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How The Village Voice Made Queer Culture Mainstream

The paper that brought being queer out from the shadows.
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Being queer at the Village Voice wasn’t even a matter of diversity. It just was. By nature of the paper’s mission, they wanted a vast array of voices represented, to the point where it seemed like if you were a straight employee there, you could easily be pegged as the abnormal one.

And the Village Voice—which was founded in 1955 as an alternative weekly that would celebrate NYC’s creative life—never lacked for queer presence. Queer culture is, by definition counter culture, so it was an inevitability that it would be integral to the Voice’s wheelhouse. 

The Impact of Stonewall

And so, the legendary Stonewall riots in 1969 (in the Village) got splashy cover treatment, with first-person coverage that spanned the rioters’ points of view, as well as the police’s. 

One article—by an eyewitness named Lucian Truscott IV—insensitively used the “f word” to describe the Stonewall gays, but after that resulted in complaints, the paper stayed away from printing it again (at least until drag rocker Dean Johnson reclaimed the word to disempower it with weekly Rock ‘n’ Roll Fag Bar parties at the World nightclub in the ‘80s, which I dutifully covered, without asterisks).

La Dolce Musto: A Village Voice Column

My “La Dolce Musto” column—a très gay swirl of nightlife and gossip—started in 1984, but my late predecessor, Arthur Bell, had brilliantly paved the way for such a thing. His immensely readable “Bell Tells” column launched in 1976, not only covering movie junkets and Broadway openings, but gay politics and culture, all with cutting insight and aplomb. 

In 1977, Bell wrote about the killing of a gay Variety reporter named Addison Verrill, and his column ended up solving the murder thanks to people calling him with info. The 1980 William Friedkin movie Cruising—based on that and other killings of gays—followed, but Bell loudly protested it as sensationalistic and misleading. I didn’t fully agree with him on that, but the way he incorporated queer righteousness into his otherwise light-hearted column was inspiring to me.

Increasingly Politicized 

With his memory as my spirit animal, I wrote up more and more gay stuff, becoming increasingly politicized as AIDS mounted and the government turned a blind eye to it. I started covering rage-fueled ACT UP rallies in ’87, and I also ended up outing celebrities who were lurking in the closet, aiming to normalize queerness and provide desperately needed visibility for our community. 

Some other Voice personnel didn’t like what I was doing, but they stood back and let me do it—and that breathtaking freedom was the beauty of working there. 

Except for putting us through necessary copy editing, fact-checking, and legal queries, the Voice editors never forbade us from criticizing powers-that-be—and those players knew full well that was part of the game. It was a matter of principle, plus the paper was making so much money thanks to this fearless approach that it was commercially viable to keep it going. 

The Village Voice: An In Demand Paper With Big Voices

Before the Internet took over, the Voice was the go-to place for liberal, alternative views—and people were willing to wait till Wednesday to get them.

As part of my freedom, I loved writing up the bevy of hot drag queens on the scene, since this was way before any TV show gave them an international platform. Details magazine (which I also wrote for) and I were virtually the only two outlets regularly promoting this culture, so “the girls” lined up to beg for my approbation every night, and I must admit I loved being a sort of glorified casting director for the fashionably underprivileged.

Through the years, other gay Voice-rs like Guy Trebay, James Hannaham and Vince Aletti brought a personal spin to their own cultural reporting, and so did lesbian writers like C. Carr and Alisa Solomon. 

A key force was Richard Goldstein, who started at the Voice in 1966 and later became executive editor. A feisty observer, Goldstein wrote a panoply of articles spanning pop cultural topics, as well as pressing issues like the rise of the Gay Right. He assigned me to cover the “mandatory macho” effect that had gay politicians self-consciously pretending to be butch so much of the time, and in 1995, he sent me upstate to find legendary activist Sylvia Rivera in a public park, where she hung out every day, feeling abandoned by the gays. (My resulting interview with Sylvia was an eye-opener. She wanted to join her late friend, Marsha P. Johnson, in the river.) 

The paper always informed, celebrated, chastised (when need be), and stirred things up. LGBTQ issues and personalities were not shunted to the back of the bus. 

However, Some Voices Were Not Present…

Only trans voices were lacking, mainly because trans people weren’t encouraged to pursue journalistic opportunities at that time, and the paper didn’t do outreach to compensate for that. But they were very visible in the pages and in the ad section—the Voice personals gave queers a pre-Grindr means of hooking up that usually made life a lot more fun. (I’m not referring to Backpage, a site onetime Voice owners, New Times Inc., had started, which became a doomed cesspool of illegal activity.)

New Times is long gone as owners, but the Voice has continued as a web-only publication, which I happen to still write for. In fact, I’m working on a Pride piece as we speak! I’m especially proud that my home base still makes lavender waves.

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