Speaking Ill of the Dead … Bob Ross and the Bay Area Reporter
I don’t know how the news managed to escape me, but I found out only last week that Bob Ross, publisher of the Bay Area Reporter, had died in December 2003. It’s a testament to how far out of the queer loop I’ve gotten — geographically as well as psychologically — which I mind a lot less than one might think.
Once I learned of Ross’s death, I went online to search for obits, but I knew beforehand what I’d find. If someone like Ronald Reagan can be rehabilitated after death, I was quite sure the hagiography of Bob Ross would be no less loathsome. And I wasn’t disappointed.
I wrote regularly for the BAR from 1984-1996 and went through at least four of the arts editors that Bob Ross abused and discarded, just as writers were, in turn, abused and discarded by the dozens. Bob Ross was a dreadful human being, a reactionary and a bigot; if it weren’t for being queer, he’d have been in the John Birch Society. Actually, I’m not sure he wasn’t in the John Birch Society anyway.
Near the end of twelve years of service, I received a raise of $10 (which brought my BAR salary to $35 per article) — but my story is only typical. It was one of Ross’s follies to refuse to pay writers decently, and then to bitch to his editors how the paper couldn’t find good writers. When it came to his paper and his staff, he was a venal, tyrannical SOB. His much-touted acts of personal charity for people with AIDS notwithstanding (why do rich people get extra credit for doing what is no more than morally right?), he also donated big money to the worst political causes and used the bully pulpit of his paper to shill for electoral candidates who, over the course of time, proved to be exactly the ones who labored to transform San Francisco into a mecca for the rich and to ruin it as a place where ordinary people could live, work, and prosper.
If the BAR “served” the “community,” it did so in SPITE of Bob Ross and because many good writers and editors did their best to subvert his worst intentions — because mostly the BAR served Bob Ross.
Many years ago, David Goodstein applied the phrase “toilet mentality” to his observation that many of the institutions in the “gay community” offered worse service, worse working conditions, or worse treatment than their mainstream counterparts, an expression, he felt, of internalized self-hatred.
That was Bob Ross in a nutshell. For years, he gave an erratic drug addict the helm of his paper, unconcerned about how he treated editors or writers or about the fact that he had long ago stopped being able to write anything coherent. The BAR prospered hugely from personal ads advertising drug-addled unsafe sex, even as Ross refused to run any safe-sex advertising for free; whatever was there was paid for by pharmaceutical companies and AIDS organizations.
He was a working-class man who turned his back on working-class people, doggedly opposing, for example, every SINGLE tenants-rights initiative that was ever proposed in this city. He refused to endorse Tom Ammiano and, instead, became the unofficial gay campaign leaflet for Newsom’s racist and poor-bashing campaign for mayor.
The further attempt, in Ross’s obituaries, to link Ross with Harvey Milk is beyond repulsive. If Milk had lived, he’d have hated everything Bob Ross stood for.
Ross is also given credit, in his death notices, for “founding The Tavern Guild,” but nowhere is mention made of the fact that The Tavern Guild hired union-busters the minute they caught wind of union organizing among the ranks of bartenders and waiters and thereafter blacklisted union members.
Bob Ross was a kind of living fossil who clung to right-wing politics and a sleazy, old-style homosexuality while exploiting the need of gay people to communicate with each other and to find ways to be of service in the place where they lived.
In the end, though, his biggest mistake was something else entirely: he died while there were still people around who remembered who he was and what he’d done. If you’re going to go through life the way Bob Ross did, you have to make sure to outlive your enemies.