Should the Post Invest in Better Gaydar?
Kevin Naff, the managing editor of the Washington Blade, the area's most prominent gay weekly, says in an editorial that this newspaper is too shy about mentioning when people in the news are gay.
He focuses his criticism on the Post's coverage of the winner in Metro's recent contest to pick a new voice for announcements on the system's trains. The winner, Randi Miller, the Blade reports, is an out lesbian. You didn't read that in the Post's various stories about the contest and Miller because nobody here asked her about her sexuality.
Naff read the Post's story and was intrigued by a line saying that Miller celebrated her victory "with friends at a restaurant." Somehow, this was a clue to him that Miller might be gay. So he put a reporter on the story and found out that that was indeed the case.
So now the Blade has a profile of Miller, a nice feature that, I might note, contains not a syllable beyond the lead--which briefly mentions "the calm alto voice of a local lesbian"--about her sexuality or its impact, if any, on her work.
Naff runs a very good paper that aggressively and fairly stands up for its readership. The Blade's coverage of legislative initiatives in Virginia against homosexuals is exemplary. The paper did fine work on the scandals at the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration. But I think he's wrong on this one.
When I'm interviewing someone, I don't ask them about their sex lives unless it's germane to the story. I don't ask about their family or living arrangements unless I'm working on the kind of personality profile that gets into private as well as public aspects of the character. I wrote and blogged about the Metro voice contest and it never dawned on me to find out whether any of the finalists were married, single, heterosexual or homosexual. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the job they were seeking or the qualifications that Metro was considering.
The Post profile that Naff says should have contained the information about Miller's sexuality did attempt to introduce her to readers, but only superficially. It mentions where she works and her previous experience as a voiceover artist. But it doesn't seek to explore her youth, formative experiences, or any of the other intimate material you'd expect to find in a Style profile or a Sunday magazine piece. Why should it then inquire into her sexuality?
Naff argues that reporters should ask sources about their sexual orientation just as readily as we do about their marital status. But marriage is, as a rule, a publicly declared status. Sexual orientation is public for some and private for others.
"If a reporter thinks that a medal-contending skater is gay, then ask him and report what he says.
"When a famous gay person like Ismail Merchant dies, interview his longtime partner for the obituary. And if an openly gay police officer commits suicide amid charges of institutional homophobia in his district, then investigate it.
"The very fact of an interview subject's sexual orientation should not be considered a private issue any more than a heterosexual person who is asked about having a spouse or children."
I agree that if we're going to write about a public person in enough depth to describe his living arrangements, then it's fair to ask questions such as "Are you married? Do you live with someone? Is so-and-so your partner?" But unless the subject of the story is running for political office or otherwise opening his life to the public, that person has the right to say "None of your business."
I'm with Naff on the matter of interviewing longtime partners for an obituary. I agree that news organizations are often too squeamish about covering gay issues and way too Victorian about the degree to which we will describe things sexual--and that goes for all people we write about, regardless of their orientation.
But I don't see why reporters should make it part of our daily routine to ask sources about their sexual identity. Just like race, sexuality sometimes matters a great deal, but often matters not in the least. Randi Miller became the voice of Metro because of a voice that I described as "smooth jazz: authority with a velvet coating." When I wrote that, I had no idea whether she was a lesbian or a heterosexual. I didn't know her race (though that too became an issue, as some readers suggested that Metro was seeking a "white-sounding" voice, whatever that might be.) I judged her according to the only qualification that mattered: How she sounded. And I think we're all better off for leaving it at that.
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