Pride Month — Don’t call us gay!

In 1983 as I graduated from Fresno City College, I had the honor of being selected for a paid internship at the Fresno Bee. As we interns gathered for our first day of work, the organizer of the internship program told us we would spend a week working at each section of the paper. The editors would assign us work to do to keep us busy, but if we wanted to write bylined stories, we had to come up with our own ideas and convince the editors they were worthy of publication. No bylines for assigned stories.

The Tower Theatre at the corner of Wishon and Olive in Fresno.

When none of the Bee writers wanted to review a Judas Priest concert, I volunteered. I snagged the entire front page of the lifestyle section with a story (and sidebar) I wrote about massage. But what I want to share with you today is the tale of the bylined story I wrote for the business section.

Don, a gay man with a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, ran a little laundromat next door to the Olympic Tavern, a nightspot on the edge of the Tower District a couple of blocks from my house. He knew when his laundromat would be busy, and when the customers packed the place, so he’d always be there taking care of business. As soon as you pulled your laundry out of a washing machine and dumped it into a rolling cart to move to the dryers, Don attacked the washer with his cleaning supplies, wiping everything down, ensuring a pristine, sparkling washer for the next customer. He also kept the lint traps in his dryers clean, and for only 25 cents your jeans would come out both hot and dry.

I told Don I was going to be working for the business section at the Bee next week, and I wanted to do a story about him and his wonderful laundromat. He said no, he didn’t need any more customers because he already had all he could handle. Instead, he suggested I do a story about the new Gay Merchants Association being formed in the Tower District. He was a founding member.

When I arrived at the business section, I pitched the story idea, and the editor agreed. As I interviewed the president of the new association, he said nearly 80 percent of the business owners in the Tower were gay, and the new group was necessary because the existing merchants’ association just didn’t share their concerns. Since he hurled that claim, I had to get a response from the existing merchants’ association. Their president said merchants’ concerns are always exactly the same be they gay or straight, so there was no need for the new gay merchants’ association.

The word I was writing the story spread through the business owners in the Tower District, and the next morning I got a call from the owner of the Tower Theatre. He told me I couldn’t write a story about a gay merchants’ association in the Tower District because it would ruin the district’s reputation and hurt everyone’s business, especially his. He said the Tower is not gay.

Everyone knows the Tower District is the gay part of town, I said. Always has been. And besides that, a story about a new gay merchants’ association  won’t hurt anyone.

Then he tried to convince me that he and the other Tower merchants were trying to create a family friendly experience in the district for their customers, and the newspaper would crush all those efforts if we dared to dub the Tower District gay.

I laughed out loud as I pointed out “Caligula,” perhaps the most obscene, foul and least family friendly movie of all time, currently adorned the screen at his theatre. It had been showing there for weeks. And you’re worried about gays ruining your reputation? Really?

That made him angry, and he yelled that if the Bee published my story, he would pull his advertising. I told him I was just an intern who wrote a story, and I had had no control over what got published. I said we had just entered territory well beyond my pay grade, so I suggested he speak to my editor. He agreed. I put him on hold and told the editor about our conversation.

She pushed line two on her phone and introduced herself. I couldn’t hear his end of the conversation, but finally she told him, yes, my story would be published in tomorrow’s paper. Another long silence and then she said, fine, let me forward this call to the billing department so you can close your account, and hung up.

But wait! This story doesn’t end here. There’s more!

On Saturdays, the Bee always publishes a local editorial cartoon. As I read Saturday’s paper, I found a cartoon of a man hanging off the Tower Theatre’s tower, a spyglass dangling from his hand. The marquee read “Who are we? What will we become?”

The Bee’s editorial department had joined the fray. All because of this theatre owner’s response to my little eight-inch story in the business section.