AP Revises “Husband,” “Wife” Terminology For Same-Sex Couples (Again) After Outcry

ap-stylebookYou don’t generally hear a lot of controversy coming out of the copy-editing world (discounting the Oxford comma debacle of 1978, of course).

But a war of words broke out when the Associated Press released an internal memo recently, announcing it would only refer to married gay individuals as “husband” or “wife” if the couple made it clear they used those terms themselves and, even then, in quotations.

Same-sex couples: We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (“Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones”) or in quotes attributed to them.

Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

We can just see it: A lesbian couple narrowly escapes a fire that destroyed their home, and the first question the reporter asks is, “How do you refer to each other?” Get real.

The memo was allegedly a revision of an earlier decision to not to use “husband” or “wife” in reference to same-sex partners at all—even when they’ve had legal ceremonies in states that respect marriage equality. (In November, the AP also dropped the term “homophobia” because it claimed it was innaccurate.

Now the esteemed news service—whose style bible is used by newspapers, writers and classrooms nationwide—has revised its decision again, after Jen Christensen, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association, reached out.

The new new entry, added to the online version of the AP Stylebook yesterday, reads:

Husband, Wife: Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage.  Spouse or partner may be used if requested.

In a statement, the NLGJA said it “applauds” The Associated Press for setting things right: “Language choices like these have an impact.”

We have some choice language we’d like use in regards to the AP, but we’ll keep quiet.

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  • Fidelio

    Seems the terminology used ought to based on legal precedence where the story is reported. This seems to be more of a technicality more than anything. In my view, AP ought to stay as sterile as possible and continue reporting fact-based journalism. Until Jeff Zucker comes along and fucks everything up.

  • Fidelio

    *ought to be

    seriously, queerty, get a goddamn edit button. you know we’re drinking as we write.

  • viveutvivas

    You’re miscomprehending the quotations part of the revised policy you quote, Queerty.

  • viveutvivas

    By the way, I don’t see what was wrong with the policy of using the terminology the couple prefers. The NLGJA are a bunch of uptight turds.

  • Fidelio

    @viveutvivas: I gotta say my first thought was, Who Made NLGJA queen? Wouldn’t it be more responsible for AP to use terminology legal and specific, rather than what NLGJA deems as “acceptable”?

  • jwrappaport

    @viveutvivas: That’s exactly what the NLGJA were asking for – the default as husband/wife while leaving couples free to use partner/spouse if they so choose. The problem was that the AP set the default at partner/spouse without giving anyone a choice.

    @Fidelio: No, the AP is a massive organization. It would be incredibly cumbersome to limit the terms to jurisdictionally correct ones given the hodgepodge of euphemisms states use, to say nothing of countries that give no recognition at all. That’s the whole point of the marriage debate: We don’t want to be legally different – we want legal equality that is not dependent on the whims of different states.

    I applaud the AP for changing this. It’s not complicated: I just want to have the same legal and social equality that heteros have.

  • alexoloughlin

    I find it ironic that this comes on the heels of yesterday’s announcement by rival media giant Reuters endorsing the UK’s equal marriage legislation. AP has a very checkered history of LGBT equality, not that good either. It also opposes equal marriage.

  • Fidelio

    @jwrappaport: I may have misunderstood the way Queerty reported this because, in fact, AP’s new style policy only affects stories in areas where same-sex marriage is legal and not, necessarily, where same-sex marriage is still not recognized. We can’t just SAY husband-husband in areas where same-sex marriage is not yet legal since, journastically speaking, it would be incorrect, although morally it may be wrong.

  • jwrappaport

    @Fidelio: This is babble. Journalistic “correctness” does not turn on the legal recognition of the relationship. I doubt very sincerely that the AP would ever decline to use the term “father” or “dad” when speaking of either member of a gay male couple raising children. Do you really suppose that they would use “guardian” for stories in Louisiana et al, and reserve “dad” or “father” for progressive states? Or perhaps that they would simply use the neutral “guardian” for every state to “avoid confusion”? What about refusing to use the word “family” in states that disallow both gay marriage and adoption? Of course not – these are ridiculous propositions, and yet they stem precisely from the argument being advanced in favor of “partner” being the baseline.

    If that’s not sufficiently absurd, suppose AP is reporting from a country whose legal position is to simply deny the existence of homosexuality. If the correct word, as you argue, turns on legal recognition, then I am puzzled as to how an Iranian lesbian couple could be written about at all considering that even recognition of their relationship is legally forbidden.

  • jwrappaport

    @Fidelio: Also, your statement, “We can’t just SAY husband-husband in areas where same-sex marriage is not yet legal” is equally unpersuasive: We not only can say it, we do say it (and write it quite a lot). The AP is simply a group of people subject to the same biases and prejudices everyone else is. Here, their word is not holy writ, it is wholly shit.

  • Fidelio

    @jwrappaport: Calm. The Fuck. Down. This is not babble. Initially, you applauded AP for their change, however, it may be premature considering they are only making this “stylistic” change for “…individuals in any legally recognized marriage.”

