You might recall that when Luther Vandross, Merv Griffin, Susan Sontag and Ismail Merchant passed away, there were way too many atrocious cases of “straight-washing” their gay lives away in the mainstream media. When Maj. Alan Rogers, a gay soldier who was killed in Iraq last year, the Pentagon edited the fact out of his Wikipedia entry and the WaPo at the highest editorial level — former exec editor Len Downie at the time — deemed his orientation untouchable. Kevin Naff at the Washington Blade reported at the time:

The reporter’s original story included accounts of Rogers’ sexual orientation and the issue triggered a debate among editors who deemed it an “agonizing decision.” But “the decision ultimately was made by Executive Editor Len Downie, who said that there was no proof that Rogers was gay and no clear indication that, if he was, he wanted the information made public.”

…Downie seeks “proof,” yet he removed any mention of Rogers’ gay friends from the story. He worries that Rogers may not have wanted this information made public, but Rogers worked for a gay rights group. Clearly, Rogers was not afraid of people knowing the truth about his life. There was concern that Rogers’ few surviving family members – cousins – didn’t want the Post to report on his being gay. But what gay people know is that many of our family members would prefer we stayed in the closet. That decision should not be left to disapproving relatives. For so many gay and lesbian people, friends become a chosen family. And in Rogers’ case, they should have been trusted to speak on his behalf.

Downie’s decision, and the Post’s stylebook policy, help perpetuate the notion that being gay is something to hide. If Rogers had been straight, there would be no heated debate about making references to relationships or hobbies that implied he was heterosexual.

Guess what? It’s happened again, only this time the WaPo chose to straight-wash an openly gay man who’s alive and kicking. Business owner David von Storch, who is HIV-positive, was profiled in the Blade in 2007. What’s bizarre and journalistically weak about the re-closeting is that the WaPo article discusses von Storch’s businesses, which include a health club and restaurant, but fails to mention a relevant motivating force behind his establishments. More below the fold.Kevin Naff couldn’t believe he was writing about this nonsense again.

The Post’s editors will predictably argue that von Storch’s sexual orientation (not to mention HIV status) is not relevant to the story. That would be true if the Post were merely writing about the performance of Vida Fitness, Capitol City Brewing or other von Storch businesses. But this story is about von Storch and if he were straight and married with kids living in a Bethesda McMansion, that information would be front and center.

In fact, von Storch’s HIV status is relevant to the story. In a more compelling and complete 2007 profile in the Blade, von Storch told us that his decisions to open Vida Fitness and to ban trans fats at Capitol City restaurants were a direct result of his HIV status and the need to take care of himself.

…These are basic, relevant facts and the Post – as it has done innumerable times before – actively works to put gay subjects in the closet. The von Storch profile is doubly disappointing because just last week, the Post’s new editor Marcus Brauchli sat down with the Blade for an interview about gay issues.

He said it’s “perfectly reasonable to include” someone’s sexual orientation in a story “if someone has described himself or herself as gay and if it’s relevant to the story.”

The Post’s stylebook cautions against identifying someone as gay because it may be “invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known.”

Well, WTF happened? Their interview subject was out, able to consent to revealing his orientation and the WaPo still got the vapors. It doesn’t seem like a new day has dawned at the newspaper. When will the straight-washing cease?


NOTE: What’s so odd about this is that it’s not the WaPo reporters, but the high-level editors who are squeamish. I’ve been interviewed twice by Jose Antonio Vargas (recently too, I haven’t seen that one up yet), and he’s savvy re: LGBT issues — he’s recently moved to the National desk.  

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding