October 15, 2019 at 7:26 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Blade’s 50-year history reflects struggles, advances of LGBT community
Blade staff, gay news, Washington Blade
Reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr. (second from Left) in a meeting with fellow Blade staff, including editor Lisa Keen (third from left).

In its 50-year history, the Washington Blade has covered news for the LGBT community that has reflected dramatic advances as well as struggles ranging from workplace discrimination and attempts at blackmail to the AIDS epidemic and the achievement of marriage equality, establishing the Blade’s reputation as the LGBT newspaper of record.

In its very first issue in October of 1969 as a one-page monthly newsletter called “The Gay Blade,” the paper reported on the 1960s era fear of blackmail and the possibility of being fired from a government job because of one’s sexual orientation.

“Warning to Dupont Circle people,” the first issue states in its third story. “Cars seen too frequently in the Circle area are having their license numbers taken down; their owners later are being harassed and blackmailed.”

That same first issue included articles on pioneering gay rights activist Frank Kameny being available to provide help for gays or lesbians subjected to a security check by their employer, the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in New York City, and the launching by the Gay Blade of a gay roommate referral service.

The very first issue of the Blade, dated October 1969.

Fifty years later, the now weekly Washington Blade has a correspondent accredited to cover the White House and presidential news conferences and an editor-reporter who frequently travels abroad to cover international LGBT news.

Since September 1995, the Blade has been available online through its website, enabling it to publish breaking LGBT news on a daily and even an hourly basis.

The Blade’s founding editors in October 1969 were Nancy Tucker, a lesbian, and Bart Wenger, a gay man who at the time went by the name Art Stone. Both had been members of the Mattachine Society of Washington, the first D.C. gay rights organization of note co-founded by Kameny.

Nancy Tucker (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Tucker and Wenger have said in subsequent years that although they supported the work of the Mattachine Society, they wanted to launch, four months after the Stonewall riots in New York, an independent news publication to provide needed information for D.C.’s then fledgling gay rights movement.

It was Kameny, Tucker told the Blade years later, who convinced her to help produce the new publication.

“It filled a clear need right from the get-go – and it has been that way ever since,” Kameny recalled in an October 2009 interview with the Washington Blade, two years before his passing in 2011.

Tucker, who later moved to Albuquerque, N.M., has said several people were involved in producing the Blade’s first issue, including Martha Taylor, her partner at the time, who operated a mimeograph machine that printed the first 500 copies of the paper.

But she said many of the people that helped produce and distribute the first issue and the next few issues withdrew from participation a short time later, leaving only a small “staff,” all of whom were volunteers.

“It eventually came down to my doing all of the writing, most of the news work, some of the distribution, all of the advertising selling – and Bart did some of the distribution and let me know what news tips that he came up with,” Tucker said.

She said she knew the Blade was becoming influential because LGBT people were using the Blade to publicize the activities of their organizations or businesses.

“I have a profound belief that it contributed to really the creation of the gay community in Washington,” Tucker said. “It helped publicize various bars and businesses and stuff as they opened.”

(Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

In July 1973, Tucker announced she was stepping down from her role as editor and publisher of the Blade and issued a call for interested parties to assume control of the then newsletter. Lesbian activist Pat Price, who used the pseudonym Pat Kolar, answered that call and became the new editor and publisher.

Although she and others who began to write for the Blade used pseudonyms, their names appearing in the paper marked the first time stories contained bylines. A little over one year later in November 1974 the Blade ended its newsletter size page and began publishing as a standard tabloid format on newsprint paper. Also in November 1974 the paper moved into its first offices at 1724 20th St., N.W. in Dupont Circle.

In December 1974, Joseph Crislip, who began writing for the Blade one month earlier under the pseudonym Christian Deforrest, assumed the position of Blade editor and “coordinator” of its business operations. In November 1975, under Crislip’s leadership, the Gay Blade officially changed its name to the Blade and incorporated as a nonprofit corporation called Blade Communications, Inc.

In early 1977, shortly after the Blade had moved to a two-room suite on the 2400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W, a gay activist who had recently moved to D.C. from Buffalo, N.Y. named Don Michaels showed up at a Blade volunteer meeting. It was the start of Michaels’ 24-year association with the Blade in which he would eventually become publisher and oversee the Blade’s growth in size and status to become one of the nation’s major LGBT publications.

According to a detailed account of the Blade’s history by D.C.’s Rainbow History Project, in 1978 Michaels became managing editor while Crislip retained the position of publisher. That same year, in November, the Blade changed from operating as a monthly to a bi-weekly newspaper in response to the growth in its readership and advertising.

Don Michaels in 1981 (Washington Blade archive photo)

In October 1980, the Blade reincorporated into a for-profit, employee-owned business and changed its name to the Washington Blade. By early 1982 Michaels assumed the position of publisher succeeding Crislip, and as the paper continued to grow, the decision was made to become a weekly. Steve Martz, who joined the Blade a few years earlier in the advertising department, became managing editor and Lisa Keen, who started at the Blade in 1979 as a freelance reporter, became assistant editor.

From several years prior to that time up until 2001, the Blade had moved to several different locations, including 930 F St., N.W., an office building that became home on its first floor to the 9:30 Club; and later to a small office building at 724 9th St., N.W. It was during that time, around 1984 that Martz left the Blade and Keen assumed the role as top editor, which eventually was given the title of executive editor while Michaels continued as publisher.

