LGBT community says goodbye to a longtime voice
By Pat Sherman/GSD Editor
San Diego’s longest-running LGBT publication, the weekly Gay & Lesbian Times (GLT), ceased publication earlier this month. The newsmagazine’s final issue (No. 1,188) was published on Sept. 30.
Content slated for a subsequent issue was published online, though it did not appear in print at newsstands as scheduled Oct. 7. The GLT staff was notified on Oct. 8 that they were being laid off indefinitely.
Brent Mekshes, the GLT’s classified sales manager, had been with the company six years and was on vacation in Florida when he received the news that his health insurance had been canceled due to nonpayment, and that he no longer had a job to return to.
“I think we all knew that (an investigation) was going on and we just operated business as usual,” Mekshes said. “The staff knew there were issues, but from a sales standpoint, the accounts receivable and the sales were still at a fairly stable level. They dipped naturally because of the economy and staffing issues, but it was still salvageable—and that’s the hardest part of this whole process. You truly cannot blame this on the economy. It’s my belief that it was mismanagement.”
In recent weeks, California Assemblymember Anthony Portantino, brother of GLT Publisher Michael Portantino, had stepped in to help his brother oversee his business and personal affairs. According to Mekshes, it was the publisher’s family who made the decision to cease publication.
“As time progressed while I was (in Florida), I’d get phone calls and each time I’d get these phone calls the panic would grow,” Mekshes said.
The paper, which launched in January of 1988 as the San Diego Gay Times, served as the LGBT paper of record in San Diego for more than two decades. Its first issue, then under the auspices of publisher Larry “Lair” Davis, featured a cover story about the AIDS Memorial Quilt coming to San Diego. A front page introduction from Davis read, “The San Diego Gay Times intends to report news in San Diego with fairness and objectivity. The paper will never be used for personal vendettas or to push anyone’s personal agenda.”
Throughout its run, the GLT chronicled the election and ascent of San Diego’s first openly gay elected officials and the LGBT community’s subsequent rise in political clout.
George Biagi, a former editor who was employed with the company from 1990 to 1994, recalled his tenure with fondness. During that time, the GLT had three LGBT print competitors, Bravo!, Gay and Lesbian Nation and Update. Under the auspices of Portantino the GLT would surpass its competitors, more than doubling its circulation while expanding distribution to Los Angeles, Orange County and Palm Springs.
“It was a different world for the LGBT community,” Biagi said. “I think that at that time the Gay & Lesbian times served a need for folks that were newly coming out of the closet, questioning their sexuality or who were closeted. We used to get lots of feedback from people that the newspaper was their lifeline to the gay and lesbian community.
“At the time you didn’t find LGBT-centric stories in the mainstream publications,” Biagi said. “If there was something going on in the community, you’d get it from the Gay & Lesbian Times or from one of the other publications. It wasn’t unusual for people to make a special trip into Hillcrest or one of the other neighborhoods to pick up a newspaper on a Thursday.”
Jeri Dilno, who served as assistant editor under Biagi and went on to become editor after he left, said the GLT played a significant role in Christine Kehoe’s successful city council race, in which she became San Diego’s first openly gay or lesbian public official. The paper put Kehoe on its cover twice during her council run.
“People really flocked to the campaign headquarters—people who probably had never volunteered before and never volunteered again,” Dino said. “It was a communication tool.”
Biagi said Portantino largely allowed him to play “good cop,” reporting favorably on community organizations and pro-LGBT political candidates.
“At that time the Gay & Lesbian Times wasn’t (producing) sort of the hard-hitting investigative journalism at its core that it sort of became later in the ’90s and throughout the first part of the century,” he said. “We were more about trying to give as much exposure (as possible) to community organizations, sports organizations and social organizations because we were the only voice that they had.”
In each issue, Portantino took pride in printing a translation of Roman poet Juvenal’s phrase: “Who will stand guard to the guards themselves?”
“I think that’s one of the things that we’re going to miss the most,” Biagi said. “The Gay & Lesbian Times, for maybe the past 15 years, has been somewhat of a watchdog over community organizations—and sometimes to their own detriment. Michael (Portantino) has taken some hits from people in the community who feel that he shouldn’t have done some of the investigative pieces that he did, but his philosophy was always, ‘I’d rather somebody hear about something bad in our community that’s going on from us, then have it play out in the mainstream media… . He wanted to be the newspaper that broke the story—and I respected that.”
However, Nicole Murray-Ramirez who wrote a weekly social and political column that appeared in the GLT for 15 years, said the paper did not always garner the community’s respect for its weekly editorial stances and journalist approach.
Like his brother, Anthony, Michael Portantino had political aspirations and several times toyed with the idea of running for city council—an ambition Murray-Ramirez said at times might have clouded his judgment.
Murray-Ramirez said the GLT and its publisher often struggled to find the balance between watchdog and advocate.
“I knew that he was giving ads to charities like The Center and Stepping Stone. I liked that,” Murray-Ramirez said. “But I think sometimes he had a hammer approach with the way he saw things… . Some of the stories were very inflammatory. On one hand he would give organizations unbelievable ads and coverage to keep them going. On the other hand, if anything went a little wrong he would sensationalize it and cause them harm.
“I would fend so many calls from community organizations, leaders and executive directors who just couldn’t believe they were being hit,” Murray-Ramirez said. “The sad thing is that some people felt that we’d become cannibals. You know, at times I think the Gay Times started eating its own.”
Though Mekshes said he didn’t always agree with the positions the paper took, ultimately he feels the GLT was well-respected and will be missed.
“Walking in the Pride parade every year with the float and getting standing ovations … you know at that point that you’ve done your job,” Mekshes said. “Sure, we may have reported on controversial issues or may have taken controversial advertisements, but the community as a whole really did respect that paper.
“There were a lot of people—insiders—that maybe had some issues, but the overall general community very much knew that the Gay & Lesbian Times was a San Diego legacy.”
According to investigative stories published earlier this year by online news sources San Diego Gay & Lesbian News and the now defunct San Diego News Network, the Internal Revenue Service filed a tax lien on the business in January. The company, Gay Times, Inc., faces accusations that its publisher inflated circulation numbers and had been commingling personal and business funds. An investigation at the district attorney’s office is ongoing.