On the heels of his 20-year anniversary at the Washington Blade, Editor Kevin Naff is looking back on some of the biggest stories that shaped the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. His book, “How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality — And How Our Enemies Could Take It All Away,” features curated writings from Naff’s two decades at the Blade, from crushing decisions like Proposition 8 to joyous times like the defeat of Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In an effort to prevent history from repeating itself, these writings serve as a cautionary tale and a manual for dealing with the growing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment we’re currently seeing. Naff sat down with News is Out to share his thoughts on the book and the continuing fight for equality.
News is Out: As a journalist and reporter, you could have gone into any subject field. Why did you choose LGBTQ+ coverage?
Kevin Naff: Yeah, that’s a good question. I spent a bunch of years in corporate media, bigger jobs, bigger companies, and I was pretty closeted during those years. And when I finally fully came out, I felt a strong sense of needing to give back to the community. So when I came out, I blew the closet doors off the wall and took the editor’s job at the Blade.
I felt so liberated, and I felt like, at that time, there were so few openly gay figures in media, and that I had spent so much time in the closet, I thought I had penance to do. And since I was fully out, I had nothing to lose by being an out journalist who would be willing to stand up to people and say things that needed to be said. Not just to our enemies but, more importantly, I think, to our so-called allies.
NIO: Your book chronicles the last 20 years of LGBTQ+ news and events. What made you decide that now was the time to look back?
KN: Yeah, two things. One, it was the 20th anniversary of my tenure at the Blade, and so I wanted to kind of commemorate that milestone. And also like with any job, you get caught up in the weeds of things, and you lose perspective. So, it was just a nice time. And of course, during COVID, I had plenty of time [laughs] to start this process of looking back and figuring out what was important, what wasn’t, and trying to kind of condense 20 years of momentous progress into one book. So that was the first reason. And then I guess the second reason, more urgently, is that I really do feel–well, I felt this two years ago when I started working on the book, but it has come to pass–that we were in for some major backlash and that there was going to be a real concerted effort to roll back our progress. And that once they–they being the right wing–once they overturned Roe, they would be coming after Obergefell next.
I felt that this work could serve as a blueprint for the next generation that’s going to have to re-litigate many of these battles that we’ve already won. And so, that’s kind of my big hope for the book is that younger generations can look at this and say, “Oh, here’s how this generation fought back. Here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t. Here are the lawsuits, here was the legislator, here was the legislation, here’s how they pressured public officials.” But the other reason is that I think we’re at the crossroads right now in terms of the movement and I’m really fearful of complacency and of losing ground.
NIO: Well, let’s keep talking about this backlash. We’ve seen a shift from the years of hard-won battles and acceptance to these giant steps backward, especially regarding our trans community. In your opinion, as someone deeply entrenched in the world of politics and media, where do you think this backlash started?
KN: Well, I think it’s always been there. I think what they’ve discovered, and again when I say they, I’m referring to the kind of the far right-wing and now the MAGA crowd. I think what they’ve realized is the same thing as all of us, you know. We all see the same polling, right? We all know that attacks on gay marriage don’t work anymore with independent voters; attacks around employment protections and discrimination for gay people, lesbian people, bisexual people. Those don’t play anymore with suburban independent voters and those are the people who decide elections. So, they’ve moved on. Not because they’re happy to see us get married or not get fired from my jobs, but because it doesn’t serve their political interests to attack us in that way. So, what they’ve discovered is that the trans community is less well known and attacks on the trans community seem to resonate far more than on any other group right now.
If you look at Virginia and what happened with Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for governor, they’ve found a way to frame the debate over trans rights as a debate over parental rights. So, rather than attacking trans people directly, they’ll say, “Oh, well, parents, don’t you want to have a say in your child’s curriculum? Don’t you want to have a say in what books are in the kids’ libraries?” And those messages really resonate with those same suburban independent voters. So, that’s the path that they have taken.
