OUTSTANDING VIRGINIANS 2013
Say the words “production weekend” around Alicia Herr and the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Jim Early and Garland Tillery, Alicia’s colleagues on the staff of Our Own experience a similar reaction.
That’s because from 1976 to 1998, production weekend was the time every month when the influential Norfolk-based gay and lesbian newspaper came together. Regardless of writers missing deadlines, advertisers failing to pay, and city leaders trying to shut the paper down, come six o’clock Monday morning, Alicia (and Jim before her) would drive the camera-ready “flats” from the Unitarian Universalist church to the press for printing and distribution to anxiously waiting readers. Then—the marathon editing, typesetting and proofing sessions behind her—Alicia would head off to her regular job at Old Dominion University.
For most of the paper’s life, Alicia, Jim, and Garland were the paper’s constants in a sea of change. Jim was the first to join. As editor, he helped transform the publication from a flyer inviting gay men and lesbians to a spaghetti dinner into the primary source of news about Virginia gay and lesbian issues, which at its peak had a circulation of 12,000, with readers in all 50 states and 40 countries around the world. Garland joined in 1978 after calling Jim to volunteer skills he had gained working on his high school newspaper. He ended up doing almost everything that needed to be done at the paper, including introducing then-cutting-edge technology, such as desktop publishing. Alicia, recruited by Jim at a dinner party in 1986, first joined the board and then began working hands-on as publisher, leading the paper until it closed for financial reasons.
The three bonded over the hardships they faced together, along with the knowledge that they were providing a unique service in the pre-Web, pre-social media world of the later twentieth century. Jim and Garland began a relationship now 33 years strong, and the three friends remain close. Our Own was at the center of many of the era’s great controversies, making news on more than one occasion. Early in its existence, the paper became a cause celèbre when the Virginia Beach City Manager ordered the paper to be removed from the public library. This act and an ACLU-backed suit against the city brought publicity for the paper. “All of a sudden, we were the topic of discussion at dinner tables all around the state,” says Jim.
Later on, the paper covered major Virginia stories, such as witch hunts at the Norfolk Navy Base, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell hearings, and the arrest of prominent gay clergyman/author Mel White for trespassing when he tried to speak with Pat Robertson at the televangelist’s CBN Broadcast Center. Actor Sir Ian McKellen even faxed in a letter to the editor from London. Our Own launched the careers of several prominent journalists and authors, including Patrick Evans-Hylton and Kirk Read.
But controversy and celebrity were secondary in the minds of Alicia, Jim and Garland, who always put service to their community first. With its monthly calendar and directory of services, the paper was a lifeline to many, especially in rural places such as Farmville. “People would come to me at Pride festivals around the state and tell me how much Our Own meant to them,” recalls Alicia. The three friends estimate that the combined staff hours amounted to over 100,000. Assembling scans of the old issues from numerous archives, the magnitude of what they created together came home to Alicia. “It gave me chills,” she says.