Political reporter Jeff Schmalz hid his sexual orientation from co-workers at The New York Times until the day he collapsed from an AIDS-related brain seizure in the newsroom. After he rallied, Schmalz came out as gay and spent his final years covering the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s.
“This was an era when mainstream news organizations were tragically slow to report not just AIDS but gay life in general,” said Samuel G. Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School in New York. “Jeff was such a change agent.”
Tuesday and Wednesday, Freedman and producer Kerry Donahue, director of Columbia’s radio program, will be in South Florida to talk about Schmalz and their recent book, Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times.
“So much progress has been made on marriage equality and other LGBTQ issues, that it's really easy to forget how much struggle preceded these breakthroughs,” Freedman said. “It’s such a sea change from the 1980s when that [AIDS] diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence. It’s wonderful to appreciate the progress both socially and medical, but it’s vital that the history be preserved before it’s forgotten. Jeffrey Schmalz’s story gets into interrelated strands of that history.”
Schmalz, 39, died Nov. 6, 1993, nearly three years after he collapsed in The Times newsroom.
“Part of the price of his ascent at The Times, Mr. Schmalz long believed, was that he hide his homosexuality from at least some of his superiors,” according to Schmalz’s Times obituary. “But after his illness became known, and with his sexual orientation no longer a secret, he became an eloquent spokesman for the frustrations of people with AIDS and an outspoken supporter of equal rights for gay people.”
Freedman and Donahue will make two South Florida appearances.
The first will be Tuesday afternoon at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus, where they will speak with journalism and LGBT students about Schmalz and the book.
Wednesday night, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Wilton Manors will present a public conversation about Schmalz, gay journalism and HIV reporting.
“It’s fascinating and very good work,” Emery Grant, Stonewall’s community engagement director, said of Dying Words.
Audience members will not just hear from Freedman and Donahue, but from Schmalz himself.
Schmalz’s sister, Wendy, provided Freedman and Donahue with his original microcassettes used to record early ‘90s interviews with AIDS activists including playwright Larry Kramer, basketball star Magic Johnson, and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts.
Freedman and Donahue used excepts from Schmalz’s recordings to also produce an NPR radio documentary heard nationally in late 2015. Portions of the recordings will be played during the South Florida presentations.
“Who Jeff was and what he did deeply changed The New York Times, sensitizing it as never before to the humanity of gay people,” according to a Dying Words news release. “The Times of today – publishing same-sex wedding announcements, editorializing in favor of marriage equality — is the fruition of changes that Jeff helped set into motion but never lived long enough to fully see.”
If you go
▪ What: Samuel G. Freedman and Kerry Donahue discuss their book, Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times
▪ Where: Stonewall National Museum, Wilton Manors Gallery, 2157 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors
▪ When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 2
▪ More information: The event is free, refreshments provided. www.stonewall-museum.org