Friday, February 10, 2006
GAY NEWSPAPER READERS have become adept at reading between the lines. When someone is described as "flamboyant," "eccentric" or "a lifelong bachelor," we know what’s being implied. Whether straight readers get it is another question.
Readers of the Washington Post had better hone their gaydar skills, because in story after story, the newsgathering behemoth either ignores questions of sexual orientation or employs endless winks and nods to convey what would be better spelled out.
Take the Post’s lengthy profile of figure skater Johnny Weir, which ran as the lead sports story on Feb. 7. The writer, Amy Shipley, describes Weir as eccentric and notes that some have nicknamed the Olympic medal contender as "Johnny Weird." She devotes extensive attention to Weir’s costume choices, and references his penchant for hair dye, sequins, glitter and even chinchilla scarves.
The accompanying photo shows Weir, 21, on the ice sporting a costume with "one arm covered with fishnet and sequins, part of a silver-and-white cascade of glitter and sparkle designed to evoke his choice of music."
Weir’s father is quoted as saying, "My child’s not weird."
But the article never addresses the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Readers are left to wonder whether the "eccentric" Weir is gay. A profile like this should answer those questions, not raise them.
Of course, a news story reporting the outcome of one of Weir’s competitions wouldn’t include a reference to his sexual orientation, whatever it is. But in a lengthy personal profile, in which parents and colleagues are interviewed, the sexual orientation question is a glaring omission.
Unfortunately, this kind of "straight-washing" isn’t limited to the Post’s sports section.
WHEN RANDI MILLER won a recent competition to record the "doors closing" message for Metro, the Post published the obligatory profile story. The article contains no mention of family or significant other.
It does mention that when Miller won, she celebrated with friends. My gaydar went off, a Blade reporter made a couple of calls and quickly confirmed that Miller is, in fact, an out lesbian. You can read a more complete profile of her on page 40 in this week’s Blade.
And the Post’s straight-washing isn’t confined to personality profiles.
Regular Blade readers know that the D.C. City Council passed-—-and Mayor Anthony Williams signed-—-a sweeping new domestic partnership bill that makes the city one of the most progressive in terms of extending rights to gay couples. Only Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Jersey offer comparable or greater D.P. benefits.
The Domestic Partnership Equality Act provides inheritance rights, child-support and alimony requirements, among other benefits and obligations, for opposite and same-sex domestic partners.
Williams signed the measure on Jan. 26 without fanfare in the privacy of his office. It’s clear that Williams chose to avoid public attention to the D.P. bill because of a fear that conservatives in Congress will try to overturn it during the required 30-day legislative review period.
So is the Post in cahoots with Williams to keep the lid on news of the new law? The largest newspaper in the region has largely failed to report on the matter.
At a time when lawmakers in neighboring Maryland and Virginia are proposing constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, D.C. is moving in a much more tolerant direction. But Post readers wouldn’t know it.
ANOTHER STORY MAKING Blade headlines recently is the apparent suicide of Sgt. Robert Schoonover of the D.C. Police Department’s Fifth District. Schoonover was openly gay and co-founded the Gay Officer’s Action League in the Washington area. Schoonover’s death merited just a one-sentence mention in a Post story about another officer who committed suicide while on duty.
Many newspapers have policies against reporting on suicides, so the initial failure to report Schoonover’s death may appear insignificant. But a Blade report two weeks ago revealed credible allegations of homophobia, racism and sexism in the Fifth District that likely played a role in Schoonover’s death. Again, Post readers wouldn’t know about that.
These kinds of failures at the Post are not a recent phenomenon. The paper was woefully negligent in reporting on the myriad scandals that plagued the city’s HIV/AIDS Administration, which eventually resulted in a City Council investigation and the firing by Mayor Williams of the agency’s director.
Last year, the Post, along with other mainstream publications, was rightly criticized for ignoring the sexual orientation of several high-profile people in published obituaries, including Luther Vandross, Susan Sontag and Ismail Merchant.
It’s time for mainstream media, including the Post, to grow up and take a more complete and honest approach to covering the news. If a reporter thinks that a medal-contending skater is gay, then ask him and report what he says.
When a famous gay person like Ismail Merchant dies, interview his longtime partner for the obituary. And if an openly gay police officer commits suicide amid charges of institutional homophobia in his district, then investigate it.
The very fact of an interview subject’s sexual orientation should not be considered a private issue any more than a heterosexual person who is asked about having a spouse or children.
When straight athletes, stars and other public figures are profiled in the media, they are always asked—and always answer—questions about their wives, girlfriends and children. It’s a frustrating double standard that those same kinds of questions are considered off limits to "eccentric" personalities.