    In the US, if a boyfriend/girlfriend reported upon, the couple can claim to be married, but it would be incorrect to report it as fact. Most reporters use a qualifier.

    In Iran, where homosexuality is “illegal”, journalists cannot say husband or wife, regardless of what the couple claims, unless they qualify it.

    Bottom line, AP, Reuters, et al ought to report on facts, especially since other news outlets gather a significant amount of their information from these type sources.

  • jwrappaport

    @Fidelio: “I AM CALM! WHAT IS IT WITH YOU PEOPLE?!” 10 points if you get the reference.

    Anyway, you never responded to my counter, so I will present it again: Your argument is that legal recognition of a relationship is a necessary condition for the factual existence of that relationship as a matter of journalistic practice. If that is so, then in Iran, where the factual existence of homosexuals is denied as a matter of law, a fortiori, so too must the government deny the factual existence of same-sex romantic relationships up to and including married couples. Given that, your logic would require that the AP use no romantic designation (e.g., girlfriends) whatsoever to refer to say an unmarried lesbian couple living in Tehran.

    Suppose an interracial couple (i.e., white male and non-white female) gets married in Virginia in 1945. The Arlington Circuit Court Clerk doesn’t realize the wife is not white and certifies the marriage in violation of state anti-miscegenation laws. The AP then does a story in 2013 on the couple. Your argument would require that AP refrain from using terms that indicate the married status of the couple.

    Bottom line: The imprimatur of law is not a necessary condition for the factual existence of a relationship as a matter of journalistic correctness. If you argue that it is, then you must account for the examples I provided and the absurd constructions that result from your argument.

  • Fidelio

    @jwrappaport: I believe I did address your point, albeit generally, so I’ll address it more specifically.

    Firstly, homosexuality is recognized in Iran, but is recognized as a sin, illegal, and grossly immoral. If two gay men or women in a relationship were exposed, tried, and convicted, and AP decides to run the story, then AP ought to say as much: “Two men in Iran were convicted today of homosexuality and have been sentenced to 50 years in prison.” Not, “Two husbands were convicted…” In fact, that is what AP has stated, the style change ONLY pertains to same-sex couples where their marriage is legally recognized.

    There is a back story in these circumstances, for sure. But journalistically speaking, nothing ought to be inferred. The back story needs to be told, but in a different news format. In my view, news organizations such as AP and Reuters serve such a critical role in news reporting it is important not to infer items, unless presented with a qualifier.

    Case in point: your Virginia 1945 scenario. AP would correctly report the couple is married because the state bestowed upon them a marriage certificate, albeit erroneously. But the error is the back story. The fact is they are married.

    Anger Management. 10 points, please.

  • jwrappaport

    @Fidelio: Ten points are yours! Great flick.

    Homosexuality is NOT recognized in Iran, good sir. Their president spoke to that point exactly. I don’t think that’s in any serious controversy.

    In the VA example, your argument changes: Is legal recognition a necessary condition for AP recognition or isn’t it? You seem to say it’s not, and I agree. You say the interracial couple is married, yet they were not at the moment of the granting of their marriage license. Legally speaking, you are trying to invoke what is called an estoppel, i.e., a legal bar that prevents a party from changing their position to the detriment of another party: Because VA granted the license, they should be estopped (i.e., forbidden) to deny the existence of that contract. Is your argument that the couple was only married after Loving v. Virginia and not at any point before? If you are, I think you’re being too formalistic and ignoring the social context of the relationship.

    I have to ask again: Is legal recognition a necessary condition for AP recognition of a relationship? If it is, then you have to have very different rules for different states and countries, which is exactly what the AP should be trying to avoid.

    PS: Are you a Beethoven fan? Your name “Fidelio” is telling.

  • Fidelio

    @jwrappaport: 10 points for recognizing Beethoven’s only opera. Even Steven.

    In your scenario, you mentioned the couple were married, in violation of anti-miscegenation laws. You did not say the court ever reneged on their marriage certificate. So I have to presume they remained married through their 2013 AP interview.

    But let’s say VA did retract their certification and AP does a story on that. This, then, becomes a story about status, the very same thing we are discussing. Ergo, the entire story is the qualifier, no?

    P.S. Are you a retired attorney? Fortiori, Arlington Circuit Court Clerk, “impramatur of law”, and “estoppel” are telling.

  • Fidelio

    @jwrappaport: By the way, homosexuality is criminalized in Iran, therefore, it is recognized, per penal code article 110 (sodomy) and article 129 (homosexuality by genitals). Ahmadinejad may have stated homosexuality does not exist, but that is only rhetoric and not factual.

  • jwrappaport

    @Fidelio: Ha! Just a lowly law student at the moment, although I don’t think I want to practice law when I get out. Maybe more school. Different story.

    In the Iran example, it is the relationships that do not formally exist; thus, how could the AP refer to two unmarried lesbians in Tehran? Again, assuming that legal recognition is required, then AP couldn’t say girlfriends, because that relationship is legally proscribed.

