OUTstanding Virginians 2012

Nicholas Benton

Newspaperman

Nicholas Benton can make a credible claim that he was “born that way.” Gay, yes, but also a born newspaperman. He published his first newspaper at the age of seven. While still a teenager, he wrote for his hometown paper and then his college paper.

Good preparation for a journalism career, but this was California in the nineteen-sixties, and choosing a career was not the first thing on Nicholas’ mind.  The free speech, antiwar and civil rights movements were in full swing. Martin Luther King was alive and challenging the status quo. Nicholas, a graduate student in Theology at Berkeley, latched onto Dr. King’s statement that “your oppressor can’t hold you down if you are standing up proud, tall and straight” and saw the connection to his own struggle for dignity and equality. “To me, those words meant I did not have to conform to society’s demand that I act in a way that lacks integrity,” Nicholas says. And integrity, in his worldview, was a cornerstone of his concept of faith.

Accordingly, Nicholas got involved in the embryonic gay liberation movement and was a co-founder of the Berkeley Chapter of the Gay Liberation Front. As he was exploring a way of life he had never imagined existed, he felt an imperative to write about it. There being no existing print forum for gay issues, he helped create one, the Gay Sunshine, and wrote its first editorial. “You could say I came out in print,” Nicholas says. He went on to write for the Berkeley Barb, a legendary “underground newspaper.”

Cut to the nineteen-eighties. When his assignment as a White House correspondent ended, he decided to stay in Falls Church, Va. He realized that the community did not have a newspaper and decided to do something about it. He went straight to the local Chamber of Commerce and presented his plan at a meeting. He left that night with the Chamber’s endorsement and a list of 250 businesses to approach. One hundred thirty agreed to support the paper, and with a stack of their postcards pledging support as collateral, he secured seed money to start the Falls Church News-Press, which turned 21 this year (“Old enough to drink,” says Nicholas).

Besides being a beloved local institution, the News-Press is a true reflection of its owner’s values. “Virginia’s most progressive newspaper” is how he describes it. A gay themed column runs every week, and the editorial page takes a strong stand on sexual and gender equality issues.  A demonstration of Benton’s influence in his community is that, following an editorial campaign against Virginia’s so-called Marriage Amendment, Benton used his standing on the board of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce to persuade that board to take a public stand against the amendment, the only Chamber in the state to do so.

Nicholas’ connection to the Falls Church community extends to philanthropy as well.  In 2005, he founded the Nicholas F. Benton Diversity Affirmation Education Fund to fund anti-bullying, pro-diversity programs in the Falls Church City Schools.

For his work with the newspaper and beyond, Nicholas has won numerous civic and business awards, including the City Council’s Businessperson of the Year twice and the Chamber’s Pillar of the Community award.  As writer, Nicholas, publishes a blog, “Nick Benton’s Gay Science,” which is reprinted every week in Washington’s Metro Weekly. His columns are about to be collected into a book.

Looking back over the years since his Berkeley student days, Nicholas is impressed by what his generation and its successors have built.  He writes: “I am most inspired by how the LGBT movement has created, and is creating, the space for people to cultivate their potential without fear.” Because of the movement, he adds, “I am able to look everybody in the eye and say, ‘This is who I am; who are you?’”