Hometown Newspaper: Proud of Me, Not Proud I’m Gay

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A couple disclaimers before I say anything. I made it clear when I started this blog it would not be about my personal life. This post is an exception to that, and I will be discussing my hometown, current events in my life, and my own feelings about these issues.

Let me tell you a little bit about Newport, PA and Perry County. I don’t like living here. It’s part of my past that I cannot change, but who I am now is—by no accident or coincidence—fairly antithetical to “PeCo” culture (although “Howdy” and “ya’ll” persist in my vernacular). For most of my life, Perry County was one of only two counties in Pennsylvania with no traffic lights. (That only changed in the last two months when the first was installed; people are still upset about it.) The population is 98% white, and only 11% of people over the age of 25 have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Of the 72 classmates I graduated from high school with, I was one of only five pursuing a college degree outside of Pennsylvania. In 2004, no county in PA voted for Rick Santorum for Senator with a higher margin of support than Perry. PeCo unsurprisingly has significant populations of evangelical Christians as well as Amish.

It’s not a bad place. The people are generally quite nice, actually. It’s just not where a socialist, atheist, gay activist with a Master’s degree in Higher Education wants to hang out.

There is a wonderful local organization called the Perry County Council of the Arts (PCCA). They do a lot of great work to support arts, music, and culture, and I did much work with them growing up. I performed (and even showed art once or twice) at the annual Youth Art Day event and I volunteered for the annual Festival of the Arts held at our beautiful local state park, Little Buffalo. When they learned I was back in the region, they wanted to find a way to feature my musicianship, especially because they recently restored a gorgeous Bechstein piano that I can assure you is quite a joy to play.

I told them solo recitals aren’t for me; I specialize in vocal coaching and accompaniment. Thus, I sort of let myself get roped into putting together a Cabaret show. We’ve recruited some singers who I have been working with and we’ll just have a fun night of musical theatre merriment on St. Patty’s Day. I love the opportunity to make music and PCCA gets to show off their piano and have a fresh new event.

Last week, the folks I’m working with at PCCA asked me to provide a bio; they wanted to submit an article to the local newspaper (The News-Sun) to promote the event but also to highlight me and what I’ve been doing with my life. I can write a million different versions of a bio, so I made sure to get clarification that they, in fact, wanted me to include details about the non-musical direction my life has taken. They did, and all the better, because I’m sure every person at the event will ask me why I’m not doing music, complete with that profound (annoying) disappointment in their voice that I’m wasting such a precious “gift.”

So, I wrote a bio in a way that could easily fit into the local paper. I used the word “blessed.” I highlighted my work as a church organist, something I’m not particularly proud of and won’t do again. But I also talked about student affairs, social justice, and why I had left music to pursue this new career path. The folks at PCCA preserved almost all of what I provided and I proofread the final version of the article that was submitted.

What appeared in the paper this week did not match, and I’m kind of upset about it. Here is how it appeared in the paper, and below is the text of the original article, where I’ve highlighted all of the text that was cut. Text in brackets was added.

St. Patrick’s Day, Wednesday March 17th, will be celebrated in grand musical style with a special Cabaret Night at the Perry County Council of the Arts Landis House, 67 North Fourth St, in Newport.

The show is under the direction of Newport’s own Zack Ford who will [also] be at the piano.  There’s never been any doubt that Ford knew how to tickle the ivories. From his contributions to band, chorus, and musicals at Newport High School, to Youth Art Day performances, to Easter Sunday at Hope Eternal United Methodist Church where “Jesus Christ Superstar” roared from the organ pipes, Newport was blessed by Ford’s musical talent until he headed off to college.

At Ithaca College, Ford honed his piano skills accompanying several main-stage musicals as well as the Ithaca College[‘s] Chorus and many vocal and instrumental soloists.  These experiences confirmed that his true musical passion was not virtuosic solo-playing but collaboration with other musicians. He graduated in 2007 with a degree in Music Education.

