In the 1970s Roy found a way to combine his journalistic acumen with his commitment to social change and passion for racial equality. A Washington Post colleague invited him to join an effort to train minority journalists and educate mainstream media executives on hiring from this untapped talent pool. As a result, minority groups began to be covered more accurately and extensively. The work evolved into the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, and Roy played a significant role in its founding and operations. The same motivation later led him to write the libretto for an opera, “Monticello,” which portrays the interracial affair between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
While working at the Post, Roy Aarons never shared his gay identity with colleagues. Only years later did he harness his passion for equality and journalistic expertise to effect a sea change in the way American media covers its gay communities and LGBT issues.
In 1989 the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) asked Roy to coordinate a first-ever attitudinal study of gay and lesbian journalists. The responses, from 250 print journalists, affected him deeply, revealing that most gays and lesbians were closeted in their newsrooms. An overwhelming majority said coverage of gay issues was “at best mediocre.” Fewer than 60 percent had told colleagues about their sexual orientation; fewer than 7 percent felt their working environments were good for gays.
Preparing to present the findings at ASNE’s national convention in 1990, Roy realized that to be fully honest he must disclose his own identity. His emotional coming out that day was a bombshell, and a watershed, for the industry. Gay and lesbian journalists, who had no advocacy group, began contacting him immediately. Four months after his speech Roy convened six journalists in his dining room to launch the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). He became its first president, modeling its mission after the Maynard Institute’s, and held that post until 1997.
In 1992 NLGJA’s first conference took place in San Francisco. “For the first time… you had 300 gay and lesbian journalists meeting openly together to talk about issues that have plagued and undermined and damaged an entire class of people for centuries,” Roy recalled. When New York Times‘ Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. spoke to them via video about same-sex benefits and the importance of hiring gay journalists, people in the audience wept openly.
Roy served on NLGJA’s board until his death in 2004, when the organization counted 1,200 members in 24 chapters nationwide. More recently, his activism fueled a successful crusade for journalism schools to include gay issues in their diversity training.