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BOOKS The random history of Judy Wieder
by Liz Baudler
2017-12-05

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Anyone reading Judy Wieder's memoir, Random Events Tend to Cluster, would conclude that the former editor-in-chief of the Advocate has lived an incredible, unpredictable life.

Wieder got her start in media by faking her way into a copywriting position at a third-rate musical instrument company in '60s New York, and making a career transition into gossip magazines. A white lesbian from California in the '70s, Wieder edited Black teen and lifestyle magazines while she also co-wrote songs with Motown hitmmaker Frank Wilson.

In the '80s, Wieder parlayed her music experience into a rock journalism career, which saw her heading out on tour with Poison ( and educating Bret Michaels and the band about the dangers of HIV in the process ). All of this was before The Advocate added her to their staff as one of its first women hires, in the early '90s, and before she memorably chased down interviews with Melissa Etheridge, Ellen DeGeneres and Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy, as its first female editor-in-chief.

"There's times when you can reflect, and there's times when you can't, and sometimes you don't know why," Wieder said of her decision to finally chronicle her life. "You know how when you're doing something ... you're still wrapped up in your frustrations with it, or your joy with it, your victories or the defeats that you had, and you can't really see what its importance is outside of your own life. I really had hit a place in my life where I could look back and understand what had happened, and what it meant to everybody."

The experience of reading Random Events Tend to Cluster is singular and immediate. Wieder reports each decade in the present tense, and her own life is intertwined with a narrative based on a concurrent historical event. With vibrant storytelling but journalistic seriousness, Wieder imagines, among others, the last days of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the civil-rights workers murdered by the KKK in 1964 Mississippi and the thoughts of the Jonestown massacre survivors.

"I was hoping and trusting that if I could tell stories based on facts that people would stay with the many, many events that I believe are tremendously important to know," Wieder said. She recalled such events when they happened but enjoyed the opportunity to return to them, to explore their significance now and uncover other narratives in the history. "I'm stuck with what formed me, and I tried to get out of some of that, by telling other people's stories too," she said.

Throughout her career, Wieder was a master at uncovering hidden narratives—something that often occurred because she was consistently a fish out of water.

"It gave me—I don't want to say distance because there was not enough distance, but it gave me a space to be able to not be so tied into it that I couldn't also see some more angles on it," she explained. This was particularly apparent when she joined The Advocate, right after the worst part of the AIDS epidemic.

"The fact that I was a woman, and I'm not even talking when I became editor-in-chief, that was really historic," said Wieder. "I was one of the first women that worked out there. It took a while for women to make it in there and that was very on my mind, I was trying to change that. I think that probably I was not as frightened, I was not as wrapped up in the grief...I certainly understood, but I wasn't looking everywhere and seeing my friends die one after another."

Although LGBTQ acceptance is more widespread than in Wieder's time, she still feels its media has a role to play. "There's still a very valuable service that the gay media needs to do for the non-gay media to make sure that certain stories are covered, and just keep blaring that horn until it gets across to people who aren't us," she said. "Maybe it's a little subtler, but horrible things still happen and sometimes people don't understand what was really important."

Right around the end of Wieder's Advocate tenure, media shifted from print to primarily online stories. It's a change Wieder finds herself wishing hadn't happened; she feels that a certain lack of analysis is missing from the barrage of information readers constantly encounter.

"People would say I'm old-fashioned, I prefer print," she said. "[Online media feels like] being treated like you have to know this, I'm just going to tell you something, there it is, and you say, oh, that's important, I'm glad you told me that, I wrote it down. But really, at some point, it's going to tire us out and overwhelm us. It just seems like a shotgun of news that doesn't go the next step."

To explain her perception of the change, Wieder offers the example of trying to report on incidents of gay-bashing. "What is his motivation, what is bothering him?" she said she would ask about the basher as she began. "And you start to analyze that, so first of all, we LGBTs can understand, and people might learn something or get some handles on it. That part of the journalism was the highlight for me. Not just teaching, but my own urge to get other writers that I worked with and other editors to [ask] "why, why, why". Is this just some out of the norm incident that took place? But wait, this happened four times. Wait, this is a trend. What is causing this to happen? And I don't see any of that going on. I see that it's a this thing happened, that thing happened. I don't see it happening in a way where you do what we used to call "a think piece."

And her preference for following the story to understand it, for depth, is reflected in the way she tells her own remarkable story.

"It takes you while to get there, to start to hunger for that, rather that just feel important because you know all these things," Wieder said. "The important thing is to understand it, and that's what makes all of us start to jump a layer and get something a little deeper out of life."


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