On February 11, the Associated Press (AP) accidentally revealed a bias in its policy regarding the treatment of same-sex marriages in print. The memo—intended for internal circulation only—revealed that the popular AP stylebook suggests that journalists use the terms “partner(s)” or “couples” when describing same-sex marriages or civil unions, rather than “husband” or “wife”. The leaked memo sparked immediate controversy, prompting AP to quickly tweak the memo (on the same day) in order to clarify that “husband” and “wife” are not banned per se—they’re just not suggested.
The updated memo then read,
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.
The clarification only added fuel to the fire, inciting accusations that AP’s policy was dangerously advocating a “separate-but-equal” stance on homosexuality. Despite the backlash, AP “doubled down” and released an official statement February 14 emphasizing once again that journalists may use the terms “husband” or “wife” when referring to a same-sex marriage or civil union if the couple in question has specified those terms.
This is the second time in recent months that AP has found itself at odds with the LGBT community; the first was back in November when it banned the word “homophobia” from the newest edition of the Stylebook because the literal meaning of the word denotes anti-gay sentiment based in/on an irrational fear. However, many argued that phobia is at the root of systematic anti-gay sentiment and that anti-gay “activists” are fearful of an unspecified “gay agenda.” AP was also accused of refusing to acknowledge that homophobia does bring forth aggressive bigotry.
Not only is the AP the “world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization,” but the AP Stylebook serves as the standard for most of the publishing industry. The point of having a standard in the first place is for consistency—therefore, with AP’s blessing, homosexuality has the potential to be consistently marginalized in journalism.
Claremont McKenna College professor Audrey Bilger, a frequent Ms. contributor and co-editor of an anthology on lesbian marriage, Here Come the Brides, weighs in:
A more inclusive and progressive approach would be to allow room for the recognition of couples whose marriages go unrecognized by the law because of biases against lesbian and gay citizens. The language has already changed. Men can have husbands and women can have wives. The AP Stylebook needs to get on the right side of history.
Fortunately, after the February 14 statement, AP finally came to its senses—at least about husbands and wives (though it still suggests banning the word homophobia). It announced earlier this week that there will be an official policy change in the new Stylebook treating all marriages and civil unions equally. The new entry 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.
Perhaps this issue was the result of ignorance rather then … ahem … homophobia by the AP. Let this be yet another example of why it is so important to speak up and demand equal treatment, no matter how trivial the issue may seem.