Throughout his career with Cleveland Magazine—from intern to managing editor—James Bigley II has kept his focus on telling powerful stories that matter. As the only out member of the editorial staff, he’s advocated for everything from LGBTQ+ cover packages to profiles of Cleveland companies spreading HIV awareness.
As managing editor, Bigley is one of the top LGBTQ+ people in Ohio publishing. He even oversaw the October 2021 issue while Cleveland Magazine completed its search for a new editor. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. “I want to make sure the stories we’re covering are important. And that the stories are doing justice to the people we’re covering,” he says.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Bigley about his time with Cleveland Magazine, how he manages being out in the media, and the kinds of stories he’s most passionate about telling.
How did you find your way to Cleveland Magazine?
I was at University of Akron, pursuing my MFA in creative fiction writing. As part of the NEOMFA program, I needed an internship, so I chose Cleveland Magazine. Journalism was not something I had ever really considered. But, while I was pursuing my MFA, we had to take out-of-genre classes. And a lot of my classes were creative nonfiction.
Through that and my work at the magazine, I realized—journalism is just creative nonfiction. It’s telling powerful stories. Every person you interview is a character. They have things they care about. They have things that motivate them. So, that’s kind of how I view journalism. I’ve really carried that through my whole career.
Are there stories you’re especially proud of?
I think, for me, what I’m passionate about are human interest stories. Really getting at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to overcome challenges. A lot of that has fallen onto people who are minorities and people who are struggling outside of the traditional framework.
When I think about stories that I’ve pitched and written, it’s always been something that I’ve either been passionate about or directly involved in. One of my earliest features was about youth homelessness. I pitched that because youth homelessness was something that I care deeply about. It was also something I struggled with outside of high school.
Cleveland Magazine also did a heroin cover package. I interviewed and hung out with people who were working with active addiction. We spent time just talking about their struggles and how they were overcoming that.
I did one story that was a profile of a T-shirt company in Cleveland. The owner was diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. The company raises money for HIV awareness research. Everybody hired there is either HIV positive or has some connection to the HIV positive community. That was a story that I was really passionate about but that I wasn’t sure would be accepted when I originally pitched it.
You mentioned pitching LGBTQ+ stories. How does Cleveland Magazine balance including LGBTQ+ content in the magazine?
Since being on staff, that’s something I try to bring to the table. Luckily, any idea I’ve ever brought to the table has never been turned down, which means the topics I think are important in these communities are not being undervalued.
I guess you never really know if these would be topics of conversation and things that we would cover if I weren’t advocating for myself or my community. When I pitched the story about the t-shirt shop, I pitched it from this perspective—there’s a t-shirt shop in Cleveland that many of our readers have probably never heard of. But it has been here advocating for the LGBTQ community since the ‘80s and ‘90s. This is a story that speaks to humanity. It speaks to what it means to fight for something you believe in. And from that perspective, every Cleveland Magazine reader could understand that or pull something from it. For me, this isn’t a “gay story.” It’s a story about someone who is gay, who is doing incredible things.
Is there a specific story you’re glad you advocated for?
The first time I really ever advocated for anything like this was when we did a cover package called “How Gay Are We?” in 2014. I knew that Gay Games 9 was coming to Cleveland that year, and I was a freelancer, so I pitched a lot of ideas for a cover package. I felt that I needed to have all of my bases covered and any research done. I needed to make sure that they couldn’t say no to me when I walked into that meeting. So, I showed up with around seven pages of an outline. Ideas of people to profile. Bars, clubs, and restaurants. Business owners who are LGBTQ. Suggestions for a map of all of the LGBTQ businesses in Cleveland. I was so prepared that all of it was accepted. I never thought that I would advocate for myself that hard. Since then, I’ve tried to carry that energy.
That’s amazing. It just really speaks to how important it is to have diverse voices in every organization.
Absolutely. For a while after that, and it still happens today, when there’s any question about the use of pronouns or how we should approach a certain subject related to the LGBTQ community, people will come to me for advice. First, I was like, I know that I’m gay, but I’m not the only one who has these answers. But very quickly, I realized, because I’m advocating for it, because this is something I care about, because I know what it’s like to be in this community, people are coming to me for advice and have questions. And it’s on me to answer those things and make sure that it’s handled appropriately.
How have you navigated being out at work?
When we did the “How Gay Are We?” issue in 2014, I was not out at work. I wasn’t very public about it. It was just something my best friends knew. I had come out to my family when I was in high school. It didn’t really go over well because my family was very strict conservative Christian.
So, when we were working on the “How Gay Are We?” issue, my former editor Kim Schneider asked me if I was comfortable writing my own coming-out story for the front of the magazine. When she asked me that, I thought, Holy crap, I need to come out again to my family. I remember getting on the phone and calling my dad and saying, I need to tell you that I’m gay. And that was probably one of the most honest conversations we had ever had. I felt like I was advocating for myself and advocating on behalf of the community I was representing. It felt like there was more at stake than when I came out at 17 years old, fresh out of high school.
As Managing Editor of Cleveland Magazine, you’re one of the top LGBTQ+ people in Ohio publishing. How does that feel?
I had never really thought of it that way. It definitely puts things into perspective. I think that it’s really cool. But it’s also a lot of responsibility.
I want to make sure the stories we’re covering are important. And that the stories are doing justice to the people we’re covering. I hope people coming up in this industry can look to the things we’re doing and the things I’m overlooking and find inspiration and learn from that, too.
In the back of my head, I think, “If I were to leave at some point would we cover the LGBTQ community as in-depth?” So, sometimes that weight feels a little heavy. As far as I’m aware, I may be the only out LGBTQ person on the editorial team. But, working with the staff for the last six years, I do believe, if I were to leave Cleveland Magazine would continue telling these important stories. 🔥