An accomplished journalist who spent 14 years as a reporter and editor at the Washington Post, Aarons sent shockwaves through the news industry in 1990 when he emotionally acknowledged that he was gay at a conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. That announcement, which came at the end of a speech in which he also unveiled results of a landmark survey of gay and lesbian journalists that showed most were unhappy with their professional treatment and coverage of gay issues, served as the catalyst for Aarons’ formation of the NLGJA. Never before had a top editor of a major newspaper come out so publicly.
“I had no idea it would be such a big deal until I was at that podium in Washington, DC about to say it,” Aarons recalled in an interview at his home in October. “Other people knew it was a big deal, but I don’t think I got it until The New York Times wrote about it.”
Not only did the Times write about it, but in Aarons’ role as NLGJA founder and president, Aarons had the ear of the most influential names in journalism. Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. called Aarons “an important force in journalism” and credited Aarons and NLGJA with a sea change in how the media in general and his newspaper in particular handled gay issues.
“For a while, it’s fair to say, the Times and NLGJA were not close, but we got close as his organization and mine found a common bond and a common sense of urgency,” Sulzberger said. “Roy was not only a great leader and great spokesman for gays and lesbians in the journalism game, but he was also a good man and a good friend. I learned an enormous amount from him about his values and a lot of that is reflected in the values of The New York Times.”
ABC News Senior Vice President Robert Murphy, who is gay, also recalled Aarons’ impact fondly. “Roy was above all a great journalist whose passion for our profession will always be what comes to mind first when thinking of him,” Murphy said. “Personally I will remember him as a mentor and friend who taught us the value of the contribution we could make to our newsrooms as openly gay journalists. He also provided the leadership that gave many of us the courage to join our personal and professional lives. For that we will be forever grateful.”
Today, NLGJA has more than 600 members and chapters in 17 regions in the United States as well as affiliates in Canada and Germany.
Born Dec. 8, 1933, to the children of Jewish Latvian immigrants in the Bronx, N.Y., Aarons was raised by his postal worker father and two stepmothers after his birth mother, Sybil, died of stomach cancer when he was 3. He majored in psychology at Brown University, but he discovered his flair for writing and earned a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University. He was hired as a copy editor at the Journal-Courier, a morning newspaper in New Haven, Conn., and moved on to covering news. By age 27, he was city editor.
Aarons was hired at the Post in June 1962, where he covered several of the most significant stories of the time. He recalled being the reporter who informed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while covering Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Months later, Aarons would also cover Kennedy’s funeral. He was known as an exacting editor, as reflected by a Washington Post nameplate he kept in his home office in Sebastopol that referred to him as the “Silver Slasher” for his editing style and his trademark shock of white hair.
Aarons’ first brush with gay life was visiting a bar called Maxine’s in Philadelphia while on leave from the Navy in 1955.
“I walked in and it was like Dorothy coming from sepia-tone Kansas to the Land of Oz, all of a sudden it was Technicolor,” recalled Aarons in the October interview. “There were these gorgeous men. In those days, everyone went out in jackets and ties. There was a piano bar and a guy singing show tunes and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there are other people, not just me!’ And that started me off. I was a gay in the military.”
The issue of his sexuality was one that would bother Aarons for years, however, as he concealed it throughout much of his journalism career and had no significant love affairs.
He met Boneh, an Israeli national, in 1981 at a gay Jewish mixer at the Jewish Community Center in Washington DC, and followed Boneh to Israel in 1982, where he freelanced for Time magazine. The couple held a commitment ceremony at the Jewish Community Center in 2000 to mark their 20th anniversary.
Aarons and Boneh, a computer consultant, moved to Piedmont, Calif., in 1983 when his friend and longtime colleague Robert Maynard hired him as features editor of the Oakland Tribune, which Maynard had recently purchased. Aarons, who became executive editor and later senior vice president for news at the Tribune, led the paper to a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for its photojournalism during the October 1989 earthquake in the Bay Area. His sexual orientation was known to the staff, and he and Boneh frequently entertained other journalists from the paper at their home.
Still, the attention garnered by the ASNE announcement in 1990 altered Aarons’ career dramatically. In the late 1970s, he had co-founded with Maynard the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a center dedicated to encouraging more people of color to enter journalism, so he viewed the NLGJA as an extension of that work.
“The NLGJA did for gays and lesbians what (Maynard was) doing for people of color,” Aarons said in the October 2004 interview. “It was the same mission.”
Others at that first NLGJA meeting in Aarons’ home in Piedmont recalled that his coming out at the ASNE meeting was a watershed for many.
“His coming out in a major public way was frightening for him,” said Elaine Herscher, then a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. “But he did it, and it was to the good of all of us. He was a visionary, way ahead of the curve, an absolute dynamo.”
Former NLGJA President Eric Hegedus agreed. “I don’t think anyone can properly quantify the enormous difference Roy made in the journalism world,” said Hegedus, a page designer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Through work in the NLGJA and as a founding board member of the Maynard Institute, he also helped bring together the minority journalism groups to tackle some of the most important diversity issues on the broadest scales possible. Roy’s behind-the-scenes work had such a profound and far-reaching impact on so many people.”
Aarons’ creative endeavors spanned far beyond journalism. He wrote “Prayers for Bobby,” a 1995 nonfiction book about a mother’s grief over her gay son’s suicide. In 1991, he co-authored a docudrama about the Pentagon Papers that won the coveted Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Gold Award for best live entertainment program on public radio.
He also wrote the libretto for the 2000 opera “Monticello,” about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and also wrote “Sarah’s Diary,” a fictional opera about woman who lost her husband in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the time of his death, Aarons was working on a play about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which he and Boneh spent a month in South Africa.
Aarons remained at the helm of the NLGJA until 1998 and remained on the board until his death. In his final years, his focus for NLGJA work turned to a successful crusade for journalism schools to include gay issues in diversity training. Aarons himself founded a landmark course at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications on gay issues in the media.
In fact, former NLGJA President Robert Dodge noted that Aarons remained involved in work on this topic as the NLGJA representative to the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
“Here’s a man who was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy and was fighting for his life and yet still intellectually engaged, still had the energy to call and let me know I hadn’t gotten my work done,” said Dodge.
That tenacity was precisely what garnered the respect of the leaders of the journalism world who now credit him for the fair way gay-related news is handled in the American media.
“Roy Aarons was one of those largely unsung heroes who really did as much as anyone I can think of to advance understanding and equality,” said Andrew Tobias, author of a best-selling memoir about his own coming out. “Long before there were budgets or fundraisers for his National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, he went from newsroom to newsroom, editorial board to editorial board and at the highest levels, opened eyes and minds to what had, up until then, been a largely invisible issue.”
NLGJA also was good for Aarons, said former Medill School of Journalism Dean Loren Ghiglione, a friend whose copy Aarons edited when Ghiglione was a Washington Post intern in 1963 and who later was the ASNE president to commission the survey of gays and lesbians in the newsroom.
“With NLGJA, Roy became out front,” Ghiglione said. “He would be at the table at lunch with (former Washington Post Executive Editor) Ben Bradlee and other people and it seemed to me that he was one of the guys but not the person you looked to at the table. Later, he became somebody people looked to. He was a leader.”
Still, Aarons was humble about his own accomplishments with NLGJA, Dodge said.
“Like a good parent, Roy never bragged about what he did,” Dodge said. “He bragged about his kids, and we were his kids.”
Leroy F. Aarons, the former Oakland Tribune executive editor who founded the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) in his living room and grew it into a force in American journalism, died at age 70 after a 10-month battle with cancer on November 28, 2004.