When you do it yourself
It was out of the closet — out of a job when a columnist had to choose between conflicting loyalties. But did they really have to conflict?
By Juan R. Palomo
Juan R. Palomo was rehired by the Houston (TX) Post as an op-ed columnist and a member of the editorial board.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 9 (October 1991), pp. 4-5.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
“I don’t understand. I don’t understand.”
It wasn’t until I read what Paul Broussard’s mother said when she picked up her son’s broken body that I got a familiar feeling at the pit of my stomach. It meant I was nearing the no-turning-back point.
I never knew Paul Broussard. I just read scant accounts of his July 4 (1991) murder in Houston’s two newspapers. It wasn’t until a day later that it was reported as a gay-bashing incident. Broussard and two companions had been beaten by a gang of ten young men from an affluent local suburb as they walked out of a gay bar.
The full impact of his death still didn’t hit me. Then I read his mother’s words. “I don’t understand.”
I did understand what happened and it made me sick. Although I had spoken out in my Houston Post column against prejudice toward gay people, I now felt disgusted with myself for not having had the courage to do so more forcefully and for the hypocrisy of referring to gays as “them” instead of “us.”
Now I knew that I had to write about Broussard’s death. And it had to be the most forceful column I’d ever written.
I’d always expected that, eventually, I would have to use my column as a forum to speak about hatred toward gay people. And the best way would be to acknowledge that I am gay.
But I hadn’t expected to do so this soon. I had only been writing my general interest column for nine months and I wanted to postpone my “coming out” statement for a while longer. It would have a greater impact after I’d established respect among readers from across the political spectrum, especially if I succeeded in becoming nationally syndicated.
Now circumstances were conspiring to deny me the luxury of waiting. I was halfway through my column about Broussard’s murder when I knew what I had to do. I wrote: “I feel a special responsibility to speak out because I have this forum and, more important, because like Paul Broussard, I am gay.”
Unless people like me are willing to risk the comfort and safety of our closeted lives, I wrote, we will never put a stop to the hatred. The column ended: “I didn’t know Paul Broussard, but silence does equal death and I have a responsibility to ensure that Houston does not forget him, or how he died, or why.”
I finished writing and hit the computer key that sent the column to my editor. As I sat there trying to hide my tears from coworkers and thinking of the calls I’d have to make that night to to let my sisters and brother know about myself, my city editor called me to his office.
He tried to talk me out of going with the column, repeatedly asking whether I had thought about the personal consequences. When I assured him I had and insisted I wanted to go ahead, he said he’d have to consult his superiors.
He did so, returned and again tried to get me to back off. Again I refused. After a second session with his superiors, the editor came back and told me that I would not be allowed to come out in my column, that I would not be allowed to use my column as a forum for that purpose.
Although I was angry, I agreed to do a rewrite because I felt I had no choice. The way I saw it, it was either that or not run a column on Broussard’s murder at all. So I rewrote.
It was still a very strong column and the response was overwhelming. I received more than 250 letters and telephone calls about it and my editors and publisher got as many, if not more. Almost all the responses were positive.
The column was responsible for helping stir both the gay and straight communities to demand action to stop such hate crimes. But, aside from those who knew I was gay and those who were savvy enough to read between the lines, most readers saw it as a straight man writing sympathetically about a gay issue. And in that sense, it was a lie.
In retrospect, by my not coming out in that column, the focus correctly stayed on Broussard’s death. So, as I said in an interview five days later with an alternative weekly called The Houston Press, my editors did the right thing, but for the wrong reasons.
My editor has since told interviewers that the reason Post management did not want me to come out was that the column that ran was a lot stronger than the original one. But I don’t know how he could have known that when the decision to censor me was made before I wrote the second version.
On August 31, two days after I returned from a three-week vacation, I was fired after nearly 12 years at the paper.
City editor Tim Graham told me I was being let go because of my continued insistence that I had a right and an obligation to respond to questions about the incident from reporters for other publications, including The Houston Press and Editor & Publisher. Editor Charles Cooper later insisted it was because I refused to take editorial direction for my column.
A week later — after several days of intense protests by a number of Hispanic leaders, Queer Nation and a large number of Post reporters and editors, plus extensive coverage on the wire services and in The New York Times and Washington Post — I was rehired.
The irony is that, by refusing to let Houston readers learn about my homosexuality in their pages or in any other media, my editors ended up letting the whole world know about it.
As for me, I discovered that I’m a better column writer that I am a martyr.
The Post’s reasons: Houston Post editor Charles Cooper told FineLine that Juan Palomo’s firing was not because he revealed his homosexuality, but because of a “longstanding difference of opinion” about the focus of his column. The editors wanted less opinion and more hard news. Cooper stated that Palomo declined an offer of switching to an op-ed column, was fired and then rehired after he accepted the offer.
For another view, see “When the media do it for you.”