Lou Chibbaro Jr., the Washington Blade's keen chronicler of the gay community

By Paul Schwartzman
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

His first article in the Washington Blade was a front-page scoop, but Lou Chibbaro Jr. didn't claim credit. He wrote under a pseudonym, Lou Romano, because those were the days when being associated with a gay newspaper could ruin a reputation.

More than 30 years later, as Chibbaro chronicles momentous changes in the gay community, the press credentials hanging around his neck bear his name and a photo of his smiling face. The notes and files he has accumulated have become part of the "Lou Chibbaro Jr. Reporter Files," a 26-box repository of gay life and the gay rights movement now stored at George Washington University's library.

"It's an amazing evolution," Chibbaro said, pausing to take it all in. "You do it story by story, issue by issue, and try to get to the bottom of what's really happening."

The Washington Blade turns 40 this month, and no one has worked there longer than Chibbaro, 60, who has covered it all -- the political campaigns, the historic marches, the scandals, the rise of AIDS, the hate crimes and more than a few salacious murders.

"He has seen and is conscious of a great deal of history, and that enables him to give context and color to things," said Bill Dobbs, a New York-based gay activist and regular Blade reader. "He's a very important community asset."

In a profession that has spawned its share of colorful characters, Chibbaro has all the panache of an accountant, complete with bookish eyeglasses, sensible shoes and a gentle expression that betrays no agenda. His main tool is a fat, source-rich Rolodex, the only one remaining in the tech-happy and ever more youthful Blade newsroom. He also has the only clunky old cassette tape recorder, and the only filing cabinets jammed with files.

"I don't trust electronics," Chibbaro acknowledged, his nasal voice a modulated, made-for-radio tenor.

He retains, he said, a novice's enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of reportage -- the phone calls, the questions, the typing up of the stories, an average of four a week, year-round.

"You don't know what they're going to say," Chibbaro said on a recent night as he interviewed protesters at what was perhaps his gazillionth protest, this one outside President Obama's speech at the Human Rights Campaign's dinner. As always, he said, his mission is the same: "to have the gay rights movement be reported in a thorough way."

The paper's focus was far different when it was founded in 1969, a few months after a New York City police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, triggered riots and politicized gays across the country. In its first issue, the Gay Blade, as the paper was then known, was a single letter-size sheet that included a warning about a blackmailer menacing gays in Dupont Circle, the launch of a blood donor drive, and an invitation to readers to call the editors and sign up for "The Blade's roommate referral service."

"Don't bother if you want to talk dirty," the article warned. "We won't listen."

Nancy Tucker, the paper's first editor, drove around town in her Volkswagen to drop off the newly mimeographed issues at bars. Among her most significant achievements, she said, was to reach out to readers of all the various gay groups -- "lesbians and black men and leather people and drag, and people from the church . . . and pull together a larger community."

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