"I've always felt like objectivity is a province of people who don't have to fight to be seen fully," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas said to me this summer in a conversation at The Advocate's office in Los Angeles. "I was never privileged enough to be objective."
Vargas, who is not only gay but also an undocumented American who was sent to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12, knows better than most the truth of this sentiment. But even so, he frequently refers to himself as "the most privileged undocumented immigrant in the country."
He's probably right.
Before Vargas came out as undocumented in a lengthy, first-person essay in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, his reporting won a Pulitzer Prize as part of The Washington Post's coverage of the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech. By most journalists' standards, that's a substantial achievement that might prompt some to rest on his or her laurels.
But even then, Vargas says he was doing a delicate dance in the newsroom to avoid coming off too emphatically on a given issue, worried it might give away the secrets he'd tried so hard to keep.
"I grew up in journalism in the Blair era, where if you're a person of color in a newsroom, you can't fuck up, you can't make a mistake," Vargas recalls, referencing the 2003 resignation of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who fabricated and plagiarized dozens of stories before eventually being found out by the Times.
"I was just so paranoid of making mistakes, and corrections," continues Vargas. "It's one of those things where I had to be noticed, but not too noticed. I was hiding in plain sight."
When the Post was covering the scandal around former U.S. senator Larry Craig — of bathroom "foot-tapping" infamy — Vargas recounted the moment when he had to confront a colleague about homophobic jokes that offended him personally as a gay man.
It's moments like that where being an LGBT journalist comes with an intricate and none-too-clear web of intersecting identities that makes strict impartiality all but impossible.
For example, it's impossible to be objective when I, as a queer person, report on the violence foisted upon the community I call my own. These types of stories hit home in a way that may not be as likely to arise for a straight person reporting on general crime — even if someone was shot in the neighborhood that reporter called home.
Indeed, as the news director at the nation's oldest continually published LGBT publication, I often point out that I don't have to be strictly objective. When I'm reporting about the National Organization for Marriage's latest harebrained scheme to stand in the way of legal marriage equality, I don't have to ask for a comment from NOM president Brian Brown. This publication is based on the idea that equality is a given. Simply by virtue of this publication's name, my colleagues and I are indicating that we will be fair, but we are not impartial on the question of equality.
We strive to live up to the name of our publication, to truly be advocates for inclusion, visibility, and acceptance of the full range of identities encompassed under the big rainbow umbrella that spans our LGBTQIAA community.
But I refuse to believe that such empathy, such personal conviction to the stories we cover, in any way undermines my journalistic integrity. In my experience, the people drawn to journalism tend to be truth-seekers who want free and equal access to honest information. That's especially true for us queer journalists. We're just working to share what we know to be the reality in the face of a larger culture that, at best, agrees to "tolerate" us. I don't believe that makes me any less of a journalist. But it might make others call me a bit of an activist.
Vargas is no longer on staff at one particular publication, and because he has become increasingly outspoken in his call for comprehensive, compassionate relief for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., he is often labeled an "activist" and not a "journalist."
When Vargas was detained by border patrol agents in July for attempting to leave the border town of McAllen, Texas, without a U.S. visa in his Philippine passport, media outlets seemed confused about how to properly label him. Vargas had been invited to McAllen by the immigrant group, United We Dream, and was assisting a film crew in documenting the conditions in which refugee children fleeing violence in Central and South America are held while they are processed by immigration officials.
The New York Times, which published Vargas's historic first-person essay publicly announcing his undocumented status, called Vargas an "immigrant activist" in its headline. CNN, which aired Vargas' autobiographical documentary in June, identified Vargas as "the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-activist." Politico, which would later publish Vargas's first-person account of his detention, similarly called him a "former reporter and undocumented immigrant." By contrast, the Los Angeles Times referred to Vargas as a "prominent journalist and immigration activist" in the lead sentence of its story about his detention.
For our part, we just named Vargas among the 50 most influential LGBT people working in mainstream media — so it's pretty clear what we consider to be his foundational credentials.
As Vargas so effectively demonstrates, being a journalist does not preclude one from being an activist. The terms aren't mutually exclusive. Certainly, journalists are — rightly — held to a higher standard of accountability than the general public or perhaps even than a typical activist might be. But that elevated standard, that reverence for truth and commitment to seeking out the whole story, is a strength that can be leveraged for more effective activism, not less.
"This is a very careful needle I'm trying to thread," Vargas explains. "What I really had to get comfortable with is the fact that I have no control over what people call me: advocate, activist."
Vargas acknowledges that since revealing his highly personal stake in ongoing debate over immigration reform, he has become part of the story he is trying to tell.
"It's funny because many people refer to me now as 'the former journalist,'" he continues, stifling a scoff. "But there are so many op-ed columnists who opine about their views and it's very clear where they're coming from, and they're 'journalists.' They're often straight white men, but when it's a gay person or a person of color or a woman, it's called having an agenda, and having a bias."
As journalists, we are trained not to allow ourselves to become part of the story. It's a fundamental lesson, etched into the minds of most budding reporters early in their first formal journalism class. But, when does that become a disservice to your readers?
Especially with the proliferation of readily available opinions, reports, and citizen journalists, there is no dearth of information offering alternative perspectives to what may be a less-than-impartial story about LGBT issues. In fact, well-funded organizations like GLAAD and Media Matters exist primarily to push back on inaccurate, problematic media representations of LGBT people. And right-wing groups have long been collecting and reporting on the so-called unholy offenses and blatant disregard for "traditional morality" embodied by the very existence of queer people.
So, provided that my reporting — and that of my colleagues — is indeed accurate, that we still fact-check our stories and seek comment from the relevant parties involved, I refuse to believe I'm committing some dereliction of my duty by deciding which stories to report and being thoughtful in how to tell them.
In fact, as a senior editor at a national publication, who got her degree in magazine journalism and minored in LGBT studies, I consider it my fundamental responsibility to elevate the voices of those in my community who aren't being heard. It is a privilege — albeit sometimes a heavy one — to have the access to the audience reading this piece right now. And as a de facto representative and proud member of this community, it is indeed my responsibility to offer up these stories for not only the edification of the world around us, but also with the intent of pushing our community in a direction that is more compassionate, inclusive, and unified.
I readily admit that I inhabit a privileged status in this community. It's encapsulated not only by my position at The Advocate, but also in the reality that I am a white woman who happens to be married to a white transgender man, often rendering us "straight" to the uninformed eye, that I grew up a U.S. citizen in a middle-class urban environment with parents who accepted my queer identity, and that I had opportunities for education that brought me to where I am professionally. I am incredibly fortunate. I am also determined to use that privilege to leverage the voices of those who haven't been afforded the same opportunities I have. It is my honor — but even more, I believe it is my responsibility — to strive to be an ally to those individuals and communities, to offer them my support, and to amplify their messages and experiences. Even when that means getting out of the way and letting those who have lived the challenges speak for themselves.
So my writing, along with those pieces I edit and choose to publish, will continue to push an agenda— you can call it the radical queer agenda if you like — that calls for true civil and social equality for all people; regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, age, nationality, class, gender, educational level, or religious affiliation.
And you can be damn sure I won't be validating the opinions of those who would seek to oppress us with the dignity of a request for comment.
SUNNIVIE BRYDUM is the news director for The Advocate. A native Coloradan, she graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a degree in magazine journalism. Along with freelance photographer D. David Robinson, she was recently honored with a GLAAD Media Award and an NLGJA award for Excellence in Photojournalism for a series profiling LGBT Ugandans.