San Diego The brutal -- and ultimately fatal -- beating of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, shocked the nation last October after the event was reported by NBC, AP, and other media. But Shepard's murder might have remained a local story in Wyoming if it hadn't been for veteran gay journalist Rex Wockner and the Internet mailing list he operates out of his home in San Diego.
Wockner, who has been writing freelance articles for the gay press since 1985 and has syndicated them since 1988, can't recall precisely who on his mailing list posted the Shepard story after a local TV station in Wyoming broadcast it. But he remembers what happened to the item after that.
"I got wind of it and sent out a link to a news story about it early on the morning when I got the tip," Wockner said. "Larry Kramer, the noted playwright and activist in New York -- the guy who founded ACT UP -- got my tip and immediately called Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. That caused Brokaw's producers to pull the story from the wires a second time, take a closer look at it, and hand it to Brokaw. This influenced NBC's decision to cover the story and caused Wired News to write an article describing this scenario, which caused the Dallas Morning News to quote me in something they wrote about Matthew Shepard, and yada yada yada."
Wockner's career in lesbian/gay journalism began in 1985 when he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. He started with an opinion column in Chicago's Windy City Times and then moved into feature writing and interviewing, placing articles in gay papers in New York and Toronto as well as Chicago. Among the people he interviewed were congressmen Barney Frank and Gerry Studds, the first openly gay members of the House of Representatives. "Either I was in Washington or they were passing through Champaign-Urbana, one or the other," Wockner said.
In 1988 the editor of another gay publication in Chicago, Outlines, offered Wockner a job as a national and international beat reporter. But she only offered him $13,000 a year. "I told her I couldn't live on it, and one or the other of us came up with the idea that since I was going to be doing national/international stuff for her paper, why didn't I try to syndicate it to a few other big-city gay papers."
Wockner ran his syndication operation himself. At first he had to copy his articles and mail them to his subscribers. Later he got a fax machine, "but I still had to manually feed it through the fax machine to all 50 papers. Eventually e-mail came along and my life was massively simplified."
After five years of doing his own syndication, Wockner took a year off in 1993 "with the goal of finding a warm city to live in," he said. "That's how I ended up in San Diego."
Wockner found another reason to stay in San Diego in 1995 when he met and fell in love with Jess Durfee, a vacationer from Portland, Oregon, with a strong interest in political activism. Durfee settled in San Diego in the fall of 1995, and he and Wockner have been partners ever since. Durfee helped organize the gay demonstrations against the Republican National Convention in San Diego in August 1996, and with the contacts he made doing that he formed a gay political organization called Voices for Justice. This group was instrumental in persuading the San Diego City Council to repeal the city's law against cross-dressing in July 1998 and now plans to work on getting the city government to create a domestic-partners registry in San Diego through which unmarried couples could record their relationships officially.
Legal recognition of same-gender relationships is an issue on which Wockner has long been interested as a journalist. In 1989, as part of a series he was doing for Outlines, he and a male friend attempted to obtain a marriage license.
Since Wockner's actual partner at the time -- a doctoral student at Northwestern University -- wasn't willing to join in the action, he drafted a friend, gay columnist Paul Varnell.
While their case was still pending, Wockner went to Denmark and was in Copenhagen on October 1, 1989, to cover the world's first official same-sex wedding ceremonies. Though the Danish law did not allow gay and lesbian couples to marry exactly as heterosexual couples, it set up a strong form of legally recognized domestic partnership that gave same-sex couples all the rights of heterosexual married couples except the right to adopt children. Wockner was still in Denmark, on a trip funded by the papers that carried his column ("if 50 papers paid $25 to $35 each for an article, and another $10 for a picture, it was possible to go off and cover almost anything, anywhere," Wockner recalled), when Oprah Winfrey's producers called him to see if he and Varnell wanted to appear on her show to discuss the issue -- "which we refused to do because we were not a real couple," Wockner explained. "It was just a journalistic exercise for a column that I wrote once a month."
Wockner got criticism from gay community leaders for the marriage story. "We were way before our time," he said.
Six years later, after the first court rulings in Hawaii, Wockner took up a similar issue in San Diego. This time his target was the Reader and its policy of not allowing same-sex personal ads. Wockner was doing some local stories for the Gay & Lesbian Times under then-editor Jeri Dilno -- and he was surprised when he interviewed Reader editor-publisher Jim Holman for his story on same-sex personals.
"I ended up in a lengthy discussion with him about Catholic theology," Wockner said. "In my deep, dark past I was a Roman Catholic seminarian, and when he started talking about why he wouldn't run the ads, it was really apparent that that's where he was coming from. His basic position was that homosexuality is a sin, and as a sincere Catholic he did not want to be a party to the facilitation of more sin -- and letting gay people use the pages of his newspaper to facilitate their meeting each other would make him a party to the overall increase of sin in our society. That was his basic position."
Wockner's overall career changed significantly once he settled in San Diego. During the year he'd been off, the Associated Press had moved into the gay market with a service called AP Newsfinder, which covered gay community issues throughout the United States. Wockner found their material inadequate. But Wockner also saw that he had no way to compete with the AP, especially at the low prices they were charging gay community newspapers for the service.
Instead, Wockner focused on international gay news -- an area the AP still hadn't entered. Wockner syndicated a column of brief items of gay news from outside the United States, which now is up to 60 to 70 subscribers. He also re-established a feature called "Quote-Unquote," which is simply a collection of public statements made by various people on both sides of issues relating to the gay community, and sometimes covered big stories, "but nothing like I used to." In 1996 Wockner covered both the Republican and Democratic conventions for his syndicate, as well as that year's international AIDS conference in Vancouver. This year he covered the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists' Association convention in Las Vegas in October and the election of a lesbian to the congress in Mexico.
Wockner also founded the Internet mailing list that helped him break the Matthew Shepard story. "It goes to my editors and my friends," he explained. "It passes on tips, snippets, dirt, dish, rumors, speculation, and innuendo, as well as articles that appear in the gay papers that subscribe to it. It also provides hyperlinks and URLs to particularly interesting articles that are in the mainstream press and have popped up on their Web sites that day. It's something that I sit and do each morning, and it's just sort of become a piece of background out there in the Matthew Shepard story that somehow Rex Wockner's Internet mailing list was crucial in provoking the mainstream media to pay attention to the story right at the beginning of the first news cycle, right when the story had broken."
Unlike a lot of other San Diegans who've relocated from cities with a more intense activist history, Wockner likes it that way. "I had my fill of politics as a spectator sport in Chicago and San Francisco," Wockner said, "and I'm not sure any more gets accomplished in the long run by the crazy, out-of-control, wild-eyed politics you have in those two cities than by the kind of low-keyed background politics we have here. San Diego is a very functional city. San Francisco isn't."