Former New York Post reporter Joseph Nicholson, often cited as the first openly gay reporter at a big-city daily, died Wednesday at age 71.
Nicholson, who worked for the Post from 1971 to 1993, began coming out to colleagues in the late 1970s and by 1980 was out to all his major editors, noted a 1990 American Society of Newspaper Editors report on gay people in journalism. He recognized the importance of coming out because of the increasingly antigay editorial stance at the Post after its purchase by Rupert Murdoch in 1976.
In 1980, after a gunman fired shots into a New York gay bar, killing two people and wounding several others, Nicholson offered his Post editors a story about his “reaction as a gay person,” according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The Post did not publish the piece, but the New York Native, a now-defunct gay weekly, ran an expanded version of it, according to Nicholson’s family. Another version later ran in CJR.
Nonetheless, his career thrived at the Post. “Rupert Murdoch’s Aussie and Brit editors arrived accepting stereotypes they had heard about homosexuals, and so I thought they should get to know an actual gay man who had been a standout player in high school football, a college rugby player, and a Navy officer, things I don’t think any of them had been,” Nicholson once wrote. “I have to say they responded magnificently and gave me some of their best assignments, and I had a lot of fun.”
Nicholson covered several high-profile trials — of Jean Harris for the murder of “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower; of Claus von Bulow for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny; of William Kennedy Smith for rape; and a civil proceeding involving Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. He also interviewed world leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Israel’s Ariel Sharon, and for several years was medicine and science editor.
He covered gay issues as well. “In 1993, during the height of debate on gays in the military, he wrote a first-person account on his experiences as closeted Navy officer when he served in the mid-1960s,” the Post notes in his obituary. Long before that, in 1971, one of the first stories he proposed and wrote for the Post was on antigay job discrimination and efforts to get the City Council to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance — which it finally did in 1986. His reporting on gay and AIDS issues brought the Post a GLAAD award in 1992. The advocacy organization had been founded partly in response to the paper’s earlier derogatory coverage of gay people and their concerns.
Nicholson also worked for the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, and Editor & Publisher, and freelanced for numerous publications. He wrote two books, Inside Cuba and A Woman Obsessed: The Murder Trial of Jean Harris.
Survivors include his husband, Sherwin T. Nicholson, and a sister, Katherine Nicholson Pendergast. The funeral will be held today at 9:30 a.m. at New York’s Church of the Holy Apostles, where he and his husband were married last year.