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The day before we spoke, Lou Chibbaro Jr. warned me he might be late for our meeting. He would be spending that morning in a District courtroom where the woman accused of stabbing David Messerschmitt to death would enter her guilty plea. The case had a bizarre twist: The woman allegedly posed as a man to rob Messerschmidt, who had responded to a Craigslist ad asking to meet for sex. “Lesbian Posing As Gay Man Killed Closeted Married Lawyer During Fake Hookup” went the headline on Queerty, but Chibbaro’s reporting on the story carried his signature, even tone.
“It was sad,” he told me, recounting the murdered man’s wife sobbing in the courtroom. Chibbaro has spent four decades covering stories like this—as well as LGBTQ civil rights, the AIDS epidemic, and local issues—for and about D.C.’s gay community.
We sat down recently in the Blade’s 14th Street NW office to discuss areas where the mainstream media falls short on covering LGBTQ stories, why D.C. still needs a gay newspaper, and the stories that have stuck with him through decades of reporting.
The interview has been condensed and reordered for clarity.
You’re coming from the [David] Messerschmidt hearing, where the accused entered her guilty plea. What’s the draw of that story for you? Why are you covering that for the Blade?
Because it essentially amounted to a gay pickup murder. It’s this situation I’ve covered for many years. This was unique in that it was a woman accused of it. It’s the first known time ever.
What a bizarre case.
That’s right. The MO is something that’s sadly victimized gay men, mostly, for many years. A lot of the gay rights organizations have put out alerts and warnings over the years for people to be careful. The main scheme is that you meet somebody and trick them into having them invite you home. The motive often is robbery… In this particular case it was sad because he was married and his wife was in the courtroom crying as the prosecutor had to outline what exactly happened and the gory details of the stabbing. So it was very sad.
Do you think D.C. still needs a gay newspaper?
I think it does because the mainstream press, as we often call them, aren’t focused solely on on the LGBT community. I think [coverage has] gotten a lot better by many of them. The Washington Post, of course, has a [large] news staff when they want to direct their coverage to something specifically. If it’s a gay breaking story—for example, the same-sex marriage issue and the pending Supreme Court decision that we’re all waiting for in June—they can devote a dozen reporters. I’m a little jealous because we have nowhere near those resources, but in fairness I think the coverage has gotten better, although they still don’t focus on stuff that we often report on that happens to the community.
Are there places where the mainstream media consistently falls short in reporting on the LGBTQ community?
I think again that’s changing quite a bit now. In some cases we’ve criticized the Post because for years and years they often would not report that somebody involved in something was even gay because there might have been a concern of “outing” even if the people were out. That’s changing, though, I think, in recent years. I’m guessing they have a good amount of gay reporters now, and they’re in touch with the community and know which buttons to push to get coverage.
Are there places where you’re concerned gay Washingtonians are still getting squeezed out?
D.C. is, as a lot of the activists will say, ahead of many other places, certainly [ahead of] the so-called red states. The places you hear where certainly more needs to be done is with the transgender community. Transgender activists say that even though they’re protected by law under the D.C. Human Rights Act, there are still areas of discrimination and some police harassment. Police have changed quite a bit but there are still some vestiges of discrimination. The main thing is it’s hard to find employment for some transgender people and some, because of that, have to resort to survival things like sex work and that leads to victimization and crimes on the street. We’ve been reporting that there are now at least two homes for homeless LGBT people—particularly for transgender people—that have recently opened, where the people who operate them are sensitive to the special needs of that population.
We [currently] have no openly gay councilmembers. What do you think about that?
There’s two arguments on that: One is that virtually everyone on the Council is very, very supportive of LGBT rights and [the winning candidates] ran on that when they ran, but still it’s thought that it’s good to have somebody at the table from the community itself. So there is some concern that there is a lack of LGBT people on the Council for the first time now in 18 years, I believe it is. That’s offset a little bit, the supporters say, by Mayor Bowser, who has appointed possibly a record number of LGBT people to high-level positions in her administration, including the first that we know of in Washington—an out lesbian deputy mayor and two [gay] heads of cabinet-level offices… [But] I don’t think anyone is fearful that the tone of the whole city Council is going to go negative, because that’s not the case.
What next for gay rights locally?
I think locally again the transgender stuff is on the agenda. One thing that you can do is go on GLAA.org’s website—they have a list of a number of pending bills that impact the LGBT community, but they’re not solely for the LGBT community. It has to do with things like adoption reforms to better accommodate gay couples who adopt children, and there’s the technicalities of artificial insemination. I was astonished to learn that in D.C. it’s still illegal in certain aspects for couples, not only gay couples, but… for some technical reason it’s not fully legal in D.C. These are sort of issues that go beyond just gay-only issues, but they impact the community, so those are the kinds of things on the agenda.
That’s shocking to hear, because I always assume that because D.C. is so progressive in other ways, that seems like such a strange, regressive policy.
That’s right. And there are things that recently passed that affected the transgender community and we’ve been reporting them, about allowing a birth certificate to be legally changed—when someone transitions their gender, a birth certificate is needed because it’s different gender than what you are and you run into all sorts of problems.
What are some stories that have really stuck with you in your years of reporting?
There’s such a wide range of them. One was a case of a murder of a gay man, it was sort of a pickup murder. But it just so happened (this was more of an unusual one) that the accused person had some ties to the gay community—he was a stripper, actually, at one of the clubs. He confessed to the murder in a private group of people, one of whom was a young man who wound up in jail for unrelated reasons. He was not implicated in the murder, but he had a drug problem and he had [committed] petty robberies to support a drug habit and so forth. A year after the murder, when [police] were still investigating, he called me from jail, amazingly, and said, “I overheard this guy say this. What should I do?”
I talked about it with the [Blade] editors, [and we decided] we’ll do what we always do, we’ll do a story on it, and if we do a story on this, we have to call the police and the prosecutors for comment. So we did, and that led to the [suspect’s] arrest, and this person was to be the star witness… He was out of jail and he was living with his grandmother or something in southern Virginia. [The court] paid his way to D.C. and put him up in a hotel. The next thing we learned from the police is he was found dead in the hotel room. And it appears to be an overdose of drugs, you know he was put through the mill by the defense—“Did you really see this?” you know—on cross-examination. He went through a very emotional situation. But he was a hero in coming forward. They got a [manslaughter] conviction [for the murder]. That [story] impacted me. It still does.
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.