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Hey news media: what's wrong with being gay?

Adam Reilly, a straight reporter at The Phoenix, has a thoughtful piece, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Big media’s big gay baggage“, which discusses the news media and its reticence to report on the sexual orientation of public figures, specifically homophobic gay politicians who are privately out, but publicly closeted.

The infamous public closet of the GOP was put on display in this election cycle, but Reilly aptly points out that it’s unlikely that homo-bashing will be relegated to the shadows in the 2008 race.

In the 2004 presidential election, proposed gay-marriage bans helped get Republican voters to the polls in several key battleground states. And at last month’s annual “Liberty Sunday” event in Boston – sponsored by the Family Research Council – Massachusetts governor and would-be president Mitt Romney hammered same-sex marriage alongside evangelicals such as James Dobson, Chuck Colson, and Gary Bauer. Come 2008, there’s a good chance Republican presidential hopefuls will woo religious conservatives who deserted the party in this year’s midterm elections by making gay marriage a central issue in their campaigns. This will lead, invariably, to yet more outings, as irate gays who’ve seen their personal lives become political fodder seek to turn the tables on closeted gay politicians complicit in the demagoguery.

In the wake of the orientation of Foley, Haggard and Mehlman being discussed in the public venue during an election cycle, it’s relevant to address how news coverage will tackle homo-hypocrite political figures — right now the subject is avoided by the MSM until it bubbles up from alternative media, such as blogs or the gay press.  More, including a poll, after the flip.It’s clear that the mainstream media gets the vapors when the issue is raised, but what should constitute responsible reporting on the matter?

A few considerations make it tempting to leave reporting of this sort to advocate-journalists in the blogosphere and the alternative press: fear of libel lawsuits; recognition that these stories have a human cost; a genuine conviction that the personal and the political should be kept separate. But there are solid counterarguments. If a particular individual stridently criticizes gays and same-sex marriage, for example, but turns out to be gay himself, this tension casts his motives in a markedly different light. More broadly, repeatedly treating sexual orientation with great delicacy tacitly endorses the notion that being gay is something to be ashamed of. Imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if every closeted politician and civic leader in the US were outed in one fell swoop. Would we still talk about sexuality the way we do now?

…Early on in my time at the Phoenix, I listened awkwardly as a colleague aggressively worked to out a state legislator who was reputedly a lesbian but opposed to gay marriage. It seemed a bit much; after all, wasn’t the politician in question entitled to her privacy?

Perhaps. I don’t know what personal considerations may have led this woman to keep her sexual orientation quiet; even if I did, as a straight male, I probably don’t have the right to decide whether or not they pass muster. But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that a similar exchange had taken place during the civil-rights struggle, with a reporter pursuing a lead that a politician who opposed integration was actually part black. Think, too, of how absurd it seemed when Republican senator George Allen of Virginia accused a reporter who asked about his reported Jewish ancestry of “making aspersions.”

Here’s the difference: on some level, it seems, even well-intentioned straight observers seem to think there’s something vaguely unseemly about being gay or lesbian. That sentiment may not be the only reason the media handle the issue as delicately as we do. But it’s part of the equation.

That’s the deal, friends. In order to move forward, the mainstream news media has to cop to its homophobia. There is nothing wrong with being gay, so it should not be an issue — we see reporting all the time about a straight pol’s family life. Reporters do not hesitate to ask about the wife or husband of a politician in the course of daily life. Political spouses are newsworthy — certainly sHillary wasn’t off the table as a presidential spouse, for instance. or the husband of former VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

Heteronomativity is assumed — and it is everywhere — gay folks are assaulted by it every day.

The AP, WaPo, NYT and the rest need to scrap their lame protocols on the matter and address the reality of the MSM’s lack of objectivity in handling the subject. Otherwise, they are as much to blame as the bible beaters for the continuing the cycle of homophobia.

Reilly offers up some outlandish, outdated, cryptic “rules” that some of these news organizations follow in regards to orientation. It’s ridiculous.

* The NYT Times: the paper’s director of PR, Abbe Ruttenberg Serpho, says it “identifies public figures as gay when it is relevant to the reporting.” Serphos quotes the paper’s stylebook: “sexual orientation, never sexual preference, which carries the disputed implication that sexuality is a matter of choice. Cite a person’s sexual orientation only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.”

Is the NYT saying sexuality is a choice? And it’s completely subjective as to what is deemed “relevant” when it comes to covering a known gay pol who is voting anti-gay, like Foley. Several news organizations knew that he was gay when he cast those votes, and didn’t say a word.

* The Associated Press: deputy managing editor told Reilly that it hasn’t a fixed policy but, according to Kristin Gazlay, the wire service’s deputy managing editor, “Our guideline is that it’s not inherently newsworthy if someone’s gay. So we would only include that information if it was germane to whatever the topic of the story was.” She goes on to say that the AP knew former Democratic New Jersey Governor James McGreevey was gay, but “initially deemed it not newsworthy.” Let’s see. If a pol is accused of hiring his alleged boyfriend to a position for which he was unqualified, that seems newsworthy. Those sort of scandals, when hetero pols are involved, are a dime-a-dozen stories in papers all the time.

Once more, there is nothing wrong with being gay. We’re not talking about disclosing someone’s sexual acts in a newspaper (unless it’s a sex scandal of course), we’re talking about the simple act of mentioning one’s orientation in an article is not in itself libelous — unless there is something perceived as inherently wrong with being declared straight or gay. There needs to be consistency in the treatment of this, or an admission that news organizations have an established, official policy of supporting heterosupremacy. The public has a right to know this simple bit of business so that it has facts in hand to judge the work of self-perceived objective media outlets. Reilly offers a modest approach to move matters in the right direction.

…at news organizations across the US, publishers and editors should sit down for a couple hours to discuss – in detail – how to report on matters involving sexual orientation in the coming years, especially given the central role sexuality now plays in the nation’s culture wars. If there’s a consensus that sexual orientation is a noteworthy but value-neutral aspect of personal identity, the paper or network or station in question might want to formulate some specific policies geared toward specific scenarios – nothing binding, but a useful addition to the current baseline criteria of newsworthiness or relevance. The issue isn’t going away; it’s time to tackle it with self-awareness and subtlety.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding