This year’s convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association in Chicago drew strong crowds from big cities but saw much lower turnout from southern states and smaller towns — indicating that LGBT journalists still gravitate toward large urban areas.

Just 12 attendees travelled from cities with populations of less than 20,000, and twice as many of the more than 250 attendees came from northeastern states than came from southern states, according to pre-conference registration data. Almost half of all attendees are from Chicago, New York or Washington. Jeff Truesdell, a convention co-chair, said it is common for attendance to spike in areas where the organization is hosting the conference.


 

“Many out journalists gravitate towards larger cities and major media markets, where they are likely to be more open about their orientation than they might be if they are the lone journalist working in a small town,” Truesdell said.

“My first job was at a small college town,” he said. “I was in my early 20s and then questioning my own orientation … and it wasn’t like I was going to be waving the pride flag at my newsroom desk at that time.”

The 77 cities represented at the convention have an average population of more than 500,000. States with NLGJA chapters tend to have more attendees. Through the association’s almost 25-year history, chapters have more often formed in northern or coastal states.

There are exceptions. Georgia has the most attendees this year of any southern region, which the local chapter president says reflects Atlanta’s vibrant LGBT population.

“Atlanta is really kind of the gay headquarters of the south,” said Holly Crenshaw, president of the Georgia chapter and director of marketing and communication at Emory University Libraries. “It is a gay mecca for a lot of southern people. Atlanta has a big gay population, and a lot of people gravitate to it.”

Crenshaw said she would like to see more chapters organize in the south.

“Certainly, we all need support no matter where we live,” Crenshaw said. “Even in more progressive areas, I think that is one of the great benefits our organization provides.”

The Chicago chapter pulls in members from smaller markets and towns across Illinois and neighboring states, chapter president Sean Lewis said.

LGBT journalists in smaller cities or markets need a place to go where they are comfortable being out, he added.

“We live in a weird time, don’t we? We have rights for the LGBT community falling into place at a rate that we didn’t even see in the civil rights movement,” Lewis said. “But there are still smaller places, and even in larger cities, where there are still people who don’t understand.”

Smaller markets have a much different atmosphere than the larger ones, Lewis said, both in the newsroom and in the community.

“Even if the news managers themselves don’t care someone’s LGBT, they still have in the back of their mind that the viewers care,” he said, “and it might affect the perception of the station and ratings.”

The Ford Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making organization, is funding a project in which NLGJA is working with the Asian American Journalists Association and media outlets to cover and write about minority communities in Nebraska. The project was launched to bring attention to what are normally poorly covered groups, said Barbara Raab of the Ford Foundation.

“Coverage of racial, ethnic, gender identity and sexual minorities tends to happen in large places,” Raab said. “I think this is an interesting project, because it is kind of counter-intuitive. When I first learned about it, I said ‘Nebraska? Seriously?’ But the more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘absolutely Nebraska.’”

Anecdotal evidence indicates that gay journalists still face discrimination in southern or smaller cities, conference attendees say. But Matthew Petrillo, an investigative and general assignment TV reporter from one of the smaller cities represented at the conference, said he enjoys working in his market and has never faced discrimination in the newsroom.

“Honestly, it’s been super good — I think [being gay] makes you stand out a little bit,” Petrillo said.

Petrillo broke a story this year while reporting in Latta, S.C., a town with a population of about 1,400 people, when the mayor fired the police chief, whom he believed to be gay. The story was quickly picked up by national media and news outlets as far away as London.

The mayor was caught on tape saying that he would much rather have someone who drank too much taking care of his child than someone “whose lifestyle is questionable.”

Residents rallied behind the police chief and the City Council reinstated her while stripping the mayor of his power.

In small markets, “you can do stories that really affect the community and make a difference,” Petrillo said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Bobby_BlanchardAbout the Author
Bobby Blanchard is a student at the University of Texas. Click here to learn more about him.