Surprisingly, Ford is not teaching music these days.  While at Ithaca, he came out as gay, an experience which opened his eyes to many aspects of social justice he felt he could not address to his satisfaction as a music teacher.   He went on to earn a Master’s degree in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Iowa State University, combining his love of teaching with his passion for social justice.  “I love helping young people grow,” Ford says, “and in a university setting I can truly help students grow as citizens of the world through leadership development and social justice training.  It’s amazing to get to do this kind of work.”

Ford also has channeled his passion for activism into writing through his online blog, simply titled “ZackFord Blogs.”  He writes regularly about religion, education, and issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

Currently, Ford is back in the area and again offering his talents to the community as he showcases many fabulous local singers, among them [Local singers performing at the cabaret include] Betsy Moyer, Morgan Sheaffer, and Katie Irwin.  Join them and others for an evening of merriment and musical theatre with rousing selections from contemporary musicals including “Wicked” and “The Wild Party”.  As Ford says, “I know folks who come to the cabaret will have a good time because we performers are there to do just that.”

The program begins at 7 pm, with drinks ($2 each) and finger food available from 6 o’clock on [beginning at 6].  Seats that guarantee seeing as well as hearing the performers are $5 per person.  Standing room is $2.50.  [To make reservations, readers may call 567-7023.To order call the Arts Council at 567-7023. Tickets are limited so hurry, hurry, hurry!  For an evening of music and fun, Come To The Cabaret!

A lot was cut, and not for good reason. There is no reason a boring headshot picture had to be the same size as the article itself.

It seems to me The News-Sun was doing what it could to censor my identity. I expected them to cut the blog paragraph, but to cut my explanation for leaving music takes away from what the PCCA wanted the article to be. My guess is the editors cut a whole lot more of the character of the piece just so they could make the picture span the column and leave out all of the stuff they didn’t want Newport readers to see.

He’s gay? That won’t do.

AND, they misspelled my name in the totally unnecessary caption.

Yes, this is a microaggression. No, in the big scheme of my life, it’s not a big deal. Yes, I’m glad there was an article profiling the Cabaret and I definitely want it to be a successful event for the community.

But yes, I’m pissed that this happened. I’m pissed that my hometown would be eager to claim me but not all of me. I’m pissed that the only way I can be celebrated is if I’m back in the closet like I was growing up here.

Writing this blog post is enough for me to feel better about it. When I first posted about this on Facebook last night, I got very supportive responses from my high school classmates, which I appreciate greatly. I don’t need to write a letter to the editor about it; I don’t want to take the focus away from the Cabaret. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the theme of the Cabaret is going to be “freedom and escape” and I intend to make the most of it.

“Freedom” describes pretty well the feeling I have when I “escape” Perry County.

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There are 9 Comments to "Hometown Newspaper: Proud of Me, Not Proud I’m Gay"

  • Buffy says:

    What a shame.  I can understand why you’d want to escape such an oppressive place.

  • Sam says:

    Hey buddy,
    I was really sorry to hear about this, its really too bad. I have to say that moving away from there is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. Even if I end up doing nothing with myself (which I won’t) at least I won’t be doing it there. Good luck with the show, and I hope you get an opportunity to share a little bit about yourself that the readers might not expect…

  • Esther Pinkerton Frost says:

    I’m sad that I’ll miss your show, it would have been such a treat.  And I’m disgusted that Perry County hasn’t changed in the decade that I’ve been gone, and yet, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  It looks like I’ll be back some time soon, unfortunately, but perhaps we can catch up… I’d love to hear that Bechstein!  And if you have any suggestions for places or groups where a vocalist can stretch their chords, I’d love to hear them.  It’s been a while since I’ve had a good workout!

  • Scote says:

    I was ready to completely agree with you when I read the summary of your post in my RSS reader. But reading the edition version makes me less so. The edited version comes off more like a news paper write up and less like a self absorbed press release. I think the edits actually make for some improvements over the original.

