Born in Bronx, NY on Dec. 8, 1933, Roy Aarons graduated cum laude from Brown University and earned an MS from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He served in the Navy and Naval Reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant, then took a copyediting job with the New Haven Journal-Courier. The Washington Post hired him away.
Aarons remained at the Post for many years. As an editor and a national correspondent, he served as New York bureau chief and later established the paper’s first Los Angeles bureau. He covered major events of the 1960s and 1970s such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, urban riots, and government scandals.
Leroy "Roy" Aarons was an American journalist, editor, author, playwright, founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). In 1989 Aarons read a newspaper article about the suicide of a yo ung gay man, Bobby Griffith, and its effects on his mother. The result was his book, Prayers for Bobby: A Mother's Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son. On November 28, 2004, Leroy Aarons died of cancer. His life partner of 24 years, Joshua Boneh, carries on Aarons's work.
Aarons had a front row seat when the Pentagon Papers story surfaced. As Los Angeles bureau chief, he covered California-related events in the case, including what work Daniel Ellsberg had been doing for the Rand Corporation and how he managed to remove the Pentagon Papers from Rand headquarters.
The scandal that forced a president to resign was Watergate, and the Post was the paper that broke the story. Because of his role at the paper during the Watergate reporting, Aarons was hired as an accuracy consultant for the Post-centered film about the scandal, All the President's Men (film). He also had a bit part in the movie.
After a year spent freelancing in Israel for publications such as Time in 1982, where he covered the Israel-Lebanon war, Aarons joined the Oakland Tribune at the behest of his former Post colleague Robert C. Maynard. Maynard had purchased the declining Tribune—thus becoming the first black owner of a major metro paper—and recruited Roy to be its features editor.
In the 1970s Aarons had joined Maynard in founding what would become the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE). Maynard had been working with a summer program for minority journalists at Columbia University, and he urged Aarons to join its faculty. In 1976, the program moved to the University of California, Berkeley as the Summer Program for Minority Journalists. It later became MIJE, a model program in training and supporting minority journalists.
At the Tribune, Aarons quickly rose to executive editor and then to senior vice president for news, where he worked for greater staff diversity. He led his team to a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The following year he retired from journalism.
In 1989 the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) asked Aarons to coordinate a first-ever survey of gay and lesbian journalists. Responses from 250 print journalists revealed that most gays and lesbians were closeted in their newsrooms. An overwhelming majority said coverage of gay issues was "at best mediocre." Fewer than 60 percent had told colleagues about their sexual orientation; fewer than 7 percent said their work environments were good for gays.
At ASNE’s national convention in 1990, Aarons presented the results. Aarons closed his speech by coming out to his peers.
Four months after his speech Aarons convened six journalists in his California dining room to launch the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). Modeling its mission after the Maynard Institute’s, he was elected its first president, a post he held until 1997. Aarons remained on NLGJA’s board until his death in 2004. By then the organization counted 1,200 members in 24 chapters nationwide.
On its 15th anniversary in 2006, NLGJA established the annual Leroy F. Aarons Scholarship Award for a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender student pursuing a journalism career. CNN provided $100,000 to fund the scholarship.
Aarons had, in the 1970s, collaborated with Robert Maynard in establishing programs to educate people of color for journalism careers. Now Aarons turned to LGBT issues in journalism.
Aarons believed that coverage of the gay community, as with other minorities, required sophisticated training of journalists. He began to lobby journalism schools to include gay issues in their diversity training and achieved some success. In 1999, as a visiting professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, he founded and directed its Sexual Orientation Issues in the News program. Adapted by universities around the country, the program analyzes how the media have shaped public perception of people and issues since the early 20th century.
Until his death, Aarons also served as NLGJA’s representative to the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Aarons had a lifelong love of music, and often invited colleagues and friends to his home in California for sing-along parties. Everyone joined in on Broadway show tunes, but Aarons would solo occasionally with a ballad like Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat".
In the last decade of his career, Aarons turned to opera, writing the libretto for Monticello. Composed by Glenn Paxton, Monticello portrays the love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. L. A. Theatre Works produced the original work in 2000.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Aarons wrote the libretto for Sara's Diary, 9/11, an opera composed by his collaborator on Monticello, Glenn Paxton. Actually a song cycle, this work is a fictional account of a pregnant woman, who, after her husband dies in the tragedy, experiences deeply mixed emotions. The opera premiered at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center on Sept. 8, 2003 in commemoration of the unprecedented attacks.
