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Straight-Washing in Murky Dishwater

So now I'm a straight-washer. Who knew?

Kevin Naff, managing editor of the Washington Blade, now responds to my post about his editorial on how the Post handles the sexual identity of people we write about. Naff says reporters should make it a standard daily practice to ask sources whether they are gay, just as we might ask someone if they are married or whether they have children.

My argument was that a person's family structure or sexual orientation is only germane to a newspaper story if we're writing about family, if we're writing a profile that gets into the subject's personal life, or if the literary structure of the piece calls for a level of intimacy that reaches beyond the ordinary focus on policy or other highly public news topics. Naff is a very good journalist and a strong advocate for the audience he serves--the Blade is Washington's gay weekly. But he errs here in trying to apply the standards that make sense for a specialized publication like the Blade to a broad-based news organization like the Post.

Let's get practical here: Naff and I debated the case of Randi Miller, Metro's choice to be its new public address system voice. The Post's coverage of her selection did not mention that she is a lesbian; the Blade's coverage did. The Post reporters did not know she is a lesbian; the Blade reporter obviously did. The difference: They asked; we didn't.

So: Should we have asked? I wouldn't unless I were writing a personality profile, the kind of piece that looks beyond her selection as the voice of Metro and gets into her career, home life, where she grew up and so on. We never wrote that story, though it would have been a perfectly interesting one to publish. But in the limited scope of an article about her voice work, I wouldn't have asked about her family situation, regardless of her sexual identity.

Naff writes:

"Randi Miller would have gladly told the Post that she's a lesbian had the reporter asked. Failure to include that information serves only to keep gay newsmakers in the closet. Just ask, many of us are happy to tell."

That's nice to know, and I'll keep it in mind in case I ever want to write a profile of her. But consider for a moment a gay person who doesn't want that fact known to the outside world. I have a specific source in mind--a politician whose work I occasionally write about. I happen to know that he is gay. He does not live a hypocritical lie in his public life--his votes and his advocacy are supportive of gay rights, so the legitimate and necessary avenue of inquiry that opens into a politician's private life when he's voting hypocritically does not exist. He simply chooses to keep his sexual identity out of the public limelight. Many gay advocates would argue that he does not have that right, that by virtue of choosing a public career, he is obliged to make his homosexuality public.

I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, but I don't think it's my right as a journalist to impose my view on readers or on sources. So I respect that source's wishes. There are, of course, two caveats here: If he were to act in his job in a way that was contrary to the interests of the gay community, there'd be a legitimate question to be asked of him. And if he were to become prominent enough through his work to merit a larger profile in the Post, then the standard questions about personal life should be asked, and the answers should be published, just as they would were he heterosexual. "He lives with his partner in Palookaville," the story might say. Or the story might go into the challenges he faces as a gay man in a very public position.

But I reject the notion that I am obliged, barring any news-driven cause to do so, to publish the fact that he is gay against his express wishes to keep that to himself. If the Blade wants to do that to make a political point, that's a decision its editors must make, weighing their sense of their journalistic role against the man's personal desire for privacy. But the Post ought not be in the business of making political points through our news decisions.

Naff writes:

"The Post and other mainstream media should stop enforcing anachronistic customs of avoiding the subject of sexual orientation and give people the chance to answer the question."

I agree that we are generally too timid about writing about sexuality. I agree we should cover gay issues more aggressively, more frequently and with a whole lot less of the Victorian gentleman attitude that newspapers cling to in a let-it-all-hang-out society.

But we would be wrong to turn our news pages into a vehicle for outing people who prefer to keep their orientation to themselves. Heterosexual sources routinely ask me and other reporters not to mention their divorce or that they have stepchildren or other such matters. The proper answer to them, as it is to Naff, is that when the news warrants it, we should publish that information, whether or not the source wants us to. And when the information is not germane to the story we're writing, we should leave it out.

I'll finish with one last example: In today's column, I write about two artists whose work is appearing in a benefit gallery show for artists who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Thinking back on my interviews with them, I did not ask either of them a single question about whether they are married, who they live with, or what their sexual orientation might be. The story gets into their intimate thoughts about the storm and their direction in life and their art and its meaning. But family just didn't come up, and it would have been artificial and serve little purpose for me to have imposed that subject on those interviews. If I were writing a longer piece, say, for Style about those same artists, I likely would have asked those questions in an effort to flesh out the study of those characters, to understand why they moved where they did after the storm, to develop a picture of the challenges they now face. In that case, I would have published a description of their living situation.

Tell me where that's wrong.

By Marc Fisher |  February 28, 2006; 7:52 AM ET
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You aren't wrong Marc (at least, about this). Your mission drives you to provide your reader only the data that is relevant to the point of the story.

