Role of PGN evolves with community

Since the 1976 launch of Philadelphia Gay News, the publication has interviewed countless politicians, community leaders and entertainers, tracking the progress and pitfalls the LGBT community has experienced. While the community has undergone tremendous changes in the last three-and-a-half decades, PGN’s commitment to meeting the needs of that community has remained constant.

When the paper launched, just the notion of a publication with the word “gay” emblazoned upon it was groundbreaking.

Philly Pride Presents executive director Franny Price said that, prior to PGN, she remembers having gay newspaper Drum mailed to her house, and it came packaged wrapped in other newspapers.

“It was really a big change when all of a sudden you could get something other than through the mail,” she said. “There was really no other source of news like this before PGN.”

Irene Benedetti, a former PGN staffer who lived in Center City in 1976, recalled the surprise she and a friend shared upon noticing the paper’s first edition.

“I had a gay male friend who used to stay at my apartment every weekend, and I remember he came in one day and had the Gay News and he was so excited and said, ‘Irene, look, we have a gay newspaper, look at this,’” she said. “When it first started, that was a lot of people’s reactions. People were so excited to see that, boy, we can actually know what’s going on now.”

Don Pignolet, PGN office manager who’s worked at the paper since its launch, said the publication has always sought to “inform and entertain the Philadelphia gay community with relevant and accurate information that could not be found elsewhere.”

“There was no Internet back then, so people couldn’t get information like they can today,” Pignolet said. “It takes 10 seconds now to Google something but, back then, to get the information you might have to go to the library and spend the entire day there. I think that’s something people have a hard time fathoming now.”

The idea of a gay community newspaper was not just novel to the community itself but also to the mainstream leaders in the city.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a former reporter and managing editor who worked at PGN throughout the ’80s, said that, as the paper began to grow, it became a formidable opponent for those accustomed to suppressing the gay community.

“Back then we were blazing a lot of trails,” Avicolli Mecca said. “We put a lot of politicians, service providers and other people in the city on notice that we were watching and we were going to hold them accountable for homophobia or neglect of the community. That was something new back then. No other papers had done that. There were Gay Liberation papers, but those were more concerned about having a forum for manifestos and our ideas and the idea of revolution, but PGN was really the first one that comes along and decides to hold people accountable.”

That same approach continued as the AIDS epidemic began to scourge the city in the 1980s.

“When AIDS happened, PGN was absolutely there that decade,” Avicolli Mecca said. “We put everyone on the spot — the Health Department, other agencies that weren’t doing what they should have been doing to combat the disease.”

Longtime local business owner Bill Wood said the struggles PGN covered, and uncovered, may have gone unnoticed by some in the gay community otherwise.

“Without PGN, a lot of the fights with City Council and different gay-rights things wouldn’t have really come to the forefront because nobody else knew about them. The Inquirer, the Daily News, the Bulletin — they weren’t carrying anything about these issues at the time,” he said. “Especially in the early days, if it hadn’t been for PGN, people wouldn’t know what was going on.”

As the paper fought to expose injustices against the community, the community itself was able to gain more credibility among the local mainstream population.

Victoria Brownworth, who’s written for the paper since its inception, said a turning point for PGN was the investigative Pulitzer-nominated series she wrote about mismanagement at LGBT social-service agency Eromin Center.

“That really caused quite the furor. It was our first real investigative piece and it went on for quite some time and resulted in the center being shut down and people investigated by the police. It was such a huge story, and no other gay paper had really done anything like that before,” she said. “It was a risk that could have killed the paper — in fact, someone involved in the center came in and offered to buy up all the papers to keep it from going out, but [publisher Mark Segal] stood behind the story. That changed the direction of the paper, and I think from then on we became a newspaper of record and people began to really take note of the community a lot more. I think PGN became a central factor in the larger straight community’s recognition of how important the gay and lesbian community is to the overall political and social structure of the city.”

As the community gained more footing, other publications in the area also began to cover LGBT issues, but Wood noted PGN has remained at the helm.

“PGN used to be the only one around, but now things are a little bit more diluted, with there being two other free papers in Center City that cover gay events,” Wood said. “But PGN is still there in the forefront and bringing things up first.”

Trans activist Kathy Padilla said PGN’s involvement in cases such as Nizah Morris, a transgender woman whose murder is still unsolved, reflects the paper’s commitment to the journalistic principle of “comforting the afflicting and afflicting the comfortable.”

“That’s the one role I think PGN has really embodied very, very thoroughly,” she said. “If you look at Nizah Morris, everyone else left that crime completely, completely uninvestigated because of who she was. But PGN has continued to stand up for her and it’s going on 10 years now.”

Lee Carson, president of the Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council, noted that in recent years, PGN has also effectively reached out to “various sub-communities and worked to diversity the paper’s content, with more articles from lesbians, transgender and people-of-color communities.”

Early community activist Kay Lahusen said one of PGN’s greatest strengths lies not necessarily in its ability to represent the community to external forces but rather to itself, which she said is “invaluable.”

“It’s a great bonding tool,” she said. “It’s a great promoter of a sense of a community in Philadelphia. I really look forward to getting every issue. I’m so grateful it comes rolling in here every week.”

Price concurred and said the paper has been essential in connecting generations of LGBT people.

“Most of our community knows who most of our community is because of the newspaper,” she said. “Unless you attend every little function, you wouldn’t know who our leaders are or who our activists are or what the organizations are. A lot of people wouldn’t know other community members locally and even nationally if it wasn’t for the paper.”

The multifaceted role PGN has played in the community in its 35 years is one rarely seen elsewhere but is vital, Brownworth said.

“There are very few papers like PGN left that are reporting the real gay news of the local community,” she said. “That’s really key. PGN and the [San Francisco] Bay Area Reporter are really the only independent gay newspapers left focusing on community news, and I think we can’t underestimate the importance of that. Until we have our equal rights, we need newspapers like PGN to stand behind us and talk about our needs and our concerns.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].