As a child of the 1980s and 90s, I struggled to understand what it meant to be gay. I had heard the perspective of my church, of course, but that message was not exactly positive.
There was no Google search and there weren’t any websites for me to turn to for advice, opinions or factual information about who gay people were. So like many of those from my generation, I relied on the books on my parents’ shelves and the resources at the local library. And when I would read those I felt as though I was in a spy novel, sneaking out whatever information I could in short bursts before my curiosity was discovered.
While I was able to learn a little, those resources only focused on the sexual acts of gay people and psychological studies. There was never any social context.
As I grew older I found some newspapers in mid-America that offered at least a few pages to the gay community. Remember, “LGBTQ” wasn’t even in use then. In college I would always pick up a copy of community papers to read about people with similar life paths as mine. That’s when I finally realized I wasn’t alone.
I wasn’t totally out at the time and reading those publications made me feel connected to other gay people, both men and women, at a time when I was still navigating my own road to self-acceptance. For a long time I was a silent member of a community that had its own history, traditions and perspective that was foreign to me.
Even when I decided on a career in journalism in my sophomore year of college, I never expected to be one of our community’s many voices.
When fate let me to Tampa Bay and gave me an opportunity to become a writer with Watermark in 2004, I always saw the job as way more than “just a job.” It was a passion and one that I enjoyed and fully invested my life in for more than 10 years.
As Watermark celebrates its impressive 25 years in an era of targeted discrimination that we haven’t seen in more than a decade, we should celebrate that a quality, local newspaper that gives a voice directly to the LGBTQ community still exists.
Times have certainly changed in many ways since the first issue was published in 1994. The paper had an entirely different staff, a different layout and a very different feel. But its mission then is the same as it is now, to provide a perspective into Florida’s LGBTQ community that can’t be found anywhere else.
It’s true that our community has “mainstreamed” in recent years. Television shows are dedicated to the drag community and episodes of dramas and comedies on network, cable and streaming TV have regular LGBTQ characters. Even mainstream publications now cover our Pride parades, our openly LGBTQ elected officials and document same-sex weddings and adoption issues.
But nothing can compare to the unique point of view that an LGBTQ-focused publication can provide.
Am I biased? Probably so.
During my decade with Watermark I had a unique opportunity to meet and work with a variety of people who keep the engine that is the LGBTQ community running. From board members of local organizations to bar owners who always provided a safe space for our community to gather, I was able to capture a part of the story that many may never get a chance to see.
There was plenty of drama, of course. When a major disagreement between a promoter and a performer went public, it was the duty of the newspaper to report it to the community in a way that was neutral in voice. When government entities would try to silence us by banning Gay Pride (little “g,” little “p”), I sat in the room and listened to the impassioned and angry pleas of the community fighting against the outright discrimination.
In a way, I had a front-row seat to a small portion Florida’s LGBTQ history timeline and it connected me to people who I still call friends and colleagues to this day, even though I am no longer employed by this remarkable publication.
As the LGBTQ community continues to make strides toward equality, even in an incredibly difficult and sometimes dark journey through the current political climate, I challenge its readers to stay with the paper and its dedicated staff of writers, photographers and advertisers. Without local LGBTQ publications and websites, a perspective would be lost that larger media companies just can’t provide.
I am always proud to tell people that I was once the editor of Watermark and have often bragged about some of the paper’s accomplishments, even if I was not directly involved.
Thank you to Tom Dyer, who started this paper, and those who have kept the paper running since I left in 2015. If I could offer just one piece of advice to those working at and writing for Watermark, it would be this: Even though technology has changed the way in which many people consume the news, remember that the mission of what you do is still as important as it was 25 years ago.
Somewhere there is a person who can’t be as connected as he or she would like to be with the LGBTQ community and the only outlet they may have is through the product you create. Continue to provide the best product you can to embrace those you may not even be able to see.
Congratulations on 25 years, Watermark!
Steve Blanchard is the former editor of Watermark and currently works in public relations. He lives in Tampa with his husband and their two dogs.