As far as the extreme attacks that we’re seeing, like in Florida, denying access to trans healthcare, the “Don’t Say Gay” law; I do think that’s going to wind up hurting Ron DeSantis in the long run. I don’t think those kinds of attacks are going to play in the general election. And he’s already getting blowback from donors who are saying to him, we don’t want another MAGA person. If we wanted that, we’d back Trump, you know. We wanted something different. And you’re just trying to be Trump under a different name with all this, you know, the six-week abortion ban and extending the “Don’t Say Gay” law to 12th grade, which is insane, denying health care to trans youth. You know, all of this is a step too far for most American voters and apparently Republican donors.
NIO: Out of the thousands of pieces you’ve written, how did you curate the articles that you wanted to feature in “How We Won the War?”
KN: It was a long, lonely process of weeding through. I started with the most recent ones and going backward, and all of that is digital. The big problem with the project came about when I discovered that there was still a six-year gap where we haven’t finished digitizing all of the archives because when the old company went bankrupt and they deleted the archives. We’ve made a lot of progress, and we’re almost there, but there’s still this five, six-year gap. So I had no digital access to six years of my stuff.
So luckily, I had kept hard copies that I found in an attic box. And so, I weeded through all of those, and then digitizing old newsprint is pretty much impossible to do. I’ve discovered that. I tried every app and every scanner and every, you know, conceivable way of digitizing that stuff, and none of it works. So I ended up hiring a transcriptionist to go back and re-key all those years.
It was a long process and I tried to keep an eye out for obviously the big stuff: the Lawrence decision, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” reappeal. The big obvious things. But also trends pieces. And then I included a chapter on pop culture because, you know, a lot of this stuff is really heavy. The Pulse massacre and so many dark chapters that we’ve been through in 20 years. So, I added a pop culture chapter to kind of lighten things up and add some kind of celebrity dish to it.
NIO: There’s some piping hot tea in that section.
KN: Yes, there is. That was fun to write.
NIO: You mentioned the late AIDS activist Larry Kramer in your forward, saying that the best motivation for activism is anger. How does that also help fuel you as a journalist?
Kevin: That is my fuel, and my initial title for the book was “Ranting Toward Equality.”
NIO: Can you go back and change it?
KN: I really liked it. No, everyone else hated it; the editor, the publicist. Everyone said it’s too angry, no one’s going to want that, so I reluctantly caved and we changed the title like six times. But anger absolutely motivates me. And whether it’s at our enemies or there’s a chapter in the book called, “Duplicitous Allies,” or closet cases, or you name it, you know. I tend to get pissed off a lot, so that’s my motivation.
NIO: In one of your pieces I really love, “Left at the Altar,” you mentioned crossing the line from journalist to activist. Can you talk about that delicate line, because I know that’s something that so many of us who are LGBTQ+ and cover those issues deal with?
KN: I think that was the one about Maryland?
KN: Yeah. I really agonized over that one in writing about that in the book because I do think, and I do recognize that some of the things that I did probably cross the line journalistically. But ultimately, I decided to include it because even though this is not a memoir or a biography by any stretch, and that was absolutely not my intent, there are some biographical elements sprinkled throughout the book. I love biographies, but I don’t like hagiography. And so, I wanted to be honest and own up to my own mistakes. Not that I necessarily regret the things I did, but I do think during that Maryland marriage fight, I did get very close to, you know, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the activists on the ground. There were some phone calls that some people would probably say cross the line, journalistically, but I was caught up in the moment and we were all working toward this same goal.
I think if one of those activists had done something unethical or worse, it would not have stopped me from reporting on that. But we definitely coordinated efforts a little bit more than I probably should have.
NIO: It’s hard to separate who we are as humans and queer humans from the work we do. We’re covering our community and it’s like, how do you not get riled up? How do you not put yourself in those positions? I mean, I struggle with that as a journalist too.
KN: Yeah. It’s a challenge. It’s something that I have to, especially with younger reporters, either new hires or interns or whatever, I have to have that talk with them early on that we are not activists. We may have a vested interest in the outcome of some of the issues we cover, but we are journalists first. A lot of people do come to us, to the Blade, looking for a job, thinking that it’s an activist job and have to dispel them of that.
