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Should Post review policy on disclosing sexual orientation?

By Andy Alexander

Sunday’s ombudsman column sparked a healthy discussion about whether The Post should loosen its policies governing when to disclose a person’s sexual orientation. The column dealt with last month’s tragic murder of D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts and The Post’s decision not to reveal he was gay, despite the fact he was “out” to friends and coworkers and although police said publicly that he was homosexual. The Post held firm, even after police subsequently revealed that Betts had met at least one person charged in his murder through a phone-sex chat service.

Since the column appeared, a handful of gay and straight Post journalists, including two supervising editors, have contacted me to say they believe there should be a review of the policy governing when to reveal sexual orientation. It’s a good discussion to have.

Post policy says: “A person's sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story... When identifying an individual as gay or homosexual, be cautious about invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known.”

Defining “relevant” is the challenge. It can be relevant if a closeted gay lawmaker promotes anti-gay legislation. And I felt it was relevant to disclose that Betts was gay, especially because the circumstances of his murder were similar to others locally and nationally.

In most cases, a person's preferred privacy should continue to trump disclosure. After Sunday’s column ran, for example, several readers who identified themselves as gay called to say that they would surely lose their sensitive military or intelligence agency jobs if their sexual orientation were to be revealed by The Post in the event they became part of a news story.

But many other “out” gay men contacted me to urge The Post to be less restrictive when writing about those who make no secret of being gay to family, friends and work colleagues.

“The Post’s policy of reporting a person’s sexual orientation only if it is ‘relevant’ is wrong,” e-mailed Richard McKee of Arlington, who identified himself as “an ‘out’ gay man.” He added: “If it is known that a gay man or lesbian is ‘out,’ if only to friends and perhaps family members, that should be reported.”

“By omitting a person’s sexual orientation,” he continued, “the Post tacitly reinforces the erroneous and harmful presumption that everyone is heterosexual. Homophobes cling to that fallacy and its corollary, that some people immorally or perversely ‘choose’ to engage in homosexual behavior. Thus, they justify laws discriminating against gays and lesbians.”

Mitch Wood, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, took issue with a part of my column that said The Post “deserves praise for its protective instinct” in not identifying Betts as gay, even though I concluded that his sexual orientation subsequently should have been disclosed.

“Gay men and lesbians are not in need of The Post’s ‘protection,’” he wrote. “Further, your praise for that instinct reinforces the common perception that there is something negative, evil or dirty about being gay.”

Several others observed that societal views of gays are changing.

“Please let the editors and writers of The Post know that if a man or women is openly gay to their family, friends and coworkers (as I am), reporting on their sexual orientation is as benign as reporting on their hair color,” wrote Chris Tharrington of Adelphi.

By Andy Alexander  | May 11, 2010; 3:55 PM ET
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The original column mostly attracted conservative trolls yammering about the "political correctness" of WaPo, which is laughable if you look at the op-ed page, a veritable waxworks of predicatble right wing talking points. Having the outside comment is helpful in that context, although Alexander boils it down to the "Two sides to the story" with support for the Post coming from organization that sounds like it's an "official voice" of the community, but actually has little local profile.

The Post had no trouble publishing lurid details of President Clinton's sex life during "Monicagate", so its prissiness here seems odd, especially given that the prrincipal's sexual orientation was relevant to the case. His sexuality was something that gay readers (and many straights) would have seen a mile away and it constituted an obvious "elephant in the room". The Post's stand as being the "high road" seems ludicrous and self-serving in the bigger context of how it has handled news involving the personal lives of public figures. Alexander, like his predecessor seems more interested in supporting management and prsesnting the kind of tiresome, coneventional, and frankly superficial "he said/she said" reporting that passes for fairness and research. No mention of talking to ethicists or people in the gay community who regularly deal with media issues. No consideration of how willing the paper has been to explore the prive lives of others.

The Post should take a page from the NY Times. The times used to be extremely squeamish about sexual orientation and this was glaringly obvious through the worst days of the AIDS epidemic, but also in the years afterward. Today, the paper is quite matter of fact about people's relationships and sexuality and this issue probably would never have come up.

The Post really seems unable to figure out how it fits into the present day. It's op-ed page is a waxworks of predictable thinking. It fired its one legitimate media critic, and it's sudden discovery of local news continues to betray its reporters' ignorance about Metro Washington. The paper does not know what to do with the internet and is run by someone who clearly does not undertsand the mission and ethics of journalism. Your column and the Post's reporting is just another example of what a mess the paper has become. It's a family business that has suffered through weak and now ignorant management by the owning family, and lost its way as a leader in the field.

