Why LGBT Journalists Are Important

One of the perennial questions for NLGJA is explaining why our organization is necessary and why openly LGBT journalists in the newsroom are important. I can’t think of a better example than this video, from the Twin Cities’ Fox9 anchor Jason Matheson who is on “Good Day Minnesota.”

Here, he talks about the story of Justin Aaberg, a teen who committed suicide after being bullied. After talking about the need for more education and people stepping-up to help kids, he talks about his own experience of being bullied and called “the f-word.” The reaction from his co-host shows how unexpected and moving the segment was.

There’s often a question of why–especially in television–there is a need for more openly LGBT anchors and reporters. Not every story needs self-disclosure, but the idea that openly LGBT journalists can’t bring some perspective–and sometimes self-disclosure–to a story that helps illuminate it is challenged in this piece.

Is WaPo About to Rethink Its Policy of Identifying Gays?

A column by Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander and a follow-up on his blog suggests that the paper is on the verge of reconsidering its policy on identifying the sexual orientation of people in news stories. The possible change comes as many have questioned the paper’s unwillingness to identify a murder victim as gay after it became clear he met his alleged attackers on a gay sex chat.

Here’s Alexander’s take on the paper’s failure to identify the fact that Brian Betts, the murdered middle school principal, was gay even though it was widely reported in the LGBT and mainstream press.

When police spokesmen initially confirmed that Betts was gay, they clearly were not signaling a direct link between his sexual orientation and the crime. At that time, The Post was correct in not following the media pack.

But the disclosure of the phone-sex chat shifts the balance to disclosing Betts was gay, for several reasons.

Mentioning it provides readers with a potential piece of the puzzle surrounding his murder. And disclosure highlights the dangers people can face in arranging liaisons with strangers through phone-sex chat services, as mentioned in a Post story Wednesday. Also, Betts’s slaying is similar to others locally and nationally. “The fact that he was gay is not as important as the fact that he was most likely targeted because he was gay,” said Kelly Pickard, co-chair of a local group called Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence.

But mostly, disclosure is important to The Post’s credibility. Reader Glenn Merritt of Vienna complained about being kept in the dark. “Just about everyone now knows” that Betts was gay, he wrote me, “unless, of course, the reader relies solely on The Washington Post for news.”

And here’s Alexander’s follow-up on his blog.

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.

This is good news, if they follow through. This is not the first time the paper has wrestled with a policy that seems to be out-of-date.  While the policy of not identifying a person’s sexual orientation unless relevant made sense at one time, changing views of being openly LGBT mean that being gay or lesbian isn’t something that needs to be hidden and only disclosed in the rare circumstance.  There’s no need for coded language or omissions, especially in a high-profile case like the Betts murder where it was being reported broadly.

While there are many in Washington who may not want their sexual orientation identified for job reasons, it’s not as though the WaPo is suddenly going to stick a sexual orientation label on every person in every story.  Instead, it is a judgment when there is news value or further develops the story, even if it doesn’t meet the higher threshold of “relevant.”

The fact that both LGBT and straight staff at the WaPo feel it’s time for a change also demonstrates the need for diversity in the newsroom.  Without LGBT voices at the WaPo, how would this conversation be different?  While Alexander has been a strong voice in favor of better coverage of the LGBT community, there is also a need for voices inside the newsroom–including LGBT staffers who can bring their unique perspective on the news decisions.  This has always been one of the reasons NLGJA exists, both to improve coverage and also guarantee there are LGBT voices inside newsrooms.

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NAMBLA, Polygamy and LGBT Smears

As if School Safety Czar Kevin Jennings wasn’t already the latest target of conservative attacks, a speech where he praised gay rights pioneer Harry Hay has led the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Weekly Standard and Fox News commentators to suggest Jennings supports NAMBLA.

Here’s how the Times editorial lays out the connection:

The tale gets even more troubling. On Oct. 25, 1997, at a conference for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Mr. Jennings stated, “One of the people that’s always inspired me is Harry Hay.” The late Hay was a “gay-rights” activist most notorious for supporting the North American Man Boy Love Association. In 1983, speaking in support of NAMBLA, Hay claimed: “[I]f the parents and friends of gays are truly friends of gays, they would know from their gay kids that the relationship with an older man is precisely what 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old kids need more than anything else in the world.”

Admiration for someone associated with such a noxious organization raises questions about the motivation behind the counseling provided by Mr. Jennings. It’s possible that Mr. Jennings’ astounding advice to students in his charge wasn’t a mistake but was based on what he really believes is acceptable.

Progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America remains all over the story and has focused its attention on the NAMBLA/Harry Hay accusation.

The Fox Nation and The Washington Examiner linked Department of Education official Kevin Jennings to the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) based on a 1997 speech in which Jennings praised gay rights activist Harry Hay, who had spoken in support of the organization. But like many obituaries written about Hay upon his death in 2002, Jennings was touting Hay as a gay civil rights pioneer for his role in helping start “the first ongoing gay rights groups in America” in 1948, and Jennings’ comments had nothing to do with NAMBLA.

Tying Jennings to NAMBLA in a story about teens and sex with older men is an irresistable smear, but one that needs to be challenged. It also represents a misrepresentation of one of the key figures in LGBT history.

Bringing actual reporting and context to these kinds of stories is important because they can snowball. They are also the kinds of attacks that can be unfairly used against other LGBT officials.