NIO: You say at one point that there was an absence of a national gay rights leader, and I believe this was during the Prop 8 days, and it sort of feels like we’re there again without a major voice leading the community. What are your thoughts on this current climate and do you think there is someone or a group that’s really leading a charge?
KN: I do think it’s still a problem and I’ve never understood it. In the absence of, and it doesn’t have to be one person, but there could be a few standout voices that come to our defense. And maybe that’s going to change.
HRC has gone through so much turmoil and change and turnover. I think the group or the person that’s doing the best, most visible work right now is GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis. I mean, she has really turned that organization around. I think it was on its last legs when she took over, but she has really reinvented it. And I mean, GLAAD is everywhere these days. I see her out and about a lot; a lot of events, a lot of media appearances.
I think Kelley Robinson at HRC now. I think once she kind of settles in, I think she’s more than capable of stepping into that kind of public role. We definitely have always had, I think, a problem in that regard. And what happens when you don’t have sort of strong, competent, visible leadership is, other people step into that void. So gay actors and sex advice columnists and others.
When you have like a media-trained, really smart, skilled right-wing commentator and they’re going up against a gay actor, it’s not a fair fight. So we definitely need more sharp, smart well-spoken media trained spokespeople for the movement.
NIO: What you said got me thinking about allies too. You quote something that Melissa Harris-Perry said to you once about being an ally. She said, “I’m not your ally; an ally is someone who cheers you from the sidelines. I’m in this fight. I’m part of this.” I mean, just incredible. I know we have many allies, but as someone who watches the LGBTQ+ tide ebb and flow, what do we need our allies to do right now?
KN: Yeah, I love that quote from her. That was one of those “aha moments.” I talk about this in the book as well. I think that we need our allies to move from being allies to being what some folks have called accomplices. I think DeRay Mckesson from Black Lives Matter said that. Somebody else coined that. I’m not taking credit for that, but I like that. I think Melissa used that word as well.
I think you start as an ally, and then you need to start migrating toward a more active role. So, becoming an accomplice, which means voting the right way, not voting against the interests of our community. It can mean a lot of things. I just had a funny text. My oldest friend just texted me a picture. He’s sitting on a beach somewhere, and he texted me a picture of him reading my book. He’s straight and married with two kids. He’s from a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and he texted me this picture and he’s like, “Sitting here alone on a beach reading about the history of the gay rights movement. I’ve come a long way.” [laughs] And I love that.
I think we need more people like that. We need people to move from mere allies to becoming more engaged. Even if it’s just as simple as shutting down a homophobic joke or conversation that one of your friends is telling at a dinner party, like, do that.
NIO: Your piece, “Gay and Tired,” I guarantee speaks to a lot of us, especially those covering LGBTQ+ media. Burnout is a real thing, especially when faced with constant hate and discrimination. How do you deal with it?
KN: I mean, that’s a good question. I’m not really one for new-age talk of self-care and all of that. I’m a little older and more cynical. I mean, I think self-care is important. I don’t know. I mean, what I find hard to grasp is, it’s one thing to keep fighting. Like, we’re always going to have to fight, but we’re never going to be left alone. There’s always going to be some struggle, some problem; the movement will never end.
What I have a hard time with is the idea of going back and having to refight for abortion rights, refight the fight for marriage equality. You know, going back and having to refight things we’ve already won, that’s what I find overwhelming and really, really demoralizing. So, I don’t know. I guess I would say this, I’ve been doing some college campus visits and I am very encouraged actually by Gen Z and the kids I’ve been meeting with.
NIO: Right. Aren’t they? They’re so great. I’m so proud of them.
KN: I really mean that. I mean, I think that their voting patterns are really strong. They’re voting in numbers at earlier ages than any of their predecessors. But I think what has really sort of united them and motivated them7 is that they’ve grown up in this gun culture and these mass shootings.
