By the time a 56-year-old Leroy Aarons outed himself in an emotional address at the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) conference in 1990, he’d already had a remarkable journalism career as a longtime Washington Post scribe, co-founder of the Maynard Institute For Journalism Education and eventually as executive editor of the Oakland Tribune.
But in stepping into the limelight as a proud gay man, he turned himself into a pioneer and catalyst for hundreds of other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender journalists to come out in their newsrooms. The NLGJA was born shortly after that momentous speech, and under his direction, emboldened journalists across the nation to quietly but firmly insist on better, more accurate coverage of LGBT issues.
Aarons admitted there was little in his earlier years to indicate he’d become an icon. Born in 1933 to Jewish Latvian immigrant parents, he earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and by 27 was city editor at his first paper, the Journal-Register in New Haven, Conn. He covered some of pivotal moments of the 1960s — from the Beatles’ arrival in America to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — but he largely kept his sexual orientation a secret until the early 1980s when he met Joshua Boneh, his partner for nearly 25 years and his widower.
Forming the NLGJA, Aarons said shortly before his death in November 2004, “was a natural progression for me after the ASNE speech. I just never expected it to take off the way it did.” And it wasn’t all he did in his waning years. As an educator, Aarons created the first college-level journalism course on LGBT media issues at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication; as an author, he captured the tragedy of a closeted boy’s suicide in “Prayers for Bobby;” and as a playwright, he wrote operas about Thomas Jefferson and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even in his final year, beset by cancer, he kept working on a never-finished play about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But it was his legacy at NLGJA that he said gave him the most pride. “Nothing is more exciting than seeing the new generation of leaders stepping up and making the organization what they want it to be, what they believe the times require of it,” Aarons said. “I did my part, we made a difference. The fact that it will continue long after me is the greatest achievement I could have asked for.