The one-man library on gay rights speaks volumes

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."

Editors came and went, the paper's name changed from the Gay Blade to the Blade to the Washington Blade, the format evolved from a free monthly to a still-free weekly tabloid, and the stories became more ambitious. Ads appeared. Circulation climbed to 40,000, though the paper has cut back to 23,000 in recent years as more readers flock to its Web site, which draws 250,000 visitors a month.

The Blade hasn't always endeared itself to its readers, particu larly in the 1980s and '90s when AIDS activists and politicos chafed at the paper's refusal to publish editorials or endorsements, a policy that changed in 2001 with a new owner. Even so, many in the gay community have long viewed the Blade as their newspaper of record.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I drive down to Dupont Circle on Friday afternoons to get my copy of the Blade," said Frank Kameny, 84, the father of the District's gay rights movement. "I want to know what's going on in my community."

To find out, Kameny often finds himself reading stories by Chibbaro, who grew up on Long Island and moved to Washington in the early 1970s after graduating from college. In 1975, he informed his parents that he was gay, an announcement he delivered in person, then documented in a seven-page "Dear Mom and Dad" letter that he hoped would make it easier for them to digest the news.

"There are many who have advised me never to tell my parents I'm gay," Chibbaro wrote. "I think it's to your credit that I can't do this. I just can't and won't live a lie!"

His mother was distraught. What did this mean about her Lou? His father, a Macy's furniture manager, worried that his son would never be able to build a career if anyone found out. Yet, in time, Chibbaro said, his parents grew to accept his sexual orientation.

Two years after he began writing for the Blade, Chibbaro dropped his pseudonym. The decision was triggered by a fire he had covered in Washington the year before at Cinema Follies, an adult movie theater that catered to gays, in which nine men died. As the story developed, Chibbaro said, it became clear that the victims had led secret lives.

"The story became a story about the prison of the closet," Chibbaro said. "So I said, 'It's time for me to use my name.' "

In the early years, Chibbaro volunteered at the Blade, driving a cab at night to support his writing, until he began earning a full-time salary in 1984. From the start, he threw himself into a trove of stories: the federal government targeting gays for dismissal; the 1976 murder of an aide to Rep. Morris Udall at a popular gay cruising spot in Arlington; a Republican congressman from Maryland who cavorted with male hustlers, one of whom Chibbaro tracked down for an interview after two months of footwork.

"We didn't have the sources in the government to get the leaks like The Washington Post and the Washington Star," he recalled. "It made us do an end run and get the sources in the street."

In recent years, Chibbaro's health has faltered -- he had a heart attack seven years ago -- but he still pumps out stories that stir up talk, including one in March that the top earner among the leaders of gay advocacy groups and AIDS service providers made $382,200 last year.

His editors rely on his institutional memory. After Gerald Ford died in 2006, Kevin Naff, the Blade's editor, recalled saying, "I know there's a gay angle." Chibbaro had one: When a would-be assassin pointed a pistol at Ford, Chibbaro remembered that a gay ex-Marine had grabbed the gun and deflected the shot.

All that memory, all those notes are packed up in boxes that he donated to GWU's library last year, the files with headings like "Clinton Meets Gay Leaders in White House" and "Gay Murders" and "Right-Wing Hate Groups."

There are other signs of encroaching respectability. In the past, when Chibbaro has attended presidential news conferences at the White House, he was assigned a seat in the last row, and never got to ask a question. A few months ago, at Obama's news conference on health-care policy, he found himself directed to a seat in the first row.

"Isn't this nice," Chibbaro said to himself. The president did not call on him, but Chibbaro expressed no disappointment. He knows he's getting closer.

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