B.A.R. showcased opinionated voices

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 31, 2021
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Guest Opinion columns in the B.A.R. Photos: Courtesy B.A.R. Archives
Guest Opinion columns in the B.A.R. Photos: Courtesy B.A.R. Archives

Over its 50 years in print, the Bay Area Reporter has showcased a wide array of opinionated voices on its opinion pages. Guest contributors have run the gamut from community leaders and everyday citizens to politicians and academics.

Some of the bold faced names have included Coretta Scott King and gay army veteran Joe Zuniga, both writing in 1993 against the military's anti-gay service ban, then-U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Edward M. Kennedy, who both promoted a 1994 federal ban against LGBTQ workplace discrimination, and gay former Congressman Barney Frank criticizing the Human Rights Campaign in 1996 for donating to a committee aimed at reelecting Republicans.

Vice President Kamala Harris, in a July 19, 2006 guest opinion piece when she was serving as San Francisco's district attorney, wrote about the need to curtail murder suspects from using "insidious" gay and transgender panic defenses at their trials. Harris, whose office hosted a convening about the issue, wrote, "To protect all members of the LGBT community, it is vital that we strengthen relationships between law enforcement and the communities we serve."

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) weighed in on the need for HIV funding at the federal level in 2019, while Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) that year wrote about resisting then-president Donald Trump's attacks on LGBTQ rights.

As the editorial in the very first edition from April 1, 1971, declared, "This publication is in no way connected with any organization and will publish the views and thoughts of all groups."

Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) reached out to the B.A.R. last year to pitch writing quarterly guest opinion pieces for the paper. In a digital age where elected leaders can easily reach the public via social media platforms, from Medium to Twitter, Chiu said there is still value to be found in writing an op-ed for a newspaper.

"The B.A.R. is an institution and iconic publication for our LGBTQ+ communities. The B.A.R. has some of the most in-depth coverage in news surrounding our LGBTQ community," said Chiu, a straight ally who represents the city's various LGBTQ neighborhoods, from the Castro to the Tenderloin. "So much of what is going on in our state Capitol impacts our LGBTQ+ community. I wanted to communicate directly as a legislator about what is going on in California politics."

Because the B.A.R. has established itself as a trusted source of news for the LGBTQ community, Chiu said it provides a platform where he and others can posit their ideas and opinions to be debated and discussed by its readership.

"It makes sense for me and others to communicate through your publication to our broader community," said Chiu.

Guest Opinion pieces in the B.A.R. Photos: Courtesy B.A.R. Archives  

A variety of voices
For several decades now each issue of the B.A.R. has featured a guest opinion piece on the bottom of the paper's editorial page. They vary in length from a few hundred words to 1,000 or more, with the topics and writers as varied as the LGBTQ community itself.

"I prefer they were exclusively for the paper and that they directly address the LGBTQ community in some way. That doesn't mean a straight person can't write it, but it does need to be focused on LGBTQ issues," said B.A.R. news editor Cynthia Laird.
The first opinion piece to be signed by someone other than "the editors" of the paper ran in the August 1, 1971 issue under the headline "an editorial: ALIOTO VETOS CONSENSUAL SEX, An editorial response."

Signed by George Mendenhall, at the time a contributing writer to the LGBTQ newsmagazine the Advocate, it excoriated then-mayor Joseph Alioto for vetoing a resolution passed by the city's Board of Supervisors in support of a state bill aimed at overturning California's anti-gay sodomy laws. In it Mendenhall, who would go on to be the B.A.R.'s news editor from 1977 to 1979, warned the mayor that the city's growing "gay power" would no longer be complacent.

A few months later a candidate for sheriff, William Bigarani, learned the threat was real. Under a photo of Bigarani and the headline "Beware of Bigaweenie," the B.A.R. ran a guest contribution written by Don Jackson in its October 15, 1971 edition alerting readers that Bigarani was a vice cop who would go undercover to arrest gay men on public sex charges.

The very first opinion piece to be signed by an elected official ran in the March 20, 1975 issue of the B.A.R. Penned by then-Assemblyman John F. Foran, it was sent in as a letter but the paper decided to run it in full under an "Editorial" banner.

The San Francisco Democrat was writing about concerns he had with getting passed his Assembly Bill 633 that would have banned job discrimination against gay people. Fearful that the passage in the Assembly of AB 849, known as the consenting adults legislation, would make it difficult to get his AB 633 passed, Foran had sought B.A.R. readers to contact members of the Assembly Labor Relations Committee in support of the bill.