In 1989 Aarons read a newspaper article about the suicide of a young gay man, Bobby Griffith, and its effects on his mother. Mary Griffith had tried throughout her son’s adolescence to pray away his gayness. Bobby suffered enormously from his family’s lack of support and acceptance and his church's condemnation of homosexuality; at age 20, he jumped to his death from a freeway bridge. Her son's death eventually led Mary to moderate her religious beliefs and become one of the most visible activists for PFLAG, the nationwide association of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. She used this platform to urge parents to understand and accept their children’s homosexuality.
After he left daily journalism in 1991, Aarons researched the story in depth. The result was his first book, published by HarperCollins in 1995, Prayers for Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son. He worked to present the story to a large viewership but did not see this happen before he died. Prayers for Bobby premiered on January 24, 2009, as a Lifetime TV movie starring Sigourney Weaver in her first made-for-television film.
In 1991 Aarons revisited the Pentagon Papers case, co-authoring a docudrama with Geoffrey Cowan, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers. That year it aired on National Public Radio, performed by Ed Asner and Marsha Mason. The play won the coveted Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Gold Award for best live entertainment program on public radio. Top Secret still tours colleges nationwide as a production of LA Theatre Works.
Another of his plays, Zeke the Profane, deals with the ambivalent attitudes many Reform Jews have towards circumcision. Friends of Aarons have performed it.
Aarons wrote a full-length drama, Home Movies, a memory play in multimedia that focuses on his teenage years and his service in the U.S. Navy. Although he was able to finish the play on the day before he died, it has not yet been produced.
On November 28, 2004, Leroy Aarons died of cancer. He was 70 years old.
At the time of his death, Aarons was working on another play, Night Nurse, about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which he and his life partner of 24 years, Joshua Boneh, had spent a month in South Africa doing research earlier that year. An actor and producer in Berkeley, California performed it as a work-in-progress in Mill Valley. The play has not yet been completed.
Joshua Boneh carries on Aarons’s work.
Even for those who weren't mingling with the famous or soon-to-be-famous, Manhattan could be full of exhilarating new experiences. For young lesbians and gay men exploring their sexuality for the first time, a certain amount of danger was often quite exciting. For some there was even an occasional epiphany.Further Readings:
It was the summer of 1955 when Roy Aarons found his very first gay bar. "I was twenty-one, going on twenty-two", and he was handsome. "I walked down an alley and opened a door. There must have been 160 men in the bar. It was all jammed around the bar, with a piano on a pedestal in the middle of the bar. It felt to me like The Wizard of Oz, when the house lands, and she opens the door, and the black-and-white turns to Technicolor - the whole fucking world has suddenly gone to Technicolor. That was exactly how I felt - the power and the impact. That was my initiation. And from then on you couldn't stop me: I was crazed".
Growing up in the Bronx, Aarons had been "totally unaware of the gay scene in New York. There was nothing to read, nothing in the newspapers, nothing in the magazines. The only gay references I got were snide jokes about fags in my family".
He discovered his second gay bar one night just after leaving a Passover seder at his aunt's house on West 73d Street. "It was this little bar called the Cork Club on the south side of the 72d Street which I'd seen a million times before. There was something about it which just drew me there. And I walked down, and sure enough, all guys. I can remember there was a Sam Cooke song playing on the jukebox - "You Send Me". Every time I hear Sam Cooke do that it brings it all back. Of course I asked people if they knew anywhere else to go. And they told me a great spot down on 45th Street called Artie's. That was heaven. Interestingly enough, it was a storefront, brightly lit, right on 45th Street between Sixth and Broadway. In fact it was about five or six doors down from the Peppermint Lounge, which later became famous for the Twist. So you would approach Artie's, and here was this total picture window and it was jammed in there. There was no attempt to darken it.
