In August of 1976, gay and lesbian members of Norfolk’s Unitarian Universalist church formed a branch of the Unitarian Universalist Gay Caucus (UUGC), and quickly decided that they needed a newsletter: Our Own Community Press was born.
We devote ourselves to the improvement of gay life through increased positive visibility. …We are not outwardly visible unless we allow ourselves to be… The gays who are confused, lack self-confidence, or question their unique lifestyle are gays who must be reached. They must be helped to realize whatever decisions they make for themselves cannot be labelled “good” or “bad” by virtue of a simple sexual preference. Gay is good when we first accept it for ourselves, and better when we educate the public with regard to our pride, productivity, and heritage.
Originally a newsletter, Its first issue was a single, one sided 8.5″ x 11″ sheet. Our Own Community Press changed to newspaper format in January of 1978. The paper was typed, edited, and assembled over a one week period every month by volunteers and staff. It was available for free, though readers could subscribe for a suggested donation. The paper also sold ad space to defray costs, and encouraged readers to “spend your gay money at gay businesses.”
In their coverage, the UUGC stayed true to their promise to provide visibility and hope to gay men and women in the region. In a time where positive gay representation in media was sorely lacking, Our Own Community Press took care to inform readers of new books, movies, or television programs that spoke to the gay experience. The UUGC also hosted a lecture series.
At the first, lesbian activist Barbara Gitting underscored what Our Own Community Press had published on its first ever front page. Gitting said, “We owe it to ourselves, the gay children of yesterday, to make better conditions for gay people right now…The gay movement has a message for Bryant and the others who would keep us hidden: We are here, we won’t disappear.” [Sept 1977, p.1]
The newspaper reported on national news that affected the gay community, including legal battles across the country and the work of anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant. Perhaps because of the paper’s location in Norfolk, particular attention was paid to cases where a service member was found to be gay and given a dishonorable discharge, such as the case of Ensign Vernon Berg, III, a naval officer who was dishonorably discharged in 1975.
In addition to community and national news, Our Own had regular features. Readers could submit photography and sketches, as well as poems and short stories to be featured in “The Muse.”
The publishers of Our Own Community Press were keenly aware of what a vital lifeline their paper was to members of the LGBT community. In the fall of 1977, the UUGC established the Gay Information Line, established so LGBT folks, even if isolated or closeted, could get information about where same sex marriages could be performed, where gender nonconforming individuals could safely purchase the clothing they wanted, and where to access legal help or counseling.
The back page of Our Own was a trove of information for the LGBT people of Tidewater in pre-internet and social media days. Each issue had a calendar of events and a directory of area LGBT groups and services.
Our Own was a valuable resource for the gay community, providing information that was difficult or even dangerous to obtain on one’s own, especially for those who were forced to remain closeted.
One of the regular features in Our Own was the “Health Corner.” This section addressed sensitive topics such as STIs, suicide, and alcoholism frankly. Our Own had medical professionals answer reader’s questions regarding sexual health, and when discussing alcoholism in the LGBT community, listed services and groups that were gay accepting should a reader decide to seek help.
When the AIDS crisis first unfolded, Our Own Community Press published informative articles, and did so in a more timely manner than many national papers.
The first mention of AIDS in Our Own was in June 1982. (AIDS did not make the front page of the New York Times until 1983.*)
In 1998, after twenty-two years, Our Own Community Press, then one of the oldest gay newspapers in the country, closed for financial reasons. Read more about Norfolk’s UUGC, in Our Own Community Press editor Jim Early’s and publisher Alicia Herr’s own words at Equality Virginia.
By Olin Johnson, Newspaper Project Intern
*David W. Dunlap, “1983: Having Claimed 558 Lives, AIDS Finally Made It to the Front Page,” The New York Times, October 30, 2014.