I was once Brandon Ambrosino. As associate editor of the New York Blade, I penned columns heralding Ronald Regan, decrying the shenanigans of Daniel Nardicio parties on the Lower East Side and completely butchering references to trans people. I was the heart-felt contrarian, a gay conservative who loved sports and listened to hip-hop (even if I drank cosmos, sang along to "Evita" and refused to vote for George W. Bush). My columns' letter-response broke records for the New York Blade because of how deeply they upset so many people. At the time, I was proud of it.
Ten years later, I'm man enough to say I was wrong. While there were valid points made in those columns, I learned a lifetime's worth of LGBT issues from people who were generous enough to teach me not just the history of the gay struggle but the ins and outs of journalism. My editor at the Blade, Steve Weinstein, taught me about drag queens and the Black Party and the devastation of losing a partner to AIDS. Jim Buzinski helped me observe events and not always insert myself into the story. Pauline Park and Christina Kahrl taught me what it is to be trans; Helen Carroll and Pat Griffin opened my eyes to lesbian issues.
A decade after being labeled a pariah in the gay community, I'm a different person today because people gave me a chance (though if you believe the comments on my beloved Towleroad, I'm a card-carrying Nazi). I don't know why, but some saw potential in me -- an eagerness to learn and expand my horizons, a willingness to face the past and admit mistakes, and a desire for social justice.
I've read Ambrosino's previous writing, and it troubles me. His type of sloppy journalism is harmful to people like Drew Davis, the Erskine College volleyball player who attempted suicide last summer because his parents rejected his sexual orientation. His references to trans people are indefensible. Ambrosino has not spent a day at Hetrick-Martin Institute. He has not fallen in love and been told for a decade that his relationship is not equal to that of heterosexual strangers passing in the night in Las Vegas. That lack of context and empathy shows in his writing.
The outpouring of criticism of this hire has been appropriate, and it's been heard. If he were going to be Vox's lead LGBT writer, I might be calling for him to get the axe. But as an entry-level fellowship writer? It's the right spot for him.
I don't know Ambrosino, but I have spoken to him, just this morning over the phone. He wants to learn. My biggest problem with George W. Bush was an apparent lack of desire to learn. Ambrosino isn't that person. He has a thirst for knowledge -- And the position he's been hired for, a fellowship, is designed to quench that thirst. I'm confident that pairing him with thoughtful, caring folks at Vox like Ezra Klein and Melissa Bell will have strong, positive repercussions. As a gay member of the Vox family, I can assure I will be their harshest critic if it goes wrong.
I'm not a big fan of killing people off for mistakes. Even popular former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe famously reversed course on calling for the firing of the very man who allegedly killed his career for supporting same-sex marriage. I'm a big believer in second chances. Not third or fourth or fifth chances. People like John Rocker -- and yes, Brandon, Jerry Falwell -- are lost causes. But second chances? I'm willing to take the risk with a 23-year-old.
My challenge to Vox is very simple: Keep Ambrosino. You made your decision, now do something positive with it. Teach him how to construct arguments. Teach him how to see both sides. Teach him how to listen more than he speaks. Teach him some of the LGBT history I so desperately needed to understand 10 years ago.
A year from now, let's see him write a column on what he's learned about the LGBT community. If he hasn't learned much, then end his contract. But if he's listened, if he's opened his mind, if he's a better writer, then we've all won. I'm willing to take the chance. I'm betting Vox is, too.
I suppose some will dismiss my thoughts here because Vox owns Outsports.com. That couldn't be further from the truth. I came to write this because I was pissed about the hiring and made a couple phone calls -- I asked questions and came to understand this a little differently. It would be very easy for me to demand he be cast from the village, all bridges behind him burned. That's just not the way Jim Buzinski or I approach these kinds of things.
I have big issues with Ambrosino's writing. He's me 10 years ago -- and I don't love a lot of what I wrote then, either. Let's see if he can learn what I learned. Let's see if he's tone deaf like Sarah Palin or willing to learn like Rob Portman. Vox has said they did not hire him as contrarian click-bait. They said he won't be writing about LGBT issues, but rather will be exploring how to be a journalist. Let's find out.
My curiosity in the ability of people to change, to find compassion in their writing and their hearts, is worth a one-year fellowship at a start-up.
Note: Vox Media is the parent company for both Vox.com and Outsports.com, which Zeigler co-founded.