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COMMENTARY: Benny Cartwright reflects on Nicole Murray-Ramirez controversy

I have always enjoyed informing people about events, news, and community happenings. I remember when I was 14 years old my grandmother would always have me write press releases -- or what I thought were press releases -- to send to the neighborhood newspaper to promote the meetings for her community association. I was never trained as a journalist, but have always had somewhat of a knack for writing and have learned a lot along the way from some great colleagues, editors and publishers.

When I was elected president of San Diego State University's LGBT student group in 2001, I created a campus LGBT email list using Yahoo! Groups, which at the time, was relatively new. I enjoyed sending out announcements about group meetings and community events keeping my fellow LGBT students informed in a time before Facebook or even MySpace. I loved compiling email newsletters, and loved it even more when people wrote back and interacted with what I was sharing with them.

Because I became fairly active in the local LGBT community when I started college in 1998, some people around town recognized my knack for bringing people together and I was asked in 2005 to start writing a social column in the now defunct Update newspaper. At the time, Update was San Diego's oldest gay newspaper, serving the community since 1979, and was printed on the same size paper and fold that Gay San Diego is today. They titled my column "Out With Benny" and I was given an entire page spread to write about whatever social, nightlife and activism events I wanted to ... and I loved it! This was my ultimate opportunity to share information that I learned in my day-to-day interactions with the community.

That newspaper folded, and I began writing for the Gay & Lesbian Times (also now defunct) as an intern, learning about hard news reporting, while concurrently writing a column called "BarFly," chronicling my adventures in our local night spots. This was also a lot of fun and a great learning experience, which helped catapult me into my current (amazing) position at San Diego Gay & Lesbian News (SDGLN.com) and Hale Media.

Throughout this journey, I have learned that while I love writing and working with the media, I will always be a community activist at heart. I remember when I first started working for the Gay & Lesbian Times being told that I had to make a choice between my activism or journalism. I understand now that my editor was not trying to make me choose between my two passions, but was trying to give me a lesson in journalism ethics and understanding the difference from being in a story and writing a story.

I continue to refuse to give up either one of my passions for the other, but I have learned a great deal about separating my two "hats." When I am at community events, I always make it clear when I am attending as media (visibly wearing my media badge/press pass), and when I join a committee as a community member, I learn to "turn off" my media brain and respect the confidentiality of my position.

I also choose not to take on news assignments that clearly are in conflict with things I am involved with personally, and make it clear that the occasional social columns I write are just that -- social fluff (although I like to always my own "Oprah" lessons into them whenever possible).

"Personality wars" are disheartening

Growing up in San Diego, I have read about many of our community's "personality wars" as they have played out on the pages of our gay media. It has always been disheartening but I understand that when you have a community filled with passionate people, this is bound to happen.

Recently, there have been some posts on various social media and news sources about a comment that Nicole Murray-Ramirez made about me at meeting of the LGBT Redistricting Task Force. I was not present at the meeting so I do not exactly know what was said, but some present have told me that Nicole's comments, whether intentional or not, boiled down to Nicole saying that I was a racist, a bigot or a classist. After learning of this, some people that care very much for me decided "enough was enough" and wanted to make Nicole's statements known to the community.

In my 13 years of work in the community, I have worked with Nicole from time to time, but not had regular interaction with Nicole. This is simply a product of the fact that much of my community involvements have not intersected with Nicole's involvements and I had the opportunity to connect with others in the community who guided me along the way. There has never been a personality issue or other conflict there.

When some of my colleagues told me about Nicole's comments, I was surprised, especially since they were in response to something I posted on Facebook about the possibility of San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria having to move his residence if he wanted to continue representing District 3 -- with all due respect to Nicole, I didn't think he looked at Facebook.

A phone call from Nicole

Again, I was not present at the meeting so I am not able to know what Nicole meant by those comments, and don't know if Nicole even meant to attack me. Nicole did call me this week to let me know that he had no intention of putting me down at this forum and asked that we simply need to agree to disagree on some redistricting issues. I can handle that.