    Moreover, what about California? Same-sex married (or civilly unioned) couples have different legal names for their relationships pre- and post-Prop 8. Assuming that the Supreme Court does not overturn it, should the AP refer to those couples differently? Frankly, it seems very silly and confusing.

    In the VA example, the story need not center around marriage. Suppose it is simply an interracial couple that was erroneously granted a marriage license and lived and died before Loving v. Virginia. How does the AP deal with that? Will they read marriage into the scenario ex-post? If so, then the CA example becomes cumbersome: couples married pre-Prop 8 are married, while couples married post-Prop 8 are civilly unioned according to the AP.

    Like most bastions of prescriptive grammar, the AP created a hard line rule that is poorly suited to the contours and nuances of human language and culture. There are cases where it wouldn’t make sense to refer to a couple being married, i.e., those in which there is not even cultural recognition of those unions (let alone legal recognition). For example, a monogamous, closeted gay couple living in 14th century Flanders. But when there is cultural recognition, as in the case of gay unions in the United States, it makes little sense to make the distinction on legal lines.

  • Fidelio

    @jwrappaport: Ah, law student; well that explains it. Haha – I kid.

    I believe I addressed the Iran scenario, which you can read above. So I’ll just add to those remarks.

    If you look back at news agencies reports about Iran hanging various men for the crime of homosexuality in 2012, you will notice they do not say whether any of these men were couples, boyfriends, or husbands. This is an important point. If they inferred as much, they invariably participate in the story, adding fodder to the story and, possibly, evidence to be entered against them in Iranian court. Iran is so far removed from gay rights that these stories are, invariably, almost handled as human rights violations.

    In CA, same-sex couples are in such limbo that it is the duty, the responsibility of any reputable news agencies to qualify the status of gay couples involved in a story if they formally partnered. For example, if a lesbian couple’s house burns down and AP reports on the story, they invariably will say something akin to the following: “The home was inhabited by two women married under California’s original marriage equality statute…” Had the house burned in MA, then they can say (according to AP’s new style decision), “The home was inhabited by a married female couple.” In either scenario, AP would not have to mention gender if the home dwellers request it.

    In Love v Virginia, the defendants claimed to have a marriage certificate. Instead of relieving the couple, the certificate became evidence they were in violation of local laws, proof they were “cohabitating”. It would be impossible to report on this particular couple without addressing their marriage status classification. It probably would be the only reason to report on them.

    If a non-married interracial couple living together in VA prior to the Love v VA decision had their house burn to the ground and AP picked up on the story, they must report accordingly: “The home was inhabited by Mr. Joe Smith and Ms. Jan Williams.” Whether another news agencies picks up the back story certainly would be interesting, the back story being Mr. Smith is white and Ms. Williams is black (sex between interracial couples was also a crime.) No doubt the couple would deny the true nature of their relationship to the AP reporter. It would be irresponsible for AP to infer they were cohabiting as husband and wife. Doing so would cause a serious breach of journalistic integrity.

    When we discuss reporting, we are talking about facts. AP’s hard line rules about grammar are not incidental, rather weighted in ethics, integrity, and responsibility. It seems what you rail against is the unfairness of laws and life as they exist. And I agree life can be inconvenient, sometimes. But let’s not lose sight of the premise of what AP has done and that is simply reference legally married couples as husband/wife, regardless of gender. Quite frankly, it’s a bit shameful they weren’t doing it already, hence the true newsworthy aspect of this particular blog item.

  • Thomathy

    AP’s hard line rules about grammar are not incidental, rather weighted in ethics, integrity, and responsibility.

    This is not in evidence, nor is it even true. Consider the AP’s recent decision regarding the use of ‘homophobe’; a largely arbitrary decision . That has nothing to do with grammar and, for that matter, there is nothing about grammar that can be weighted in, ‘ethics, integrity, and responsibility [sic].’

    Unless, of course, a stylistic decision to use a comma before a conjunction in a list is such a matter and we both know it isn’t.

    Despite that, you’re mostly correct. I would say, rather, that the AP should report accurately, with qualifiers, the truth as it pertains to the context of the story. If, for instance, in the hypothetical situation about the burned down house recently inhabited by a lesbian couple in a place where marriage equality is not the law, the couple may themselves refer to each other as ‘wife’. Certainly, if it’s relevant to the reporting, the AP reporter, has a duty to refer to the couple as they have, with, if pertinent, a statement qualifying the fact that they are not legally married.

    We may part ways there, since you seem to be ascribing a higher importance to facts of law rather than treating all facts equally. I’m unsure if you would actually expect the couple to be referred to as ‘wives’ by the reporter if they so call themselves wives, regardless of their state of marriage and with or without pertinent qualifiers. Regardless, some facts, while apparently contradictory are not mutually exclusive. A lesbian couple can refer to each other as ‘wife’ without being legally married. Their relationship as defined by them is a fact that should not be ignored and, depending, whether or not they are legally married is a separate fact.

    I somehow don’t think you’ll find that altogether problematic at all.

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