Naff's agenda forces him to see everything through the prism of moving homosexuality more into the mainstream.

Posted by: JD | February 28, 2006 10:21 AM

Marc, I think you are right. As a queer person, I actually agree with most of the Blade's agenda, although it is a boring read. But I am occasionally quoted in the Post regarding my work. Because of the nature of it, my quotes talk about serious things, like people dying. Although I'm out to everyone I know and am happy to talk about my girlfriend to any stranger who will listen to how fabulous she is, it's not relevant to a story. "'This death was tragic,' said X, a bi woman who is currently dating a woman who is a lesbian," would just be a stupid line in a story.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 28, 2006 11:28 AM

Oh, the germanity!
(germaneity just didn't look right)

I agree with JD, and add that Naff's agenda isn't wrong; he's doing his job by opening a dialogue with you (and the WaPo) about it.


Posted by: bc | February 28, 2006 11:34 AM

Wow, it's good to see there still are liberals in our society.

You're not wrong and really let it go Marc, the more this eggs you on the more he wants his paper to sell.

It's not important what sexuality you are, it just isn't.

Also, there is a great danger in you asking the wrong person and they take offense and the next thing WP is getting sued.

I can see it now, may I ask a more personal question "are you gay"....the response: "Hell No" and simply by you asking the public starts to wonder why you would ask that question and then suddenly the person is suspect.

Not a good thing...if you're gay and want to come out fine...but I ain't interested in being told if the story or article isn't about personal issues.


Posted by: Frankey | February 28, 2006 1:29 PM

I think you are right too. The only issue that concerns me is one that was raised when you wrote about this topic previously, which is that, if we don't learn that people are gay in the context of other topics, we risk continuing to define gay people as being all about their sexuality rather than as also being about their achievements, preferences, hobbies, family, community, politics, and so on.

So I'd say stick w/ the topic rather than awkward, irrelevant references to someone's sexual identity, but think more about whether it is relevant. It may be that doing so won't change your practice at all, but you may find that you notice opportunities to refer to someone's sexuality in ways that are, at least, relevant if not central to the story.

I don't mean to say that presenting gay people in a complex way should be your mission, as it is for Naff, but doing so would serve a broad social purpose that is consistent with WaPo's goals of portraying the richness of our community in all its dimensions.

Posted by: THS | February 28, 2006 2:37 PM

Yep, from another gay person, you are right, Marc. Can you spell "relevant," kids? If it's not the kind of story where you'd ask marital status, then why would you ask if the subject if s/he is gay? Did we know or care about the sexual orientation of the person who made the previous Metro recording? (Of course, I don't an entire column to explain this obvious point, but that's another matter.)

One serious bone to pick, however: you find it necessary to set up a straw man by saying that "many" gay rights advocates would say a public figure must disclose his or her sexuality. What's the basis for that claim? I bet the split is probably at least 60/40 against, not to mention that "gay rights advocates" include many mainstream groups. Even among gays generally, I doubt your assertion is correct.

I suspect you'll say you didn't intend your statement to be read in any negative way. That's still a problem, however. Even an offhanded statement that "many" rights advocates want to force politicians out of the closet tends to feed the myth that the gay "agenda" remains radical and unreasonable, rather than being a fight for basic human dignity and rights that others in our society have the luxury to take for granted.

Posted by: Downtown | February 28, 2006 3:47 PM

Insisting that newspapers should ask questions about people's presumed gayness, and print the answer? That's really political correctness gone wild.

Mr.Naff should realize that knowing about other people's sexual orientation is not a right enshrined in the Constitution, last time I checked.

Also, that's not my primary source of concern when I open a newspaper to learn about the news of the world.

Posted by: Flabbergasted | February 28, 2006 5:37 PM

That ice skater doesn't talk about his gayness or non-gayness, but The Post just wrote about 10,000 words on the "if" of it...

Posted by: Bunk | February 28, 2006 6:24 PM

I think you're right on track, Marc. I strongly support gay rights, but this is an issue where you get all of the subleties right.

Posted by: Rob | February 28, 2006 7:13 PM

Another "Yes, you got it right, Marc". Though Downtown's critique about the insensitive use of the straw man also sounds right to me. If the point was necessary for you to make, "Some", rather than "Many", would have been more accurate.

Posted by: Mark | February 28, 2006 9:30 PM

Thanks for raising this topic. I don't want to know about a reporter or politician's (or anyone's) sexuality, unless it taints what they do. There's already too much drawing of distinctions on the basis of people's idiosyncracies, instead of focussing on the essentials like humaneness, competence, honesty and courage. The proper answer to the question of one's sexuality is "Why do you ask that?" And if someone's sexuality matters, there's something wrong with somebody -- next, we need to ask with whom.