"If you have been discriminated against, please tell the committee members about it when you write. Thank you," wrote Foran, who was unable to get his bill out of the full Assembly that summer.

Two years later in the March 12, 1977 issue, the paper ran as an editorial a similar letter from then-Assemblyman Art Agnos, who was seeking support for two bills that would protect gays in the workforce but that he feared would die in committee. It would take years for Agnos to get his bills passed.

A branded "Open Forum" editorial page debuted March 30, 1978 in the paper's eighth anniversary issue. But it would be until the August 30, 1979 issue for the first outside voice to be featured where the paper's own editorials ran on the page. The honor went to then-Supervisor Harry Britt, a gay man named to succeed the city's first gay supervisor Harvey Milk after his being killed the year prior.

Britt was calling out a series of columns written by Charles McCabe for the San Francisco Chronicle that had outraged the city's gay community. In response, Britt wrote in the B.A.R. that, "Most San Franciscans, I am convinced, ... do not hate and fear gay people. They know that all people gain something when one group becomes more free."

The next time the paper ran a "Guest Editorial" came in the July 21, 1983 issue, when Martin F. Stow wrote about AIDS and criticized the responses from both gay political leaders and religious officials. "Our goal should be how to use the AIDS phenomenon to further the understanding and existential realization of our community and individual selves. Let's not get bogged down with political morbidity and religious celibacy."

It would take until the March 20, 1986 issue for another guest opinion piece to land on the Open Forum page. This one, penned by Wayne April, focused on a debate about whether gay cruising in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park was as problematic as it was being made out to be in the press.

It kicked off a new weekly feature on the editorial page called "In My Opinion" and brought a rotating lineup of guest opinion writers to the paper. The second installment, authored by then-chairman of the state's AIDS advisory committee Bruce B. Decker, raised warnings about Lyndon LaRouche pushing a statewide initiative that would lead to people living with AIDS being quarantined.

The third installment was from two KQED viewers calling on the local public television station to schedule more gay programming, prompted by a report in the B.A.R. noting the lack of gay comics given airtime. It was followed by a piece calling out certain members of the gay community who only wanted to see a certain type of gay person shown on television: those deemed palatable to heterosexuals.

"We seem to be looking for acceptance in the wrong way and from the wrong people," wrote Al Cardile in the April 10, 1986 issue.

Then came a rebuttal from KQED's president and general manager at the time, Anthony S. Tiano, to the suggestions in the B.A.R.'s coverage that the channel was ignoring the gay community. He argued the exact opposite, noting the public broadcaster in 1961 "was one of the first stations anywhere to portray gays in a favorable light in its reporting and in entertainment programs."

It would not be the first time the paper allowed someone to take the B.A.R. to task for its coverage. In the May 1, 1986 issue came a blistering guest opinion piece by Peter N. Fowler, then co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force board, titled "Lazy Journalism." Bemoaning the paper's lack of covering national LGBTQ groups like his own, Fowler wrote, "To be fair, the B.A.R. is no worse than most of the local gay media in this country in its less than aggressive attitude toward news gathering."

It marked the start of a lively conversation carried on between the guest op-ed contributors, the paper, and its readers that carries on to this day. Both Democratic and Republican leaders over the years have weighed in on how anti-gay their party was perceived to be in op-eds.

One of the first such missives was written by Christopher Bowman, at the time president of the Concerned Republicans for Individual Rights. In a June 19, 1986 opinion pieced he bemoaned "the cheap shots" lodged against its members by the B.A.R.'s letter writers and its late political columnist Wayne Friday.

"The role of CRIR or any other political group in our community is not to preach to the choir, but to educate the unconverted," wrote Bowman. "Such a task may be difficult, and uncomfortable to some, but true liberation for our community will come only when we gain acceptance from the mainstream of America — not just the liberal/left community."

In addition to AIDS, the topics covered in the guest opinions have been myriad, from religious issues and political fights to sports and LGBTQ film portrayals. Housing, the legal system, medical issues, and international concerns have all been spotlighted.

Before he became pope and head of the Catholic Church in 2005, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was the subject of an open letter that ran as a guest opinion in the February 15, 1990 issue. Patrick H. Colley, then the publisher of Chiron Rising, took him to task for purging gay Father John J. McNeil from the priesthood.