"You could see right through the window from the street - at a time when one wondered how that was allowed. I assume there were big payoffs going on. It was all men but nobody could come in and say there was any lewd behaviour going on. Rep sweaters and jackets, it was all kind of dressy. It had not gotten to the era of the funky look. It was totally, blatantly open, and it was jammed from stem to stern with gorgeous young college-age men. It was at once the most exciting and frustating place - because I wanted to start at the front and work my way through to the rear. That became my hangout.
"Forty-fifth Street was very lively at that time... Toward Sixth Avenue was another so-called straight bar where people would go do the Twist, but where I would very frequently run into other gays. I remember once I picked up - oh, God, romance - a soldier, and we had a little fling. It was wonderful. I am still in the navy. At this point, I'm living off the ship in Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I couldn't bring anyone back. I would have to go to their place. Never with another sailor. I was too scared. I knew it was considered sodomy and I could go to jail.
"You're living a totally secret life. You're showing one face to the world, and you've got this whole other thing happening. There was a risk factor, but there was also a certain excitement about that, an illicit excitement. The next thing I heard about were two dancing bars in the Seventies. One was called the Mais Oui and one was called the Bali. Probably 70th Street for the Mais Oui, between Broadway and Amsterdam. The basement of an apartment house. You had to walk down, and they had this secret lighting system. At the Mais Oui, there was always a bouncer to screen you as you came in. A $1.50 cover charge or something like that. They screened you not just for your ID, but they checked you to see if you looked like an undercover cop. And in fact a couple of times I was taken for that and the lights went on and I was very proud of that.
"So whenever it looked like an undercover cop was coming in, the lights would suddenly go on and you had to push your partner away and pretend you were sort of standing around. Rock and roll was just coming in - the Mashed Potato and all of that stuff. So you could meet somebody right away and immediately start grinding away without a lot of ceremony.
"I found it to be very unsatiskying in the long run. There was a kind of ambivalence because it was exiciting. There was the promise of sexuality; there was the physical contact; but there was also a lot of rejection. There was attitude. You'd ask somebody you thought was absolutely dandy to dance, and they'd say, "No, thank you very much". Or you'd get out on the dance floor and the person's just not responding, just kind of going though the motions. And I was kind of shy to start with. And you begin to get into a pattern: Should I ask this guy? I don't want to get rebuffed. So there was all that stuff that still exists today.
"At that point I wasn't conscious of coupling being a manifestation of the gay existence. What I was doing then was trying to figure out how I was going to work out a normal life - how to be straight. I knew that I had the capacity". The year after Aarons entered his first gay bar, he met a girl in Washington and had his first sexual experience with a woman. "So I knew I was capable. My essential flaming passion was not there, but I knew I could accomplish and enjoy it. I was trying to convince mysefl (to be straight) for the next fifteen years". --The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser
Prayers for Bobby: A Mother's Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son by Leroy Aarons
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperOne (August 9, 1996)
Amazon: Prayers for Bobby: A Mother's Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son
Bobby Griffith was an all-American boy ...and he was gay. Faced with an irresolvable conflict-for both his family and his religion taught him that being gay was "wrong"-Bobby chose to take his own life.
Prayers for Bobby, nominated for a 1996 Lambda Literary Award, is the story of the emotional journey that led Bobby to this tragic conclusion. But it is also the story of Bobby's mother, a fearful churchgoer who first prayed that her son would be "healed," then anguished over his suicide, and ultimately transformed herself into a national crusader for gay and lesbian youth.
As told through Bobby's poignant journal entries and his mother's reminiscences, Prayers for Bobby is at once a moving personal story, a true profile in courage, and a call to arms to parents everywhere.
The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (June 10, 2007)
Amazon: The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
ANew York TimesNotable Book of the Year and winner of a Lambda Literary Award,The Gay Metropolisis a landmark saga of struggle and triumph that was instantly recognized as the most authoritative and substantial work of its kind. Filled with astounding anecdotes and searing tales of heartbreak and transformation, it provides a decade-by-decade account of the rise and acceptance of gay life and identity since the 1940s. From the making ofWest Side Story,the modern Romeo and Juliet tale written and staged by four gay men, to the catastrophic era of AIDS, Charles Kaiser recounts the true history of the gay movement with many never-before-told stories. Filled with dazzling characters — including Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift, Alfred Hitchcock, and John F. Kennedy, among many others — this is a vital telling of American history, exciting and uplifting.
More Real Life Romances at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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