I was at Penn State last week and one of the students asked me if I had ever had active shooter training when I was in school. And I was like, “No, we never had active shooter training. We never had shootings in schools.” You know, maybe somebody brought a pocket knife one day, but like, no, we never had active shooter training. And they couldn’tbelieve that because they’d been having it since they were in kindergarten. And I really think that that issue singularly is what is going to change things. Especially for the Republican Party. The Republican Party, if they don’t get their head out of the sand and come up with some kind of a message on gun reform, their days are numbered when it comes to that generation because it’s not going to be enough. Thoughts and prayers and sticking their heads in the sand. They are not going to stand for that.
So, in terms of what makes me feel good or how I keep going, I am very enthusiastic about that generation. We run a fellowship program, so I get to work a lot with younger queer journalists. Almost all of them now are trans, nonbinary, people of color; it’s a really great diverse pool of interns and fellows that I get to work with. They keep me motivated and excited. I think that’s the key really: to be plugged in in some way to the younger generation.
NIO: In many ways, you are kind of a historian of this modern LGBTQ+ movement and history helps us understand the future. In your opinion, what do you see happening for the LGBTQ+ community in the next few years?
KN: Honestly, that’s the most common question I’m getting from college students. And I think the answer is that it’sgoing to get worse before it gets better.
I think in terms of our movement’s focus, the focus will shift now to the state houses because with divided government like this, it’s just impossible to get anything through Congress. And obviously, for the next two years, nothing’s going to happen. A lot will depend of course, on the next election. But I worry about the campaign because I think the campaign is going to be really ugly for our community. I think all of this garbage coming out of Florida is going to get nationalized in 2024, so I think we need to be prepared for that. I know our legal groups are all working like crazy to anticipate what’s coming and to thwart it.
When people ask me where should I give money in the movement, I always tell them, give money to the legal groups because they’re going to be really busy for the next 10-plus years.
I think the next three, five, even 10 years; it’s probably about states. Now, the silver lining in that is that I do think the movement for a long time relied too heavily on the courts to deliver us our victories. And the marriage ruling was 5:4 and written by a Reagan appointee, so that wasn’t a slam dunk. What this shift and the court does –with this activist right-wing, horrible court–is that it forces our movement to kind of refocus on legislative solutions. And not just passing new laws that are affirming but undoing some bad laws that are still on the books.
I mean, there are sodomy laws on the books. Maryland still has a sodomy law. They just repealed it a week ago. And the governor has said he’s going to sign it, but he hasn’t yet. But technically, right now, today, Maryland, like the bluest of blue states, has a sodomy law in the books. And if they go after the Lawrence decision, then those existing laws that ban sodomy, that ban gay marriage, all those come back into play if these rulings get overturned.
So, I think we’ve got to be prepared, unfortunately, for Obergefell to go down. And what we can do now is prepare for that and make sure that we’re working to scrub those state laws barring marriage equality from the books.
NIO: Let’s end on a joyful note. Can you tell me a few of your favorite joyous moments you’ve covered so far in your career?
KN: Oh, gosh, joyous moments. Well, the one that comes immediately to mind is the first White House Pride reception in 2009. Total joy! Obama was inaugurated in January of ’09, and then a few months later in June, he held the first White House Pride reception. It wasn’t a huge group–it was maybe like 200 people or so–and I got invited. People were really nervous because we’d never been invited inside the White House before. When we got there, and I think the story might be in the book, but we got there and there’s Madonna music playing and everybody’s drinking Cosmos, you know, little pink cocktails. And so, it was like a totally surreal moment to be in the White House hearing “Vogue” and drinking a Cosmo.
And then the president came out and Michelle was with him, and he starts his speech. The very first words that he said, and I mean, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, he said, “Welcome to your house.” I mean, it was like chills, you know. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. And none of us had… we never thought about it as our house. We were used to protesting in front of that house, or many of the people there chained themselves to the fence and had gotten arrested at that house, so we never thought of it that way. And in that moment, in those first few words, I mean, I knew that we were on the cusp of transformative change. And the fact that it was the country’s first Black president that was welcoming us, it just was such a powerful moment.