Associated Press Honors Marriage Equality … Finally

6896699856_351614e2b0_bOn 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.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user warmoth via Creative Commons 2.0  






  1. I agree that it’s seriously problematic for the AP to refuse to use husband and wife for same-sex couples that prefer those terms. Yes, men can have husbands and women can have wives. But women and men and genderqueer folks and everyone really can also have partners, and I don’t like the idea that partner is considered less than husband or wife. “Husband” and “wife” are words with a lot of baggage, and a lot of couples (straight, queer, whatever) use “partner” for good reasons! Wouldn’t the best policy be to ASK the people involved what words they use and then use their preferred terms?

  2. Thinking Liberal says:

    “Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms…”

    This should be the appropriate stance. Using the term (husband, wife, partner, etc.) should reflect the terminology used by those involved. That being said, I personally prefer the use of the term ‘partner’ for the simple reason that it makes the fewest assumptions, such as sexual orientation and marital status.

    @Laura — As with many things, it probably would be.

  3. Ms. is overreacting here, IMO. Major cultural changes are always accompanied by struggles with the language. I have no inside knowledge with which to rule out homophobia at the AP, but it’s more likely that well-meaning editors are simply struggling to find a way to describe a rapidly changing landscape.

    Surely someone at the magazine is old enough to remember the chaos in the 1970s as women began redefining themselves and their roles and the “Ms.” honorific was reintroduced. Certainly, some who resisted the inevitable changes in the language were misogynists, but most were doing their best to adapt.

    Speaking of language, there’s this in your article, which made me cringe: you say terms “are not banned per say….” It’s bad enough that your writer is that clueless, but how did it also slip past the editors?

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!