A PGN writer’s journey down memory lane

As a writer for PGN almost since its inception, I’ve covered many stories that made a deep impression on me. For this 45th-anniversary issue, I’d like to spotlight a few that come to mind. Welcome to this journey down memory lane.

Interview with Midge Costanza

In 1978, I was just starting out as a staff writer for PGN. Jimmy Carter was president and he appointed a wonderful woman, Midge Costanza, as his public liaison. She was involved in a wide variety of causes. For example, she met with survivors of the Kent State massacre who sought to protect the shooting site from a gymnasium that university officials intended to build. This was a time when the Equal Rights Amendment was very much in the news. Costanza was instrumental in mobilizing efforts to pass the ERA. Perhaps most notably, she facilitated the first gathering of LGBT advocates to speak at a White House event. In July 1978, I was surprised when Costanza agreed to be interviewed by me. I’ll never forget my trip to the White House. I waited to speak with Costanza in a room where Miss America was waiting to meet with Carter. (Miss America was not very friendly, sad to say.) I remember thinking that Carter should be meeting with me and Costanza should be meeting with Miss America! At any rate, Costanza gave a very nice interview. Unfortunately, Costanza didn’t have the support of Carter for all of her initiatives and she resigned shortly after the PGN interview. Efforts to pass the ERA continue to this day. That story taught me that even if an interview with an influential person appeared unlikely, it was always worth trying to get.

Frank Rizzo controversy

Later that year, in November 1978, the horrible Jonestown massacre occurred, which took the lives of more than 900 people. Nine days later, on Nov. 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by Dan White. I can vividly recall the devastation of then-PGN editor Jack Veasey with tears streaming down his face, informing staff that Milk was dead. Our community was in crisis. But then-Mayor Frank Rizzo rubbed salt into the wounds by referring to San Francisco as “the Land of Fruits and Nuts.” I knew I had to question Rizzo about his callous remarks. By way of background, Rizzo was known for making outrageous comments. Yet he took umbrage when people called him names. In 1971, when he confronted City Council member Thacher Longstreth for calling him a “bozo” and “fatso, Longstreth responded, “If the shoe fits…” After Milk was assassinated, I crashed a City Hall press conference held by Rizzo on an unrelated subject and asked him about his “fruits and nuts” statement. Rizzo cooly responded: “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Not very original. But I hope Rizzo got the message that his comments were unacceptable. Much later, I learned that Longstreth and Rizzo mellowed significantly in their anti-LGBT views in their twilight years. May they rest in peace, along with Milk, Moscone and the many victims of Jim Jones. What a dreadful year.

Archdiocese of Philadelphia scandal

The following year, in June 1979, a high-profile priest at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was arrested and spent three days in jail after soliciting a plainclothes police officer inside a New Orleans adult bookstore. The priest appeared often on local television, celebrating Mass but also defending the Archdiocese’s emphatic opposition to a local LGBT civil-rights ordinance under consideration, Bill 1275. At the time, PGN had a very strained relationship with the Archdiocese. Today, its spokesperson cooperates with media requests but that wasn’t the case in 1979. When then-Archbishop John Krol held a press conference to address the priest’s future, we weren’t given reasonable notice. Instead, I found out about it when the press conference was about to begin. I remember hopping into a taxicab and hightailing it to St. Charles Borromeo seminary, where the conference was taking place. They had to let me in as I was a duly accredited member of the press. I’ll never forget the cold response when I asked Krol if he would be lenient with the priest. (As a cub reporter, I was quite naive.) Krol said it wasn’t up to him to show leniency. That would be a matter for God when the priest met his maker. Needless to say, the priest was stripped of his duties and no longer appeared on television. Many years later, I spoke directly with the gentleman, who wanted nothing to do with a follow-up story. I respected his desire for privacy. The story taught me about human frailties, forgiveness and the importance of compassion.

The AACO 8 Trial

In March 1995, eight African-Americans who worked (or wanted to work) at the city’s AIDS Activities Coordinating Office filed suit against the city, claiming that racist actions by the office’s director adversely impacted people of color. The lawsuit generated strong feelings that linger to this day. The director was a white gay man and beloved by many within the LGBT community. Please remember, this took place before terms such as “implicit bias,” “microaggression,” “structural racism,” and “intersectionality” became part of the national lexicon. But there were compelling allegations the director committed repeated acts of racism that had a detrimental effect on African-Americans. A month-long trial was held in the spring of 1997. This was a very difficult trial to cover. Plaintiffs were convinced the presiding judge was biased against them. He dismissed one of the plaintiff’s claims before they could reach a jury. Nevertheless, on May 22, 1997, a federal jury ruled in favor of four of the plaintiffs. The AACO director, indeed, had committed unlawful acts of racism. The prevailing plaintiffs were awarded modest compensatory damages. After a follow-up protest march, the director was forced to leave his position at AACO. Not everyone believed justice was served, but the all-white jury had spoken. Sadly, the scars from that trial linger to this day. 

The death of Nizah Morris

Perhaps no other story I’ve covered made as deep an impression on me as the death of Nizah Morris. The 47-year-old trans woman was a beloved member of the community when she was killed in December 2002. Shortly before she was discovered in Center City with a fatal head wound, she received a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police. I was immediately struck by the divergence between the police version of events and what eyewitnesses — who had no reason to lie — told me. Morris was severely intoxicated when onlookers helped place her inside a police vehicle, supposedly for a “courtesy ride” to her residence. But police insisted Morris could stand and walk on her own, that she didn’t need any help from onlookers, and that a responding officer truly believed Morris lived at 15th and Walnut streets. Well, no one lived at 15th and Walnut streets in 2002. Morris lived three miles away in West Philadelphia. If the police were deceptive about these basic facts, what else were they deceptive about? A turning point for me occurred in December 2006, when a police officer testifying before the Police Advisory Commission was confronted with her patrol log regarding the courtesy-ride incident. The log indicated the officer spent 16 minutes with Morris during the incident. That would place the officer squarely in Morris’ presence when she was injured, according to a timeline provided by 911 recordings. Rather than clarifying her log, the officer actually agreed under oath that she spent about 16 minutes with Morris. Clearly, this was an untenable situation. I vowed to shed as much light on this killing as humanly possible. PGN has published dozens of stories about the case over the years. In 2008, the paper secured a court order calling for transparency in the Morris case that we’re still trying to enforce. Reposing at the District Attorney’s Office are dozens of Morris records, including several memos regarding its Morris investigation. I believe strongly the public has a right to access these records relating to the death of Nizah Morris. As the saying goes, “With truth comes healing.”

Foster care dispute pending in Supreme Court

In March 2018, it was revealed the City of Philadelphia was funding two foster-care agencies that refused to help certify same-sex couples as foster parents. One of the agencies subsequently amended its policies and agreed to work with same-sex couples. But Catholic Social Services continues to hold its anti-LGBT policy. CSS filed suit after the city began phasing out child referrals to the agency. The case, known as Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia, reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held on Nov. 4, 2020. It was an honor to cover the hearing virtually for PGN. Although I wasn’t the reporter who broke the story, I’ve covered the issue extensively. In 2019, I was grateful to receive an award from Keystone Press for the news coverage. Many people are very concerned about the case. If the court rules against the city, public funds potentially could go to child-wefare agencies that refuse to work with same-sex couples. Regardless of how the court rules, the Biden administration has pledged to promote LGBT equity throughout the country. Hope springs eternal.