Posted by: thebuckguy | May 12, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

In this case, the subject was deceased and had no permanent partner to be collaterally hurt.

When the confirmation process starts, will the Post run the story "Many Question Need for Two Gays on Court"?

Posted by: WmarkW | May 12, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

The openly gay commenters are EXACTLY right.

We do not need the Post's "protection," which, in practice, has meant suppression and, thus, oppression. Must we wait for the aging generation of editors with a dysfunctional discomfort toward gay people to die before getting a little respect?

Posted by: uh_huhh | May 12, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Alexander's original conclusion was absurd: "The fact that Betts was out to friends and co-workers mitigates concerns about invading his privacy. Disclosure in The Post needn't have been a headline; it could have been reported in context."

THE MAN WAS OUT, Alexander. THERE IS NO PRIVACY CONCERN. Your obsessive insistence that an out gay man would be horrified by the "disclosure" of his already self-identified sexual orientation REFLECTS YOUR OWN DYSFUNCTIONAL HANG-UPS, NOT HIS!

Stop shoving openly gay men into the closet because their sexual identity makes YOU uncomfortable. How dare you begin with a presumption that an openly gay man is living in shame and wants his sexual identity suppressed by you! Your policy is archaic and outrageous.

If you can't get beyond your own dysfunction and treat this fact reasonably, I suggest you establish a database compiling the names of people, like me, who tell you in advance that we don't want your oppressive, backward, homophobic "protection" if anything happens to us and you're inclined to straight-wash us in your coverage.

What you are doing is identity rape.

Posted by: uh_huhh | May 12, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Let's not forget the other issue mentioned in the ombudsman's Sunday column: the Washington Examiner's April 22 story quoting Officer Melanie Brenner of the Montgomery County police. (I don't normally read the Examiner but happened to pick it up while riding a Metro train.)

The article, headlined "Police examining links between principal's slaying and his sexuality," included the following sentence: "On Wednesday, police spokeswoman Officer Melanie Brenner said that detectives are aware that Betts was gay and that they were 'looking into the possibility that his lifestyle may have played a role in his murder.' "

Assuming the Post realizes it's 2010 and begins including individuals' sexuality when relevant in news stories, there are two reasons why the word "lifestyle" shouldn't be used in this context, either by local police departments or by the Post:

The first is that the use of "lifestyle" to describe gay people is simply
misleading. People who are homosexual have as wide a variety of lifestyles as people who are heterosexual.

The second reason to avoid this term is reflected by the fact that the Examiner pursued this aspect of the story while the Post did not. The Examiner is aimed at conservative readers who consider gay people a threat, and for such people, the phrase "homosexual/gay lifestyle" embodies that threat. That is, the intent of the Examiner story was to suggest that Brian Betts in some sense deserved what happened to him because of his "lifestyle."

Beyond all this, of course, is the question of whether someone's use of a phone-sex chat line, or similar ways to meet people online, has anything to do with one's orientation. I can see validity in the Post's argument that this could be reported as a separate issue from Betts' sexuality, despite views to the contrary. For unknown reasons, he may have felt that he had no options other than anonymous ones to meet partners. But all sorts of people, even anti-gay bigots (such as George Rekers), periodically go online to meet their needs. So it seems to me that this is indeed separable.

Posted by: remulac | May 12, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

What people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms is not my business. I'm perfectly happy to have not known he was gay because I really don't care. What mattered to me in this story was that a community lost someone who was making decent efforts to make a better community.

If this were a hate crime, yea I'd want to know then. However it was just a moron crime, meaning that stupid people acted in a mundanely evil way.

People who get wound up about other people's sexual orientation are the ones with real problems. This is also a good marker as to if they're not a decent person. After all, who's next on their lists of people to hate

Posted by: Nymous | May 15, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree that relevance and privacy are the keys to reporting sexual orientation.

The idea that not reporting the sexual identity of a gay victim emboldens or empowers homophobes may be myopic. If the Post starts discosing the homosexuality of, for example, alleged criminals, then this, too, would reinforce the homophobic notion that homosexuals are deviants, even if the crime is not relevant to their sexual orientation.

Basically, it cuts both ways.

Posted by: JohninMpls | May 17, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"'By omitting a person's sexual orientation,' he continued, 'the Post tacitly reinforces the erroneous and harmful presumption that everyone is heterosexual.'"

That's partly right. The other part is, by using the words "disclose" or "reveal" to refer to mentioning a person's sexual orientation, the Post tacitly reinforces the erroneous and harmful presumption that sexual orientation is something to be hidden or concealed. Which it shouldn't be, of course, but straight people aren't the ones facing high stakes if a news story reports that they are heterosexual.

Posted by: walkleftstandright | May 17, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

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