DEB PRICE HAS HEARD IT ALL. SHE HAS been called a bitch by some readers and had others describe, with hostile relish, the sexual acts they imagine she enjoys. One correspondent began an angry letter to her with the salutation, “Hi, Freak of Nature.” As the first openly gay journalist writing weekly on homosexual issues for the mainstream press—her column appears weekly in the ultraconservative Detroit News and is syndicated to at least three dozen papers nationwide—Price, 35, has become a lightning rod for antigay fury. But she has also become a source of hope and pride for thousands of others, both gay and straight.
Price’s writings are not so much a political cri de coeur as an attempt to provide perspective on the day-today life of gay men and women. “From the beginning, I didn’t want to be a gay George Will or David Broder,” she says, sitting on the patio of her modest three-bedroom home in Takoma Park, Md. “My mission is to gel homosexuality away from controversy and have people see it as commonplace.”
So Price writes about the mundane: gays going to church, lesbians with breast cancer, a gay gardening club. But mostly her column is about the domestic life she shares with the woman she calls her spouse, Washington Post reporter Joyce Murdoch.
Their romance began eight years ago when Price and Murdoch, now 39, were both editors at the Post and neither was “out” in the newsroom. They courted on their computer screens, zapping flirtatious messages through cyberspace. How long did it take them to become serious? Price replies with a standard gay joke: “What does a lesbian bring on her second date? A U-Haul.”
While Murdoch has long been comfortable with her sexuality, for many years Price could not accept hers. Born in Texas, Price spent several years growing up in Colorado before her parents divorced. She moved to Washington in 1973 with her mother, Jane, a legal secretary, and her brother, Steve, now 39. Her first sexual relationship with another girl came when she was 16 and a student at a Washington girls’ school. Though no one ever confronted them, she feared she might be expelled. “I was so terrified of my own feelings I was scared to look up ‘homosexuality’ in the library’s card catalogue,” she says. One of Price’s columns discusses the discomfort of bringing “cover” dates to the prom. “It was a needlessly painful experience,” she says.
At one point during college at Stanford, Price lived with a woman, though few knew her true relationship with this “roommate.” But she still occasionally dated men. “I wanted so badly to ‘pass,’ ” she says.
Happily, life with Murdoch has helped Price enjoy an open lesbian relationship without fear of societal repercussions. The two regard the column as a joint project—their “little genius child,” as Murdoch puts it.
Predictably, some see this child as a demon seed. “A weekly homosexual column is one symptom of [the media’s] decline,” wrote Michigan state representative Dave Jaye in a letter to the News. “Will bondage columns be next?”
There have even been a few swipes from within the gay community. “I would urge Price to convey to straight readers how dangerous it sometimes feels to be lesbian or gay,” says Donna Minkowitz, a lesbian journalist at New York City’s Village Voice. “Getting that message across would do more for the movement than 100 columns letting straight readers know we have dogs and watch TV.”
Despite the criticism—and a few canceled subscriptions—News editor-publisher Bob Giles has stuck by Price, who started at the News’s Washington bureau in 1989. He believes gays should have a voice at his 365,000-circulation daily. “A lot of letter writers were preoccupied with the idea of gays as sexual predators,” he says. “I ask them to look at the lifestyle beyond sex.”
Giles’s support seems to have helped the column gain acceptance nationwide. It now reaches many small cities, such as Muskokee, Okla., and Springfield, Mo., where an openly gay voice is rarely, if ever, heard. The columnist is particularly proud of her following among young readers; as one 18-year-old lesbian wrote, “[You] give me a frame of understanding through which I’ve been able to see my culture, my pride and my identity…” Notes Price: “The greatest thing I can ever accomplish is to help somebody feel empowered enough to come out of the closet. Sure, it’s possible there will be pain and discrimination. But then again, because I’m out, I have the most incredible opportunity to reach people. This has been the most important lesson I’ve learned: Don’t let fear choose your path.”
SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington