Local Gay News Coverage Creates Controversy
Please note that any statements quoted from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter appear below verbatim. No changes have been made to incorrect usage of grammar, spelling or punctuation. Instead, a [sic] appears in order to maintain the original meaning of the posts as they appear and remain online.
The words were sobering if not more than a little shocking. Last week. Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) Publisher Mark Segal – a longtime LGBT activist – took to Facebook and Twitter to accuse Philadelphia Weekly (PW), a popular alt-news weekly, for being homophobic. He criticized the paper for running a story by Aaron Kase. It was the first media story in the city to delve into the investigation into anti-gay graffiti at the Controller’s Office that essentially questions the time and money being spent by City Controller Alan Butkovitz. To date, Kase says that the office did everything from fingerprint a bathroom stall where a sex act was described in graffiti between Chief Deputy City Controller Harvey Rice and his partner, a political consultant Marty O’Rourke, as well as interrogations and handwriting analysis of staff.
Kase seemed to be less concerned about the nature of the graffiti and more interested in the lengths the office was going to find the culprit – including the thousands of dollars in tax money spent in the process. He notes that O’Rourke ran Butkovitz’s election campaign and is currently contracted by the Controller’s Office for about $30,000 a year.
One might be anything but surprised by just who’s in bed politically with the next person in this town, but really Kase’s article is more of a criticism of how the incident was handled – sexual orientation plays very little into his reporting. And while the graffiti found is both cowardly and offensive – the sort of thing that might be scrawled by a disgruntled employee – the question Kase asked is whether it really merits being called a hate crime. It seemed a fair enough question to ask since Pennsylvania really doesn’t offer hate crime protection on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
As more details emerge about the atmosphere at the Controller’s Office, as well as the incidents (other reports say there are many) surely that verdict will follow about how serious (or not) the crimes really are. But interestingly, the original news story is being overshadowed by another – one in which Segal accuses PW of outright homophobia.
We have to hand it to Segal, it’s a challenging argument to make against a publication that, in the very same issue that Kase’s article appears, also published a compelling story about two gay men who faced unrelenting harassment from their neighbors in Frankford. The author Tara Murtha not only points out the need for hate crime protection for LGBT people, but she chronicles the ongoing torment that these men were forced to endure (everything from major property damage to the murder of a beloved pet). The story is serious. It’s sensitive. And it’s one of the more effective pieces of gay journalism I’ve read about hate crimes in our community. That’s why I can’t seem to overlook Segal’s accusation against the entirety of the paper.
Without every mentioning Murtha’s story – or any of the coverage PW has done in the past about the LGBT community, like a cover story on out lawyer Brian Sims, who’s now running for state house, or a heart-to-heart with a gay cop in its annual Queer Issue (yes, PW publishes an annual Queer Issue) – even the latest issue on newsstands this week features a profile of a photographer chronicling the LGBT community – Segal waged a war of words that accused the alt-weekly of being one of the worst things you can be in the gay community: homophobic.
Segal specifically compared the paper’s investigation into the Controller’s Office as “tademount [sic] to kicking Tyler Clementi.”
Hold the presses! Does the publisher of Philadelphia’s esteemed LGBT newspaper really think that Kase’s criticism of how the investigation was handled is comparable to the Rutgers student who took his life after his gay sexual experiences were recorded by his roommate?
For more than a week Segal battled responders on Facebook, including this editor, who – while certainly disgusted by the anti-gay happenings Kase reported – hardly found the coverage reason enough to accuse PW of outright homophobia.
As someone who is dedicated to covering important issues in this community day in and day out, I do not take the accusation of homophobia lightly – at all. In fact, there are many recent events and statements in which such an accusation would be more than fitting (like pretty much anything that spills out of Rick Santorum’s mouth these days). But when it comes to damning the whole of a newspaper and its reputation on the basis of disagreeing with a single article, that’s where I draw the line.
I especially find it distasteful to parade suicide and hate crime victims out to make a point. In no way should Clementi even be associated with this discussion – in the same way that Matthew Shepard’s image should not have been used on a flyer distributed by Segal for a fundraiser for local politico Jim Kenney.
But Segal’s adamant. He posted on Facebook:
“If this were a racial, anti-semetic or a women [sic] being bated [sic] woulds [sic] you say the same? This is serious, gay people are not second calass [sic] citizens. Over the last 40 some years I’ve had to [sic] many people who have been harrassed [sic] like this complaining or crying. Some of those people are no loger [sic] here … they committed suicide. RThis [sic] is no difference [sic] then Rutgers. It’s a hate crime and not only should [sic] not be tolerated but must be investigated to find who did it. he [sic] weekly victimized the victim of a vious [sic] hate crime.”
But can we really compare a vulgar slur on a men’s room wall about one’s boss with the ongoing harassment of LGBT teens? Or even rape? At one point, Segal equated the graffiti with rape. I’d argue that you can’t even compared it to the experiences of that gay couple in Frankford. While there are varying degrees of hate and harassment, so should there be varying responses. You wouldn’t handle a cowardly bathroom scrawl about one’s boss in the same way you would a violent gay bashing, would you? I think the same rationale can be applied here.
