Telling the Stories of Our Lives

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On June 12, the ceremony for the Society of Professional Journalists 2020 Sigma Delta Chi Awards was held. It was virtual again this year due to COVID, and COVID was the topic addressed by many of the award-winners.

Another major issue of 2020, the racial justice protests engendered by the brutal torture murder of George Floyd, also garnered awards for both print and electronic media.

PGN won two of these very prestigious awards. The Public Service in Newspaper Journalism (Non-Daily Publication) was given to PGN for “Remember Them,” a moving tribute to trans people killed in 2020 with photos and short bios of each person.

In a year with so much death and dying due to the pandemic, it might have been easy to overlook the lives and grim deaths of these members of our community killed just for being who they are and living their authentic lives. But PGN did not forget these trans women and men — rather PGN highlighted that they were each far more than their violent deaths, but that they were people who were loved and valued and whose lives had meaning. They were not statistics, they were our sisters and brothers.

Nor did the Society of Professional Journalists, ignore their lives, which is significant: In February I reported on how national broadcast news mostly ignored anti-trans violence in 2020.

I won the other SPJ award for PGN — the Excellence in Journalism Award for Newspaper Feature Reporting (Non-Daily Publication). This award was for five stories which SPJ collected under the heading “COVID and the LGBTQ community.”

Among the features I wrote about were food insecurity in our community during lockdown — thousands of LGBTQ people have been going hungry during the pandemic, which has also isolated them from people who would under other circumstances get food from friends.

I also wrote about people with disabilities being among those most at risk during the new coronavirus pandemic, and about how there is a disproportionate number of LGBTQ people with visible and invisible disabilities. Another story highlighted members of our community with other illnesses like cancer and HIV and what it was like to try and access care during lockdown, as well as how isolating it was to undergo chemotherapy alone during a pandemic.

I interviewed many members of the local Philadelphia community for these stories and each of them was in crisis. It seemed as critical for them to share their stories as it was for me to report those stories.

I have been fortunate to have won many journalism and book awards over my decades as a reporter and writer, but it never ceases to be thrilling and humbling in equal measure. This award was especially so, for reasons well beyond the prestige. Each story represents what our LGBTQ community — my community — was going through during the pandemic. As I’ve reported since January, several studies showed LGBTQ people were disproportionately impacted by COVID. These stories detail some of the ways that that has happened.

In 2020 I wrote several hundred articles and columns for over a dozen queer, feminist and mainstream publications. It was a challenging and often terrifying year, between the pandemic, Donald Trump and the assault on the Pennsylvania voter by the GOP, about which I reported for several mainstream news outlets.

I also reported on the uptick in gun violence in Philadelphia, which turned personal when a man was shot to death outside my home on the border of Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood on Thanksgiving Eve. It was the third such murder directly outside our home in four years.

I have been writing about gun violence in this city and elsewhere since I was a reporter for the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans fresh out of college, and nothing has changed. This week marks the 5th anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre, about which I reported for several national publications.

The work of independent journalists is often driven by passion. Mine certainly is. It is also far harder and incalculably less lucrative than that of staff reporters at mainstream publications. The time one spends on a story is never remunerated like those of staff reporters at dailies making six figures.

Yet the importance of independent journalism at both the local and national level cannot be overstated. The work we do is crucial to our communities. Independent journalists writing for queer, feminist, Black and other publications speak to and for audiences that are both marginalized and silenced by the mainstream.

The Newspaper Feature Reporting category has three winning slots, two for dailies above and below a circulation of 100,000 and one for non-dailies. The Washington Post won the top circulation award, the Syracuse Post-Standard the next circulation. I won the non-daily prize.

The competition is fierce. There were 1,200+ submissions in print, TV, radio and photography for ten categories. It’s impossible to ignore the enormity of the work of other journalists and not be humbled by being chosen from among such other powerful work during such a critical year unlike any other in our collective memory. But it is also so significant that the work I did and that PGN did was recognized by this community of journalists.

In a recent interview I was asked why I continue to write for the LGBTQ press and why I don’t just devote my journalism to mainstream politics, which is a primary focus of my work.

My answer was succinct: Our stories — our queer and trans stories — are still rarely told, and when they are told in the mainstream the perspective is significantly different than when they are told by journalists living within the restrictive, discriminatory and often dangerous social constructs that still define the lives of most LGBTQ people.

This is what makes the stories for which PGN won these mainstream journalism awards so pivotal. The stories of queer and trans lives were told by journalists for whom those lives are not a journalistic exercise, but lived experience.

I have been working for PGN on and off since I was a 17 year old college student — as a freelancer, as a staff reporter and as an editor. PGN is where I learned how to be a reporter. Working for PGN as a staff reporter in my early 20s, doing both beat reporting and investigative work, is also what propelled me into mainstream journalism as a reporter for daily newspapers and national magazines.

Winning an SPJ award for work I did for PGN in this 45th year of the paper’s publication is an emotional experience. It is also a reminder that as a queer journalist, I am writing to give voice to those whose voices have been silenced, like the trans people in “Remember Them,” and for the LGBTQ people whose voices are suppressed, whose lives are kept on a precarious and often dangerous edge due to discrimination, poverty and isolation, as so many of the people I wrote about for PGN in 2020 experienced.

I was honored to win this award, as was PGN. But I was also honored to tell all the stories I told about LGBTQ people here and elsewhere over that pandemic year. And as this award makes clear, those voices rang true and they were heard far outside our community. And that is what my work, our work, is all about.