were heading up the agencies and running businesses and attempting to run for office. And increasingly women became part of that, (especially) in terms of the [San Francisco] board of supervisors. And so the focus really did have to enlarge, but I don’t think he would have ever imagined that it would enlarge and change as much as it has in the last, maybe 10 years.”
In 2018, with funding from the Bob Ross Foundation, the GLBT Historical Society completed a project to digitize the entire run of the BAR, from 1971 to 2005, when the paper went online. Since then, the key-word searchable version at the California Digital Newspaper Collection has proven a treasure trove for historians, and provides ample evidence of the breadth and depth of the BAR’s coverage. Laird notes in particular the paper’s reporting on HIV/AIDS, and now COVID, which continues to be critically important to the community’s survival. Nowadays, of course, LGBTQ issues are frequently covered in print and online outlets serving the general public, a fact Yamashita acknowledges, but he thinks there is still a clear need for the LGBTQ press. “I mean, [the mainstream press] just doesn’t have the bandwidth. They don’t have enough people to cover all the subjects that they should be covering and so one of the first things to go are minority and LGBTQ in any kind of reporting.”
EXPANDING THE FOCUS
“The BAR still plays an extremely critical role because we do publish stories that you won’t really find anywhere else. A lot of our content is original. Or if it’s something that everyone else is covering like a major event or major news or something, we will often speak to other voices that the mainstream media don’t speak to,” said Laird. “I think you see that especially in transgender coverage today, and trans women of color in particular. What I’ve tried to do in my story assignments in our coverage is really focus on other communities within the LGBT umbrella.”
Both Laird and Yamashita also spoke of their efforts to be more fully representative of all races and classes within the LGBTQ community. “After the George Floyd killing and all the Black Lives Matter actions and activity,” said Laird, “we’ve worked hard to feature people of color, queer people of color, in our stories, and photos of queer people of color with our stories even before that. But I have been really more aware of it in that context.”
Like many community newspapers and businesses, the BAR faces many challenges, particularly in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Last year, the paper was forced to lay off two long-time employees as print advertising revenue plummeted and online advertising has not made up the difference, despite an increase in online traffic. But Laird and Yamashita expressed confidence that, with the community’s support, the BAR will persevere. “Part of survival, I think, is paying attention to meeting your readers where they are and giving them what they want. So we’ve tried to stay away from sensational, quick clickbait things which work, but we’re hoping to cultivate a more consistent and loyal readership, “said Yamashita. “We hope to provide a steady diet of the kind of news coverage that local people here are looking for.”
Regardless of what comes next, 50 years — or some 2,600 weeks — of writing the first draft of LGBTQ history is an extraordinary contribution . “It’s really amazing,” commented Laird on the BAR’s quinquagenary. “It’s really a milestone and I’m really proud of the paper. I’m proud of everyone that’s contributed to it over the years to make it this great resource. I think the Bay Area is really lucky to have it.”
Terry Beswick is the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. He spearheaded a successful campaign to preserve the Castro Country Club for the queer recovery community in San Francisco, co-founded the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and co-chaired the LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy.