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.

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  • Fitz

    “Don’t bother unless it’s relevant to the story” is a pretty hard judgment to make when one is a member of a hated minority.

  • Lanjier

    The current policies have presumption on non-disclosure, with exceptions. I think the policies should be to disclose, with exceptions.

    The presumption to disclose is based on the fact that if there is nothing wrong with being gay, disclosing the truth can also never be wrong. But there should be privacy exceptions. A presumption of disclosure, rather than non-disclosure, is consistent with a strong belief that homosexuality is not a choice, but rather an immutable characteristic like eye color.

    One strong exception should be for people who are not public figures. There, unless they have made their sexuality known, a person who is not a public figure should have the presumption on non-disclosure.

  • Cam

    Wait, how do you do a story about somebody possibly being killed after being lured to meet somebody from a gay chat line…and not bring up sexuality? They are actually hurting the story.

    Additionally, in ANY story, if you were to mention something about a wife or girlfriend, if the person was straight, then mention it if they are gay. I get the feeling they don’t agonize about this issues when the person is straight. Nobody comes down on the reporter going “Why did you mention that he and his ex wife own a business together!? That is nobody’s business!”

  • jeffree

    Outing someone in a newspaper, a magazine or on TV is particularly delicate when that person is/was young OR not out at work/ school or with family. Even in clearcut cases of a hatecrime, the report could cause greater consequences than the crime: job loss, loss of business, school issues and family problems (get kicked out, divorced….)

    Even a photo –captioned or not– of someone at one of the AIDS walks or at a protest for LGBT rights can be seen as an outing, with consequences, even tho it ‘s not explicit.

    There can be heg. consequences of excluding mention of the person’s sexual O, too, but I leave those to experts to enumerate ;-)

    There are no easy answers. As long as we don’t have ENDA to protect us, as long as DADT stands and families reject their gay members, this issue is not going away any time soon in MSM the, & here in the blogosphere,

  • JAW

    I have never read an article that stated that a “straight” man was murdered… or robbed… or elected to office… or a car accident… Why would we have to report that it is a Gay Man… for every story?

    The story about Brian Betts, is a bit different… If the police let the Post know that he had contacted a gay sex line before the story was written, I think that they should have added that. It would send a flag and perhaps help prevent another killing, or robbery.

    Why drag info into the story that does not need to be there. The phone line, would need to be a part, if they found out that is where the killers came from. If it had been a friend or a random thug, that did not know that Brian was gay, that did it… why say he was gay

  • ossurworld

    Investigative reporting at its worst. How do you confirm someone is gay? a wink, a nod, or a grope?

  • Joe K

    If it is about violenec or hatred to a minority (any minority) yes it is important. if it jsut a peice about protesting a zoning law change, a traffic accident, witnessing a crime, discussing the weather, then no. If someon is Jewish and bashed for that, then hessl yes. If they are talking about the weather, then what does it have to do with anything, The rules are already there, and shold be followed.

  • B

    No. 2 · Lanjier wrote, “The presumption to disclose is based on the fact that if there is nothing wrong with being gay, disclosing the truth can also never be wrong.”

    Do you think Andrew Wiles’ sexual orientation (he’s married with children and presumably straight) should have been reported when he completed the final step in proving Fermat’s Last Theorem?

    Relevancy is important, as illustrated by a story of Middle Eastern origins. A friend showed up at Nasrudin’s house and Nasrudin suggested they visit some of his neighbors. His friend said he didn’t have decent clothes with him, so Nasrudin loaned him a very nice robe. At the first house, he said, “This is my friend Jamil, but the coat he is wearing is mine.” On the way to the next house, Jamil complained about Nasrudin’s comment about the cloak, as it was rather embarrassing. At the next house Nasrudin said, “This is my friend Jamil, but the coat he is wearing is his.” Jamil was even more upset and said, “please don’t say anything about the coat. At the third house, Nasrudin said, “This is my friend Jamil, but the coat he is wearing …oh, but we aren’t supposed to say anything about the coat, are we?”

  • bab

    Why would it be mentioned if irrelevant? Leaving it out doesn’t make one assume that they’re heterosexual at all. It just means you don’t know. We don’t mention people’s race in a story unless it’s relevant, and often their age is left out unless relevant. I think the people who say it should always be mentioned when the person is out are incredibly stupid.

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