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On a recent Monday morning, Karen Ocamb sits back on a couch and gears up for another heavy week of hard-news journalism. Her one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood is the command center, where she calls up sources, writes copy on a MacBook Pro and always keeps the television turned on to MSNBC or CNN as her three dogs lie around and nap. For 20 years, Ocamb has been reporting about a world few Los Angeles journalists, if any, have covered so consistently and with such passion.
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“There are so many important events happening in the LGBT community that never get covered by the mainstream media,” says Ocamb, the news editor at IN magazine, a local, gay biweekly. “It’s my job to write about our people and give them a voice.”
By supplying that voice, Ocamb has won awards from gay organizations such as the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and the Victory Fund, and proclamations from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the city of West Hollywood. The gay-pride-parade organization Christopher Street West named her Woman of the Year in 2004. But awards are not the things that drive Ocamb.
“We, as a minority group, need to know that we are a legitimate minority and someone is attending to our needs,” says Ocamb. “But no one really gets that we’re paying our taxes and still get treated as second-class citizens.”
The people who don’t always get it, of course, are often the politicians and government bureaucrats Ocamb covers on a regular basis. Just last year, for example, she teamed up with freelance journalist Chris Crain and broke the story that then-presidential candidate and Latino rising star Bill Richardson used the word maricón on Don Imus’ radio show. No one in the mainstream picked it up, but maricón means “faggot” in Spanish. After Ocamb’s story came out, Richardson apologized for using the epithet.
Ocamb nailed down the first interview by a gay journalist of Hillary Clinton in 1991 as Clinton’s husband stumped on the presidential campaign trail. She also wrote some of the first serious pieces about the crystal-meth epidemic in the gay community, and reported extensively on the AIDS crisis, the issue that pushed her back into journalism in 1988 after she left a high-level producing job at CBS News.
“I had moved to Los Angeles and wanted to be a playwright,” Ocamb explains. “So I took acting classes to understand how actors would say my words. It was wonderful, but people started coming down with AIDS. It was really a horrendous, heart-wrenching time. AIDS became my life because my friends were dying.”
And while the gay press has moved toward pop-culture and lifestyle features and away from hard news, Ocamb, who believes it’s the duty of gays and lesbians to be well-informed about issues that affect them, remains optimistic that serious news will get its due.
“I’m seeing a whole new interest in news,” she says, “especially with blogging.”
Ocamb, always the hustling journalist, shows no signs of letting fads and trends overtake her.
“These are civil rights issues,” she says. “Whenever someone is denied the right to the pursuit of happiness, we should all be concerned. That’s what I continue to write about.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon