A picture worth a thousand bad words

A photo that accompanied a column in a neighborhood newspaper proved controversial on social media last week — and justifiably so.

The column in the Westside Observer was about state Sen. Scott Wiener’s proposed legislation to increase housing density near transit corridors. That’s a big issue on the Westside, where neighborhoods are primarily single-family homes, and many residents don’t want big buildings on their streets. The column described concerns and criticisms of the legislation.

However, it was accompanied by a prominently placed photo of Wiener that showed him shirtless, wearing a leather vest, with the caption: “State Senator Scott Wiener at Folsom St. Fair.”

Wiener had originally posted the photo on his Facebook page to show support for the leather community and for the fair, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities every year. But context is everything. The photo’s inclusion in this column seemed intended to embarrass or mock him. Especially with the caption referencing the fair, it seemed to scream, “This guy is not like us,” and, therefore, it’s OK to ignore him and his ideas.

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Keep in mind that, sadly, the western parts of The City have had a history of homophobia. In 2008, for example, nearly half the voters in some Westside precincts supported Proposition 8, a statewide ban on same-sex marriage.

When Joel Engardio ran as an openly gay candidate for District 7 Supervisor in 2016, the West Portal Monthly, another small neighborhood paper, seemed to go out of its way to let readers know Engardio had a husband. In an article about the candidates and their positions on the issues, no other married candidate (all straight men) was identified as having a wife. Only Engardio’s spouse was mentioned.

People who didn’t care about Engardio’s sexuality probably didn’t even notice the inequity; they didn’t “hear” it. But the identifier served as a subtle reminder for people uncomfortable with gays — a whistle intended only for those people — that the candidate was “one of them, not one of us.”

Many people, myself included, saw the Wiener photo in the Observer as a similar homophobic dog whistle.

The good news is that the Westside is changing. More gay couples and younger, socially liberal, straight families have moved into the neighborhoods. Engardio and his husband, Lionel Hsu, now live in a precinct where, 10 years ago, half the voters opposed his marriage.

And in 2016, Engardio, who proudly included Lionel’s picture on his campaign literature, came in a strong second in the election for supervisor against an incumbent, receiving 42 percent of the vote. Clearly, many people in District 7, straight or gay, considered the candidates’ positions on the issues more important than their sexuality.

Certainly, everyone I know and work with on the Westside has no issue with LGBTQ people.

Homophobic dog whistles may no longer work on the Westside.

Westside Observer publisher Mitch Bull has posted an apology on the paper’s Facebook page. He said the intent of the photo was not to promote homophobia but acknowledged many people interpreted it that way.

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Bull added the photo was chosen by editor Doug Comstock — not by the column author — who saw it as a “political jab” not a homophobic slight.

Most people, including the editor, would never include a nasty personal slur in an article about a politician’s position on an issue. Yet the editor chose a photo that many thought did the same thing. Comstock should have known better.

Smaller neighborhood newspapers are vitally important to our city. They cover local issues the larger papers ignore. They keep us up to date on what’s happening in our neighborhoods.

Hopefully, the editor (and others) will use this as a teachable moment — that they need to think more about what their words or photos may say to people, especially in the context of historical racism, sexism or homophobia, even if that is not their explicit intent.

“With this action, we failed all of you,” the Westside Observer publisher said in the apology. “It won’t happen again.”

Words matter. And a photo is worth a thousand words.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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