Community looks back at 40 years of the B.A.R.
by Seth Hemmelgarn
For 40 years now, the Bay Area Reporter has informed, entertained, and frequently miffed people in San Francisco and beyond.
The paper started when Bob Ross – chef, Tavern Guild president, and bar culture insider – launched it with business partner Paul Bentley. The first issue was dated April 1, 1971 but hit the streets on April 2, Ross's 37th birthday. Ross pasted up all the pages by hand, copied them, and delivered them to local bars.
In the beginning, nobody took the paper too seriously.
Cleve Jones, who said he had an "up and down" relationship with Ross and who was a close friend of slain gay icon Harvey Milk, started reading the paper after his arrival to San Francisco in 1972.
"To be honest, it was sort of a silly publication," said Jones, who now works with the Courage Campaign. "Most of the other young people didn't really have much use for it. It was basically just announcements about whatever specials were going on at whatever bar."
The front covers of many early 1970s issues were dedicated to the Imperial Court's Emperor and Empress candidates, contests, and events.
Another early B.A.R. reader was Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag. Like Jones, Baker didn't have the best relationship with the paper's founder.
"Bob Ross hated me. He couldn't stand me," said Baker. "... I didn't fit into the old drag queen, Empress thing."
As the community evolved through the 1970s, so did the paper, which began to offer more political coverage. That included Milk, a longtime friend of Ross's, and a B.A.R. political columnist before he was elected San Francisco supervisor.
The paper's also been known for its letters section. Jones said although turmoil in that part of the paper has "calmed down in recent years," there have been times when it seemed "everyone just wanted to go out and be the biggest bitch they could."
The B.A.R. became a weekly publication in October 1981 in part to fill the need for information on the new disease that was devastating the community.
"As time went on, [the B.A.R. ] became more important, especially when AIDS hit," Baker said. He said the paper "woke people up. It was invaluable."
A powerful symbol of the personal toll of AIDS was evident in the November 16, 1989 issue, when the paper ran an eight-page section bearing the pictures and names of everyone who had died that year. (Not all of the 610 people featured had died from AIDS.)
Almost a decade later, on August 13, 1998, the B.A.R. ran its famous "No obits" headline, marking the first time in years that the paper had not received any obituaries that week. The article noted that the headline did not mean no one had died of AIDS that week, just that no obituaries had been submitted. Coming a couple years after the advent of protease inhibitors, it marked a turning point of sorts in the epidemic.
Room for improvement
Over the years, the paper has been known for its original reporting; the B.A.R. at one time subscribed to the UPI wire service but no longer does. It relies on staff writers and a network of freelancers, both local and national.
"I think the paper has really endured and been a voice of integrity and strong reporting and great advocacy," said Carole Migden, a former state senator and San Francisco supervisor.
But Migden, an out lesbian who now serves on the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board, also recalled the paper's work during the height of the AIDS crisis, and she wants to see more.
"I'd like the paper to return and urge the community to get reactivated with regard to HIV issues," she said. The B.A.R. should continue "to press for full resources and drug funding for HIV-positive people," she said.
Still, the paper does its best to hold people accountable.
Out mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty, another former supervisor, praised the B.A.R. as "The New York Times of LGBT journalism" but said, "There are certain weeks it's harder for me to read the paper," such as around "tough times" like Halloween. Dufty has been criticized for his ro
He said the paper's "a major tool for accountability" on the part of elected and community leaders.
Early in his own political career, Dufty failed to win Ross's endorsement for the 2002 supervisors race.
"We had lunch in South of Market, and Bob said he couldn't be with me, and I understood," said Dufty. He said, however, that former B.A.R. political editor Wayne Friday was strongly supportive and Dufty asked Ross "if Wayne could have free reign to talk positively about my candidacy, and Bob honored that."
(The paper did go on to endorse Dufty in the runoff that year.)
Asked if there's anything the paper should change, Dufty said, "Make it a daily."
Out Supervisor David Campos also had kind words for the paper.
"I think that it's the main source of news in terms of what's happening in the LGBT community, and the place where members of our community turn to for news," he said.
But like Migden, local labor activist Gabriel Haaland, suggested more coverage of a specific topic.
"There's a richness and diversity in the transgender community" that Haaland, who's transgender, wants to see reflected in the paper more often, he said. He'd like to see more work from transgender writers.
Dana Van Gorder, the executive director of Project Inform, which runs an HIV hotline, has held a series of jobs in San Francisco over the years. He's worked for former Supervisors Migden and Harry Britt, the health department, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
"I've obviously had a series of jobs in which the ability to communicate about important issues was central, and the B.A.R. is always the media outlet that we first think of when there is something important to say to the community, more so than any other community newspaper, and more so even than the [San Francisco ] Chronicle," said Van Gorder.
However, he said, "There were a number of years some time ago when sometimes the paper felt like the Fox News of LGBT reporting," meaning news stories were "heavy on editorializing and light on the reportage."
"In more recent years," Van Gorder said, "the coverage is significantly more balanced and has more breadth."
After 40 years, the B.A.R. continues to make changes.
This week the paper unveiled a redesign and has also recently updated its website, allowing people to offer their immediate comments on stories via Facebook.
Thomas E. Horn, who became the paper's publisher after Ross died in 2003, said in an email, "[W]e need to be on the cutting edge of new technology," including social media.
He added, "We also need to appeal to a younger demographic whose interests lie less in news and more in just 'what's happening.'" That sentiment led to BARtab, the monthly LGBT nightlife guide and website, which the paper launched last May and which Horn said is "just in its early stages of development."
Finally, he said, "If we produce a quality product that is relevant, the readers will come."Watch an NBC news segment about the BAR's 40th anniversary:
View more videos at: http://www.nbcbayarea.com.