Leroy F. Aarons, pioneering gay journalist, dies at 70

Leroy F. Aarons, former executive editor and senior vice president of the Oakland Tribune and founder of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, died Sunday, Nov. 28. He was 70.

A resident of Sebastopol, he had been battling cancer for more than a year and died unexpectedly of heart failure at a Santa Rosa hospital.

Aarons is perhaps most remembered for an emotional speech he delivered at a conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1990. He was “out” to his family and the Tribune staff. But it was there, during a talk about how gay and lesbian journalists feel they do not receive fair treatment, that he publicly disclosed that he was gay.

In so doing, he became the first top editor in the country to out himself.

He later said that he felt he could not talk about the subject without disclosing that he was gay. When The New York Times wrote about it, he realized what a huge step it was.

Four months later, he founded the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association in his Piedmont living room. It has since grown to more than 1,200 members with chapters in 24 regions, including Canada and Germany.

Janet Silver Ghent, j. weekly’s senior editor, was a features writer at the Oakland Tribune at the time Aarons came to the newspaper as features editor.

“One of the first things I did, under his supervision, was a series on returnees to Judaism, in time for the High Holy Days,” said Ghent. “Roy and I were the two New York Jews in the features department, and we understood each other. He called me ‘Ghentila.’ We called him ‘His Royness’ or ‘Uncle Roy.'”

Aarons was born in the Bronx on Dec. 8, 1933, to Latvian immigrants. His mother died when he was 3, of stomach cancer.

He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

After starting his career at the Journal-Courier in New Haven, Conn., he was hired by the Washington Post in 1962, where he stayed for 14 years.

In 1981, Aarons met an Israeli computer consultant, Joshua Boneh, at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C. He followed Boneh to Israel in 1982, where he covered the Lebanon War for Time magazine.

In 1983, his longtime friend and colleague Robert Maynard bought the Oakland Tribune and made Aarons features editor. He and Boneh moved to Piedmont, where they frequently opened their home to the staff.

Aarons later became executive editor, and under his guidance, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize in photojournalism in 1990 for its coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

In addition to his journalistic career, he also wrote a book “Prayers for Bobby,” about how a mother copes with her gay son’s suicide; a docudrama about the Pentagon Papers; and the libretto for an opera “Monticello” about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.

Aarons remained president of the NLGJA until 1998, and on the board until his death. In more recent years, he advocated for journalism schools to include diversity training to their programs to make them more LGBT-friendly.

In 2000, Aarons and Boneh celebrated their 20th anniversary with a commitment ceremony at the JCC in Washington where they met.

In addition to Boneh, Aarons is survived by his brother, Ronald Aarons, of Boulder, Colo.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 at the Center for Spiritual Living, 2075 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."