In 1992, the Blade moved to 1408 U St., N.W., in the city’s newly developing “U Street corridor” that quickly evolved into an entertainment district. One year later, in April 1993, coinciding with the 1993 LGBT March on Washington that brought tens of thousands to the nation’s capital, the Blade published its largest issue to date, containing 216 pages.

In 1995, the Blade launched its website, WashingtonBlade.com, further expanding its ability to cover breaking LGBT news on a daily basis.

In May 2001, a gay-owned media company named Window Media that also owned the Southern Voice LGBT newspaper in Atlanta, purchased the Blade. William Waybourn, one of its principal owners, became the Blade’s new publisher and Chris Crain, another Window Media owner, became the Blade’s executive editor.

Michaels, Keen, and others on the Blade’s editorial and management leadership team left the Blade at the time of the sale. In 2006, Waybourn and Crain left the Blade to pursue other endeavors.

Blade staffer Rick Harding moving the Blade archives in 1987. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Crain was succeeded as executive editor by Kevin Naff, who remains the Blade’s editor today. In December 2007, Lynne Brown, who had worked for many years on the Blade’s advertising team, was named Blade publisher.

“It’s been a privilege to edit the Blade and help preserve its legacy of quality journalism as we’ve navigated the challenges facing the entire newspaper industry,” said Naff. 

The Blade relocated from U Street to the National Press Building at 14th and F Street, N.W. in February 2008, bringing it to a location where many of the nation’s most prestigious news media outlets had their Washington news bureaus.

Window Media Blade staff. (Washington Blade file photo)

But less than two years later, in November 2009, Window Media’s parent company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, resulting in the shutdown of the Blade and the other LGBT publications owned by Window Media. However, just four days later, the Blade’s staff, which banded together as volunteers, took the extraordinary step of creating a temporary replacement for the Blade called the D.C. Agenda and published its first issue.

Through financial support from loyal advertisers and readers, the former Blade staffers continued to publish the D.C. Agenda as a weekly placeholder until former publisher Brown, former editor Naff, and the Blade’s former advertising executive, Brian Pitts, formed a business partnership that purchased the Blade’s assets from the bankruptcy court.

Blade Editor Kevin Naff, Publisher Lynne Brown and Co-Owner Brian Pitts in 2009. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The three partners created a new parent company, Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia, and relaunched the Washington Blade brand in April 2010. The new company opened its offices at 1712 14th St., N.W., the Blade’s current headquarters.

The D.C. Agenda staff relaunches the Washington Blade. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In October 2010, the Washington Blade Foundation, a new 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was formed to raise money to digitize the full Blade archives. In January 2011, Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia launched a new business unit, Azer Creative as a boutique marketing firm. And in March 2017, BNPO launched the Los Angeles Blade, a sister LGBT newspaper headed by publisher Troy Masters and veteran journalist Karen Ocamb as news editor.

Recollections by former Blade leaders

Don Michaels and John M. Yanson (Washington Blade archive photo)

“I still live in D.C. and treasure a 45+ year relationship with John Yanson, who in the early days of the Blade was the staff photographer,” Michaels said when asked what he’s been doing since leaving the Blade. He and Yanson also spend time in San Diego, Calif., where they own a condo, he said.

Michaels was quick to reply to the question of what he most remembers about the Blade during his years working there.

“How eager our community was for a publication that focused on news and features rather than sexually oriented content,” he said. “Our approach attracted many really dedicated staffers who worked hard and tirelessly to make the paper grow from those 24-page monthly editions way back when into a well-regarded weekly newspaper of record.”

Keen, who had worked on the Blade staff for 20 years before leaving in 2001 as executive editor, said her years at the paper left a lasting impression.

“I remember a team of really dedicated colleagues and intensely loyal readers,” she said. “Don Michaels articulated a vision of the paper as one that would strive to meet professional standards and serve the LGBT community,” said Keen.

“People who joined the staff shared that vision and commitment at a time when working at a ‘gay paper’ was very likely to diminish one’s future employment prospects,” she said. “They were courageous and tough as nails, fun and funny, talented and reliable.”

Keen said she and her spouse, Sheilah McCarthy, currently live in Wellesley, Mass., where Keen has been covering national legal and political news for several LGBT news outlets around the country, including her own KeenNewsService.com. The couple is raising a 15-year-old son, Sam Keen.

Former publisher Waybourn said he and his partner maintain a D.C. residence but spend most of their time in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They own several businesses, including the Long View Gallery in D.C.

“It was a great time to be involved in D.C. media,” Waybourn said in discussing his tenure at the Blade. “I loved working with the staff and individuals I met through community groups and organizations, and still maintain friendships with the individuals I met through the Blade.”

Crain, the former executive editor, said he and Waybourn “look back with great pride” on the years the two worked at the Blade. He said their acquisition of the Blade in 2001 through Window Media took place “at the height of prominence in LGBTQ media” and enabled them to work with “a wonderful and talented staff to expand the paper’s local coverage, improve its production quality, grow its advertising base and dramatically increase its presence on the internet.”

Crain said by the mid-2000s the Blade was “facing the same challenge as print publications everywhere” such as the loss of classified advertising to the internet. But he said the Blade nevertheless remained profitable, even at the time after he and Waybourn left and the Window Media parent company declared bankruptcy.

“We were greatly pleased that the staff took up the mantle to carry on the Blade’s rich history, and we join in celebrating this terrific milestone,” Crain said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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