Should Reporters Always Tell Readers If a Person Is Gay?

Every now and then, a story comes along that forces newspapers to think: “What the hell are we doing?” Such is that time for the Washington Post, whose decision not to disclose the sexuality of murdered gay D.C. school principal Brian Betts has the paper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander wondering if the paper should reconsider its disclosure policy. So he’s asking readers.

If it sounds like an eery equivalent to the U.S. military asking soldiers and their families to weigh in on gay disclosure, that’s because it is. But this time it’s just America’s Fourth Estate pondering their policies, and not the institution responsible for keeping this nation safe.

The general rule, including at the Post, about discussing a story subject’s sexuality: Don’t bother, unless it’s relevant to the story. Some might say Betts’ murder did make it relevant; he was killed, police believe, after being lured into a meeting after speaking on a gay phone sex chat line. But does that make Betts being gay essential? Or is the more crucial part of the story about him being targeted because he’s gay? (Also worth mentioning: Betts was an out man.) At the very least, while the Post left out the part about Betts being gay, it didn’t go so far as the Washington Examiner, which blamed Betts’ “gay lifestyle” for his death — because people who operate “straight lifestyles” don’t use phone sex lines.

Writes WaPo‘s Alexander:

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.

But there are some important asterisks.

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.”

On this website, we generally make note of a person’s sexuality if 1) It is known; 2) It is relevant to the story, which it usually is around these parts; 3) The person might easily be assumed to, say, be straight when he is in fact gay, and it’s no big deal either way.