I do not believe there is any issue between Nicole and I , and whether Nicole meant to criticize me or not is something I will ever know, but it was important to me that Nicole called me since I truly do respect the fact that he took the time to explain his side of this issue to me. Thank you, Nicole.

As a community member, though, I have probably read almost every single one of Nicole's columns that has been published since 1998, and I recall Nicole calling out a lot of people in that time. Sometimes he is right, sometimes he is wrong. Or maybe I should say, sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree.

But then I thought about it and realized that we really need to encourage a more positive dialogue in our community.

In my opinion, some of Nicole's remarks over the years have not been constructive. I truly believe there could be more tactful, appropriate ways to call out someone with whom there is a disagreement with that would not incite anger and resentment.

Many people wrote in and told me time and time again that they understand Nicole's remarks are often vicious and counterproductive but then remind me that Nicole has done so many good things over the past 40 years or so.

I don't understand why this mentality exists. I do not believe a life of good deeds earns someone a card to lash out against those with divergent viewpoints. I have spent my entire adult life trying to do what I think is good, but I can not imagine ever being in a place where I decide that I can hurt people.

What makes me tick

The things I do for the community are not about me, they are not about some non-existent sense of power, or any other reason. It is about serving the people of our community and fighting so that we all have an equal place at the table.

I'm not concerned about awards, honors or titles. I'm not interested in bragging about the many involvements I partake in, nor do I want to take credit for any particular accomplishment that may have come from work that I have been involved in.

As open as I am with my writing, and as much as I enjoy being out in the community socializing, hosting events and speaking in front of a camera, I am quite uncomfortable when the spotlight on me is about me. And that is why I hope that after I write this, this issue will end.

I never envisioned myself being in the position of "one of those people" who have made me question why I do the work I do. I do not want to be "one of those people" whose infighting and childish antics, in the name of "leadership," that I have to explain to people new to the community. I just want to be the good, smiling, hard working person who truly cares about the people around me.

Nicole certainly knows how to get high readership numbers. Even the commentaries that community members have contributed to SDGLN related to Nicole have brought in significant web traffic.

But it is not necessarily the positive kind of news that we need to be spending our time on.

Recently, I read in a column authored by Nicole that said that Carl DeMaio was booed at a "gay event." While I understand that Carl did not receive as much applause as some of the other elected officials at this "gay event," which was the well-attended, widely respected Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast, he was not booed. Further, Hale Media publisher Johnathan Hale was recently called "the new Queen of Mean" in another column. Anyone who knows Hale knows that he doesn't have a mean bone in his body and that he has a positive attitude about life. Nicole said, "But it’s [DeMaio's] lover, Hale, who has become the more evil and mean, though he always has had that reputation." Again, this is not the type of productive dialogue we need to see. Certainly, Johnathan and Nicole do not see eye to eye on many issues, but it's inappropriate to berate someone in that way and this characterization of him is inaccurate and unfair.

Attacking those who write in or comment on a column is unprofessional. Continuously listing who our "next" set of politicians, usually from the same small group of people, does little to encourage other bright young leaders to consider running for office.

A plea to Nicole

I am just sending out a plea to Nicole Murray Ramirez to please think about people like me and the hundreds of others who are working for the community, just as you have for so many years, and consider if your words do any good for our work to better our community. That is what we want to hear from our community leaders.

Negativity has absolutely no place in our community. Disagreements are one thing; bullying is another.

I do have to give credit to Nicole for always standing up for what he believes in, as overly vocal as we may think it is sometimes. We definitely all should be free to speak our minds and never let anyone tell us otherwise. Nicole has been an extreme example of that and continuously reminds of us are right to free speech and dialogue.

We do, however, all need to remember how to have a constructive debate as well as a positive and civil discourse.

I am one of the lucky few who has been given the opportunity by some wonderful people in our community to have a very public voice through our gay media. I am truly thankful for that gift and no matter what is said elsewhere, I will continue to share good news and information with my community, just like when I was that 14-year-old boy typing up a few sentences for grandma's community newspaper.


Ben Cartwright
Staff Writer & Higher Education & Nonprofit Liaison for San Diego Gay & Lesbian News
(877) 727-5446 ext 707