Although the story hasn’t picked up much steam, the newest person getting conservative blog focus is Georgetown Law School professor Chai Feldblum, who has been nominated to be a commissioner on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

(Full disclosure: I used to cover the EEOC and Feldblum was a guest at NLGJA-DC’s 2008 holiday party. She also was part of a job interview I had in 1999).

Washington D.C.’s LGBT newspaper MetroWeekly lays out the allegations.

Feldblum is a professor at Georgetown Law, and was nominated by President Obama in September to be a Commissioner at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She is an out lesbian, and part of her long list of causes and interests includes LGBT rights as well as workplace issues, disability, health and welfare rights. The increasingly effective tactics of the extremely anti-gay conservative media machine has been generating mainstream headlines lately, and thereby emboldening Republican Congressmen to take aim at subjects like the nationality of President Obama, the funding of ACORN, and the qualifications of Obama’s department appointees. Kevin Jennings is an out gay appointee who heads the Safe and Drug Free Schools at the Department of Education and a demand was put forth today by Republican Representative Steve King. Right-wing pundits to these appointees with Communist-sounding terms like “Obama’s czars,” and have now concentrated on a “manifesto” that Feldblum had signed in 2006. It is an online document called “Beyond Same Sex Marriage” that examines the needs of families in America’s increasingly diverse society.

Feldblum signed on to a “manifesto” called Beyond Same-Sex Marriage which advocated for a broader definition of “family” for the purposes of legal rights and benefits.  One of the family units mentioned is “[c]ommitted, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.”  That has raised the spectre that Feldblum supports polygamy.

The irony is that Felblum is often cited favorably by conservative pundits for her writing on same-sex marriage and religious liberty, arguing there is a conflict that needs to be recognized by supporters of same-sex marriage.

The Feldblum story has not hit the traditional media yet, although it has all the characteristics of a story that is just waiting to emerge. Fair and accurate reporting on Feldblum’s position–the controversy, interestingly, has little to do with the work of the EEOC–can provide important context to any criticisms.

Defaming Howard K. Stern

Is calling someone “gay” defamation? Not according to a big legal victory–but some confusing journalism–involving author Rita Cosby and Anna Nicole Smith’s former business and romantic partner Howard K. Stern. A federal judge in New York ruled that Cosby’s assertion that Stern was gay was not “defamation per se,” but that the underlying allegations involving sex and a sex tape could be the basis of a defamation claim.

Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled a “veritable sea change in attitudes about homosexuality” and a “‘current of contemporary public opinion’ does not support the notion that New Yorkers view gays and lesbians as shameful or odious.” Chin’s decision conflicts with other ruilngs in New York on the question, which raises the possibility the larger legal issue could find its way to New York’s highest court.

In the ruling, the court cited an amicus curiae–friend of the court–brief filed by Lambda Legal supporting the position that calling someone gay is not “publicly shameful and odious.”

The reporting on the story has been confusing, at best.  Reuters started the confusion by stating:

A companion of late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith can sue an author for defamation but not over gay sex claims because homosexuality is no longer viewed as contemptible, a U.S. judge said on Wednesday.

The ruling actually says just the opposite. The gay sex claims can be the basis of a defamation claim in terms of having a defamatory intent. In other words, saying someone was in a sex tape with a man can be viewed as defamatory depending on the intent and the truth. That’s an  issue the judge sent to a jury. The story is correct in saying “homosexuality is no longer viewed as contemptible” and therefore the mere assertion someone is gay can’t be the basis of a claim, without something more.

Unfortunately, the Advocate appears to have used the Reuters story as its main source and repeats the confusion.

The confusion–and to be fair, it is a legal nuance that’s hard to explain–is handled better at Towleroad where Andy has focused on the “being called gay” part of the claim.  The New York Daily News doesn’t bother with the gay defamation angle, focusing only on the sex tape. The Associated Press apparently took the same approach, skipping over the big legal news.

Charlie Perez Speaks

. . . or at least writes in the Daily Beast about his experience at WPLG that resulted in his firing.

Perez contends that he was fired because his sexual orientation was beginning to take on too prominent a role and that his desire to have a husband and kids was seen as too much for viewers to handle.

It was a suggestion that never would have been made to one of my straight colleagues, male or female. The only thing I could take from it was that my profile as a gay man, especially if I were to have kids and, God forbid, get married, would render me less promotable and less advertiser-friendly.

In fact, over the previous five months, I’d been told, “Don’t get married, Charles. We don’t need that.” I’d also been told not to have children. In essence: “You’re the main anchor and you’re gay, but let’s not push it.”

To me, having the family I want is not pushing it. Living with love, commitment, and dignity is not pushing it.

I did not want this moment. I had hoped to be at the station for the rest of my professional career. However, I could not choose that career over the man I love and our commitment to build a family together.

I am the first to admit I don’t understand the world of TV news. I do understand, however, that the image of the anchors is the image of the network and that stations are very concerned with how anchors are perceived. While female anchors appear to face more daunting scrutiny (which may explain the almost complete absence of lesbian anchors, Rachel Maddow notwithstanding), there is certainly scrutiny for male anchors who are expected to be very “male” and “authoritative.” It explains why there are few Asian-American anchors of weeknight broadcasts, and possibly why there are so few gay ones.

These allegations about not being “too gay” by being married or having kids does reinforce the idea that those few openly gay weeknight anchors in local television are often presented with few personal details. It explains why they are rarely photographed with men on their arms or with partners. It also likely explains why so many are in the closet.