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Deb Price, who wrote groundbreaking Detroit News column on gay issues, has died

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Deb Price, a trailblazing former Detroit News journalist who in 1992 started writing a column about gay issues for the newspaper, has died. She was 62.

Her Nov. 20 death after a hospitalization in Hong Kong, where she had been based, followed nine years coping with an autoimmune lung disease, said her wife, Joyce Murdoch.

"Deb lived energetically, optimistically, bravely and fully," she wrote in a Facebook post. "Her 18 years as a groundbreaking gay columnist changed lives, healed families and helped our nation progress toward being a more perfect union."

Price's column was the first of its kind in mainstream journalism.

Deb Price

Price, who identified as a lesbian, presented the idea to Bob Giles, The News' editor and publisher at the time, who said he "thought it was a great idea."

"I said, 'Why don’t you show us some sample columns?' She gave us a stack that were really well done and they seemed to fit into the idea that it was a changing world, and Deb had a capacity for expressing that."

Her column later was picked up by other newspapers across the country. 

"It's hard to overestimate how significant this was," Joshua Benton, who founded the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, wrote in a post on Twitter. "This was long before the Internet gave Americans a window into any topic or community they wanted. Most people got a huge share of their information about the world from the local daily and local TV news.

"Most Americans in 1992 said they didn't know a single gay person. Then suddenly there was Deb, on the breakfast table next to the sports section."

Whether writing about the best way to introduce partners or about political developments, Price "had the ability to write in a very thoughtful informative way and she was able to inject some humor," Giles said. "That was one of the hallmarks of her column. She was very successful. She was a pioneer in what she did in her column, and I'm proud our newspaper was able to be the platform for her to tell what it was like to be a lesbian in an educational way."

Her work earned accolades from the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors and the Crossroads Market/ National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Price's groundbreaking writing also spurred controversy among readers, colleagues recalled.

"That was brave stuff back then, both for her and the newspaper. Both took a lot of criticism, some of it nasty," said Nolan Finley, The News' editorial page editor. "She braved it with grace and courage, and helped change attitudes."

Discussing the negative response to the column in a 1992 Associated Press article, Price said she tried not to take it personally. One example came after her first column, where she asked, "So tell me America, how do I introduce Joyce?"

A reader suggested "partner in perversity."

"I think it's really important for me to remember (and) for other people to remember that if there weren't hostility and if there weren't misunderstandings about gay people, there would be no point in doing this column," she told the AP.

Murdoch, who co-authored a book with Price that touched on the experience, "And Say Hi to Joyce: America's First Gay Column Comes Out," recalls reading both hate mail and emotional letters of support. Adamant about continuing her advocacy and reaching a broad audience, Price often wrote extra columns for the weeks she was away in order not to cede the space, Murdoch said.

"She felt really honored to be able to do what she did," she said. "She was not singing to the choir — she was singing to people who had not heard a voice like hers before. She was making a difference slowly, week by week, in how they saw things."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel was among Price's loyal readers, she said Friday on Twitter.

"Thank you for making me feel less alone and hopeful for a world that might one day embrace LGBTQ people instead of loathing us," Nessel wrote. "Your brave work impacted many in ways you might never have imagined. A life well-lived."

Born Feb. 27, 1958, Price grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and attended the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., before attending the University of Michigan, Murdoch said.

Price transferred to Stanford University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in literature.

She worked at the States News Service and the Northern Virginia Sun before joining the Washington Post, where she was an assistant editor on the national, news and financial desks, according to her resume.

In 1989, Price moved to The News. There, she was a deputy bureau chief and a Washington correspondent, covering the White House and Michigan's congressional delegation.

Price earned respect from her sources in both parties for a nuanced approach to reporting, said Murdoch, a fellow journalist who first met her at The Washington Post. "She never did slap-dash anything."

The couple also co-authored another book: "Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court," which earned a Lambda Literary Award.

They wed June 27, 2003, in Toronto, shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario, Price wrote in a News column.

According to a Washington Post wedding announcement believed to be the first in a major American newspaper for a gay couple, the pair in 1993 “became the first registered domestic partners in their hometown" of Takoma Park, Maryland, then had a civil union in Vermont in 2000.

"She was the center of my universe," Murdoch wrote on Facebook. "So much of what I’ve achieved personally and professionally was possible because Deb believed in me, encouraged me, loved me. For 35 years we were a helluva team. She will live on in my heart forevermore."

After leaving The News, Price participated in a journalism fellowship through the Nieman Foundation in its 2011 class. She gave up the column thento concentrate on the fellowship, focusing on China, Murdoch said.

"She brought her lively spirit and advocacy for herself and her partner, Joyce, and the spirit of what she brought was very important to the family environment she was seeking to create," said Giles, who was Nieman curator at the time.

From 2011-12, Price covered politics in New England for Agence France-Presse, including focusing on the presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire and the Scott Brown Senate race in Massachusetts, according to her resume.

Price taught journalism at Harvard Summer School and later became the Southeast Asia editor at the Wall Street Journal, where she was the lead writer on a digital project, "No Good Choices," that won the top award for excellence in reporting on women's issues from the Society of Publishers in Asia in 2015.

Reporter and multimedia producer Marc Lajoie said he had the pleasure of working closely with Price for several months on the award-winning coverage, which involved domestic helper abuse in Hong Kong.

"A class act and a consummate journalist," he tweeted.

After a stint as managing editor at Caixin Global, a financial news publication, she had most recently been working as a senior business editor for the South China Morning Post.

From meticulously overseeing live blogs to sharing feature writing tips and encouraging staffers to seek intriguing story ideas, Price "was the most energetic and passionate editor I’ve ever worked with, and she cared deeply about young reporters on the team," said Yujing Liu, a business reporter there. "... She loved editing and writing, and that passion is contagious. She will never stop to inspire me to dream bigger, work harder, and strive for better stories."

In a tweet, Jarrod Watt, another colleague at the South China Morning Post, hailed her "towering career —  every day I watched her nurture, urge and cheer on young journos to do great work. A huge loss."

Price continued working until recently and relished training new reporters, Murdoch said.

"She loved working," she said. "She was like a workaholic, in a positive way."

Staff Writer Neal Rubin contributed