Many of Segal’s followers disagree with me and support him on Facebook, echoing that the incident at the Controller’s Office is, indeed, comparable to a hate crime.
But there are also others who oppose the allegations. Greg Jackson wrote, “THOSE 4 words that were written on a bathroom stall door DO NOT equate to what happened at Rutgers.”
At one point, a few in opposition even accused Segal of deleting their comments, including Murtha who challenged the gay publisher openly. And in a few more instances, Facebook followers who disagreed with Segal were accused of being homophobic themselves or somehow in favor of hate crimes.
Since when did a difference of opinion become akin to homophobia? I would like to think if G Philly ever accused someone of a hate crime or homophobia that readers would weigh in and let us know if we were on the right track – or if there are details we may be missing. If anything, the LGBT community needs to embrace a dialogue about these issues. Furthermore, if you make a statement accusing a respected local newspaper of being homophobic, you should expect a reaction. It’s not always going to be favorable no matter how much good work and activism one has done in the name of LGBT rights.
A variety of reactions are still being posted as of yesterday and this morning. Kase also responded to Segal’s accusations in a blog a few days after the initial criticism surfaced:
“Mr. Segal’s accusations are offensive and defamatory, and his motives are highly suspect. To exploit the Clementi tragedy as a means to excuse gross abuses of power by public officials is beyond sickening and extraordinarily disrespectful to the Clementi family. To equate words on a bathroom stall to rape is shameful. The story is not about vulnerable, bullied teenagers. The story is about very powerful men, among the most influential behind-the-scenes operatives in the city who have deep connections to other government agencies as well as a number of media outlets. Their relationship and sexual orientation are of no relevance other than the inherent conflict of interest in a chief deputy city controller’s partner receiving lucrative contracts from the controller’s office. I don’t know if a hate crime occurred. I would defer to the police and court system to make that judgment. However, since the police were never notified of any crime, it’s difficult to say that even the controller’s office believes that an actual crime was committed.”
This week, PGN also published its own story of the incident. In it, Jen Colletta reports that PW received criticism of the story from both readers and spokespersons from the Controller’s Office.
Fair enough. There were, indeed, lots of comments on Segal’s Facebook page suggesting that the incidents at the Controller’s Office were akin to hate crimes. Many of which praise Segal for speaking out.
But what the PGN article fails to mention is the backlash that Segal has also received on the same Facebook page. I know. Because I criticized several of his statements about PW being homophobic. At one point, I even questioned whether the incidents would have best been handled with sensitivity training (as is standard at most corporations and even the Philadelphia Police Department) so as to avoid an authority figure subjecting staff to such things as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. No matter how well-intended the investigation, it may come off as slightly paranoid to the general public, not to mention costly, casting doubt on the office itself. This isn’t a disenfranchised teen we’re talking about. This is the City Controller.
Quite a few people agreed, criticizing Segal’s comments as of late yesterday.
Alejandro Morales wrote:
“I don’t think there’s any aspect of the PW piece on the controller’s office that could be called homophobic or poor journalism. And I think it does a disservice to the community to run around declaring things homophobic just because we disagree with them.”
But after being criticized for challenging Segal, Morales added:
“… this whole dust-up started more than a full week ago, and it was over the specific accusation that Segal made towards the PW of being homophobic, and furthermore asserting that the way they carry out their journalism was tantamount to kicking Tyler Clementi. I disagree with that very much, and I don’t believe that anyone, and especially not a community leader, is beyond reproach or challenge. Not only that, but I think Segal has displayed a disheartening unwillingness to engage in an intellectually rigorous debate on the matter. As you can see further upthread, he’d decided that if you disagree, you must ♥ [sic] hate crimes. Is that an insight 40 years in the making? I’ve been reading the PW since I moved to this city, and they’ve proven their commitment to the city of Philadelphia and their LGBTQ community time and time again. I stand with the PW on this.”
The debate shows no signs of going away any time soon – or quietly, for that matter. But if anything, I hope the discussion illustrates the healthy diversity of opinion within the LGBT community, as well as the way we all police how gay-related news is handled in the mainstream press.
Segal’s accusations, whether you like them or not, prove that yes, there are differences of opinion in the LGBT community. And the backlash toward both Segal and/or PW also demonstrates that yes, people should be free to disagree and challenge each other openly and honestly – and ideally respectfully. While I disagree with Segal and PGN on this issue, I do not endorse name calling and personal attacks. It trivializes the important discussions we have and it subtracts from the real issues at hand about what constitutes a hate crime or even homophobia.
It’s my hope that those of us in LGBT media choose our words carefully. Tossing around the homophobia label could lessen the significance of the very real, very serious hate that still permeates much of society.
Do I think that the issues at the Controller’s Office are problematic? Absolutely. Am I offended by any sort of anti-gay bullying? Of course. But do I believe that the Controller’s Office handled the situation well? I do not. I also don’t believe that PW is homophobic. The newspaper’s track record speaks for itself.
As the editor of one of the city’s only two LGBT publications, I’m compelled to engage this conversation – and would do the same if PGN’s reputation was at stake.
What do you think? Is PGN right to accuse PW of being homophobic? Or has Segal gone too far?