Posted by: JG | March 1, 2006 10:44 AM

I also agree. Full disclosure: I am not gay or a journalist, but my degree was in Photojournalism. I know that when last i looked, the AP Styleguide said to not include race, orientation or any other fact that is not germain to the story. In my time the case was race when doing a story about a crime. Indeed if I am interviewed about my web design work, it doesn't matter that I am an atheist WASP unless I just designed the Jewish Asian Lesbian Adoption Site and the only question would be, "How did I get THAT job?"

Posted by: SC | March 1, 2006 12:31 PM

I absolutely disagree. Sexuality has been politicized, and not by gays. The far right is making it a political litmus test, and central to that stand is an effort to marginalize gays. if gays are recognized as mainstream, it is a lot harder to successfully restrict their civil rights. It is important for people to know if prominent public figures are gay, so that the public can understand that gay people are people. If a politician is gay and seeks to deceive his constituency/maintain his privacy, that person should be able to keep his sexuality off the record. But that's different from not asking. Let's keep it in perspective -- there are probably more gays than Asian Americans. I rarely see a profile on an Asian American (or other minority) that fails to take that into account and celebrate it -- and that is proper. Achievements by gays should be celebrated as well, but you can't do that unless you ask the question.

Posted by: Straight guy | March 1, 2006 1:34 PM

Where does this stop? Should you ask every person you interview where they were born? Where they went to school? What television shows they like? Or, more insidiously, the implication made by Naff is that The Post should identify every person interviewed by their race, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, clothing size, and dog/cat preference. Your point is valid. Unless the personal specifics of the individual are grmane to either the story or the publication, they have no business being printed.

Posted by: Born Virginian now a happy Marylander | March 2, 2006 10:59 AM

I think what Naff was getting at is why do reporters or society automatically assume everyone is straight? I think you should have asked her about the reactions of her family to the Metro announcement, and let her decide how to respond. The city paper once did a feature on my run in with multiple burglaries, and they mentioned I was gay; sure didn't seem relavant to the story.

I can't tell you how many times people just assume I'm interested in women (I'm a gay man). Its usually when you first meet people, say on a vacation, and the men especially start pointing out women with a comment; when you hint that you're not interested, they seem shocked (after they figure it out).

Posted by: Melvin | March 2, 2006 6:13 PM

Aside to Straight Guy: Thanks for the moral support, but saying that "there are probably more gays than Asian Americans" is like saying there are more Catholics than Asians, as if you couldn't be both at the same time, while unwittingly affirming yet another unhelpful stereotype, that the gay community is basically a bunch of white guys. (For the record, I can testify to being both Asian and gay.)

So, while I agree that the issue of sexuality has been politicized by the right -- and the left -- the fact that even a self-stated ally could so easily forget the diversity of the gay community in the heat of discussions shows that stereotypes will persist despite our best intentions unless and until we routinely treat sexuality, race, or whatever, as irrelevant to our individual achievements, subject to obvious exceptions, which is all that Mr. Fisher is arguing, I think.

In other words, inquiring about a person's sexuality where it isn't really relevant is a bit like saying, "She's pretty good at what she does [making Metro announcements, playing sports, working with computers, etc.] for a [insert race, sex, age, etc.]" The only way we can make such ridiculous comparisons part of the past is to treat sexuality, etc., as irrelevant, except when someone else has specifically made it an issue, as you note.

In this case, no one accused Randi Miller of being unqualified to make Metro announcements because she is lesbian. While the Post reporter *could* have asked if she was and there should be no shame in the question or the answer, I don't think the reporter was *required* to do so, which is Mr. Fisher's point. And I certainly hope you aren't advocating that people should know Ms. Miller's sexuality just so they could have a rueful chuckle and say, "Yep, it figures, a lesbian. No straight woman could have the voice to lay down the law like that." An insulting stereotype to lesbians and non-lesbians alike, frankly. So let's leave it out of the equation, and have people focus on her achievements.

Posted by: Downtown | March 2, 2006 7:54 PM

I think many of the responders have not actually read Naff's response to Fisher's blog. He offers some very pointed examples where people's (presumed) heterosexuality or marriage are routinely mentioned in articles where they have no relevance at all, whereas people's (possible) homosexuality is not even broached. Surely, there is a double standard at work here. This is Naff's point. To deny that there is a double standard in the treatment of sexuality in the Post and other mainstream newspapers seems weird to me. "Straight-washing" is standard practice, and it does serve to marginalize gay people.

Posted by: Claude | September 5, 2006 1:28 PM

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