    I don’t know if your hometown paper is ashamed of your sexual orientation. There is a good chance that they are. I just assume they don’t want to go there for anybody, which is too bad. But given the other edits, removing the bits about you sexual preference and activism are consistent with those edits for space.

  • Jane T Doe says:

    Well… to be honest, I agree with Scote. I can’t really fault the paper in this instance. GLAAD’s own media guidelines include “A person’s sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story,” and they’re very right to do so.
    While the people you’re working with may have asked you to include non-musical directions your life has taken, this isn’t the same as the paper asking for these and then cutting them out once they saw a mention of being gay. What was submitted was a mash-up of a human interest story about you and an announcement of the Cabaret Night. That angle really just doesn’t work. The best they could’ve done is to separate it into a blurb about the event (which is exactly what the redacted version seems to be – even their listing of your credentials is a little surprisingly long, tbh) and a separate story about you. I’d have made all the non-4th-paragraph cuts myself, reduced that quite a bit as well for space and consistency with journalistic style, and then… well, there just isn’t much material for anything besides a short thing on social justice work, and even then, mentioning that you’re gay still seems a bit out-of-the-blue.
    I trust your much-better-informed judgement of your town newspaper, but honestly, this isn’t a great example – even an extremely non-heterocentrist news source would have probably done the same thing. However, I agree that their decision not to do some sort of separate piece about you was certainly motivated by, at the very least, the thought “nope, our readers wouldn’t like to see this.”

  • ZackFord says:

    And Scote, I really want to agree with you. And I do think some of the edits were appropriate! But from an editing point of view, there was not a space need to make all of those cuts. There is no way that picture had to be that big—it didn’t have to be there at all, nor did the caption that went with it. The editor thought it was more important the picture take up the whole column and have a caption and so edited out as much as was necessary to fit the article in the remaining space.

    And while I’m personally most bothered by the apparent censorship of my identity, I’m also bothered by the way the character of the piece was eliminated. I don’t speak for PCCA, but if I were PCCA, I’d be just as bothered by everything else that was cut out that effectively set the tone for what will be a unique evening in Newport, PA.

    I don’t expect us all to agree, but it’s only improved as a different article, with a different tone and different intent.

  • Wade Fowler says:

    I regret the misspelling of your name in the caption.
    I stand by the other edits.
    Your sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with the matter at hand which was to publicize the upcoming cabaret.
    Wade Fowler
    The News-Sun

  • Oh please says:

    I have to agree with everyone who disagrees with you. While your company may have thought it would be nice to include information on you, the newspaper’s agenda was obviously not the same. Jumping to the conclusion that it was obviously because you are gay is pretty narrow minded, I must say. The newspaper cut it down to the bare minmum, gave the facts, and left it at that. You don’t know their space requirements. You keep harping on about the size of the picture, but what it comes down to is that they just wanted to give the FACTS and didn’t care about your life story – that was the tone the newspaper was going for. If you don’t like it, start your own newspaper.

  • Anonymous Woman says:

    I know this is an old post, but I had something to say. I am a woman who has lived in Perry County all her life and I am very much involved with the youth of our community so what I am about to say is valid. Most of the people in Perry County (excluding the Amish community) are unsaved/unchurched people and I know gays and lesbians (and bi’s) in the schools (they aren’t hiding in closets, in fact, they’re quite open about it).
    This is concerning the broader range of your blogs. What bothers me is that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, blacks, and women (women maybe not so much as the other groups but they still do) are ALWAYS victimizing themselves and you are one of them. It’s like you want us to feel bad for you all the time. Let’s just throw everyone who feels hurt a pity party. Oh, and don’t forget to bash the Christians because they are so high and mighty. (Why don’t you get to know some real Christians, it might change your mind.)
    About the newspaper, I don’t think the newspaper did wrong. I have to agree with everyone else about that.

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