"Your deed has especially created a chasm between the Church and the gay and lesbian community," wrote Colley.

Early support for marriage
Seventeen years prior to same-sex marriages taking place at San Francisco City Hall during 2004's "Winter of Love," a call for marriage equality came in the September 10, 1987 issue of the B.A.R. from co-authors J. Carey Junkin and Walter Wheeler, who were involved with that year's March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Promoting an October 10 demonstration by same-sex couples sponsored by the march, they wrote it was "intended to emphasize the March demand that lesbian and gay domestic partners be entitled to the same rights as married heterosexual couples."

In the years that followed numerous op-ed contributors would weigh in on domestic partnership laws as well as the fight for marriage rights. Writing in the November 29, 1990 issue Jeanette G. Lazam, with the group Gay and Lesbian Filipinos for Domestic Partners, noted the campaign that year on a local ballot issue in support of domestic partnerships "gave us the opportunity to work with our community on such a basic issue of 'recognition' of gay and lesbian relationships, that these 'relationships' also exist for Filipinos and are not restricted to the 'white' gay and lesbian population."

Assemblyman David Chiu's Guest Opinion piece.  

Diversity and division
Diversity and division within the LGBTQ community has been an oft-tackled topic by the opinion writers over the decades. Former city commissioner and supervisor candidate in 1984 Pat Norman, believed to be the first out Black lesbian to run for political office, zeroed on the need for unity in a July 10, 1986 opinion piece.

"Attitudes of sexism and racism keep us alienated from each other, unable to understand common enemies, common oppression, common strategies and common goals," she wrote.

With the launch of the weekly guest opinion pieces, straight and gay elected officials saw it as a powerful tool to reach the city's politically active LGBTQ voters. Then-Assembly Majority Leader Mike Roos took to the pages of the B.A.R. in the July 24, 1986 issue to attack LaRouche's "draconian initiative" that would have quarantined people living with AIDS.

Prior to his becoming California's governor, Republican then-U.S. senator Pete Wilson penned an April 9, 1987 op-ed highlighting his legislation to create a "Medical War Cabinet" to tackle AIDS.

In an April 23, 1987 op-ed then-Boston City Councilman David Scondras, the council's first gay member, called on Ginny Apuzzo, a lesbian and former executive director of the National Gay Task Force, to run for president. (She would pen an op-ed for the B.A.R.'s May 25, 2000 issue extolling the importance of the LGBT vote in that year's elections.)

"The time has come to push open the door, to announce that it will be easier to include us than take us for granted," Scondras wrote of the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

Former San Francisco sheriff Michael Hennessey defended his department's recruitment drives within the gay community in the last issue of 1988. After becoming the city's mayor Agnos, who had faced repeated criticism over the years in the B.A.R., wrote his first guest opinion piece in the June 15, 1989 issue to plug his budget's funding for various gay city programs.

In the June 25, 1992 issue then-mayor Frank M. Jordan celebrated Pride in a short guest editorial where he mentioned he likely "surprised a lot of you" with his support of needle exchange and providing condoms in schools. He called the city's LGBTQ community "a beacon for the world, a model for a future society where tolerance prevails and all women and men are truly equal."

Then-mayor Willie Brown addressed B.A.R. readers in the May 9, 1996 issue with a short piece congratulating LGBTQ groups in being able to achieve several congressional wins despite GOP resistance. And though she didn't write one as the city's mayor, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein did pen a guest opinion in the December 22, 1994 issue to thank readers for electing her to a full six-year term that year.

Various LGBTQ elected leaders over the decades have written guest opinion pieces for the B.A.R. to drum up support for their policies and candidacies, with Britt being one of the most prolific contributors. Gay then-congressman Gerry E. Studds (D-Massachusetts) opined in the August 20, 1992 issue against the ban on gays serving in the military.

"When will we end the witch-hunts and let gay men and lesbians openly and proudly serve our nation?" he asked in a piece titled "Gay Ban in Military Costs Everyone."

In the summer of 1991 lesbian then-supervisors Roberta Achtenberg and Carole Migden both penned pieces defending their positions during budget talks on such things as AIDS funding and other gay priorities. Migden's main point could very well have been the guiding principle for the B.A.R.'s editorial page itself.

"We will at times take different stands or endorse different candidates. That doesn't mean we are divided — it means we are diverse," contended Migden in the paper's August 15 issue that year.

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