Monday, August 29, 2005

Bring Out Yer Dead -- or Not?

(Link) Obituary writers face a dilemma of whether or not to reveal that the deceased's "business partner" was also a "life partner."

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg
Washington Blade

WHEN MELODI Knapp was killed in a car crash in May 2002, her family submitted two obituaries to the Dallas Morning News. Both included her date of birth, her hometown and a list of relatives and friends she left behind.

But in one of those lists, Knapp’s life partner was omitted. The family split was even more noticeable when they held two funerals and Knapp’s corpse was only present at one.

When obituary writers report on a gay person’s death, or any death for that matter, they can step into a thorny mess of secrets, family squabbles and conflicting memories, several sources said.

“My sense from even the most out, comfortable, well-adjusted, emotionally healthy gay people is that there is concern about when to identify as gay in the newspaper,” explains Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a school in St. Petersburg, Fla., for journalists.

The issue becomes more complicated after the person has died and the reporter has to rely on siblings, parents and children to articulate their loved one’s wishes. And it is not only the dead person’s privacy that is at issue, McBride points out; a partner may not want to be identified as gay.

“All of those people won’t agree,” she says. “Competing with all of this is the truth. Portraying the truth is your ultimate goal.”

KAY POWELL, OBITUARY editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, notes that there are some local older gay couples who have worked hard to keep their sexual orientation a secret. It’s “disrespectful” to out them against their wishes in an obituary, she says.

“I would not out somebody in an obit,” Powell explains.

If the surviving partner agrees to be identified as gay in the story, however, it can be enormously helpful for readers.

“We have a lot of long, longtime couples,” Powell says. “They are business partners, as well as companions in life. They worked assiduously to keep it private from family, from co-workers. … They had two separate phone lines.

“A lot of people don’t realize the efforts they had to go through. It’s a slice of Atlanta history that’s an important story to get out there. More people can read it and say, ‘I knew her all this time and I never knew she was gay…. I knew his mama through the circle at church.’”

Powell says the more ordinary it seems the more, bit-by-bit, peoples’ thinking changes.

While journalists seek to publish verifiable truths, a person’s sexual orientation can be a difficult fact to prove without legal documentation like a marriage certificate.

“I found a general willingness, on the part of obituary editors in [ Australia, the UK, the U.S. and Canada] to include references to same-sex surviving partners,” Nigel Starck told the Blade in an e-mail.

Starck, a program director at the University of South Australia, wrote his dissertation, “Writes of Passage,” on obituary practices in the four countries.

“I still find that actual practice is haphazard. Sometimes same-sex partners are included in the text; at other times they’re ignored,” he said. “Yet there appears to be a global obsession with including spouses.”

Absent legal standing, reporters must rely on interviews, family and biographies. Rumors, several reporters say, have no place in obituaries unless they were previously reported.

“If the rumor has risen to the point that it’s been broadcast then you say ‘it’s rumored,’” says Alana Baranick, an obituary writer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But reporters shouldn’t include it if “it’s just scuttlebutt you’ve heard around.”

Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists, agrees that sexual orientation, like other information in an obituary, should only be included if it can be confirmed by other sources.

Next month, Gilbert is to serve on a panel, “The Closet Six Feet Under,” at the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s conference, which will be held in Chicago.

“The news obit requires the writer to do research and to check facts; therefore, if sexual orientation is a publicly known factor, it would likely be included UNLESS (and this is a big UNLESS) it cannot be corroborated by several sources OR unless the family of the deceased has indicated it not to be a factor in the obituary,” Gilbert told the Blade in e-mail.

“The obit writer does not have an obligation to ‘out’ someone. Likewise, an obit writer does not have an obligation to ‘de-gay’ someone intentionally,” she says. “If facts re: sexual orientation cannot be confirmed by a number of sources, it should not be addressed.”

UNFORTUNATELY, RUMORS MAY be all obituary writers can know for many of the gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are now dying. They are of a generation when their sexual orientation was not discussed openly, further complicating reporters’ ability to corroborate a person’s sexual orientation, as Eric Hegedus, president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association pointed out.

“Part of the problem is if someone hasn’t lived openly or spoken openly, you’re not going to be able to prove it journalistically,” Hegedus says.

That was the problem Washington Post reporter Adam Bernstein encountered when he wrote an obituary for Ismail Merchant and omitted mentioning his 44-year relationship with James Ivory.

“I could not find evidence of a romantic relationship,” Bernstein told the Blade.

Of the mainstream news accounts reviewed for this article, only the Los Angeles Times explicitly stated that the two were a gay couple. The New York Times obituary mentioned the men shared a house and listed Ivory among Merchant’s family members, as one of his survivors.

Reuters and the Associated Press mentioned Merchant and Ivory were “partners,” but didn’t explain the extent of their relationship.

Bernstein says he did not include author Susan Sontag’s sexual orientation in her obituary because of space constraints.

“I was told to cut back on what she was known for,” he said.

After Sontag’s death last Dec. 28, media outlets often omitted the “open secret” of her lesbian relationships, most recently with famed photographer Annie Liebovitz, or mentioned them only in passing.

In the cases of Sontag and Merchant, obituary writers like Bernstein were asking themselves: “To what extent do you point something out that they were not open about discussing?”

Several obituary writers that the Blade spoke with said they will only explicitly state a person’s sexual orientation if it advances the story or played a central part in their career.

“Family members may know Uncle Joe is gay but there’s no reason for it to come up in conversation,” Powell said. “Why should you make it an issue when they die?”

If a “life partner” or “companion” is listed among the survivors, they feel it’s redundant to state the person is gay.

“Why do you need to spell it out?” asks Baranick at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

U.S. obituary writers are also constrained by the American formula for obituaries, which are more résumé recitations than personal anecdotes, noted the Post’s Bernstein. British obituaries, he says, unlike their U.S. counterparts, often reveal more intimate details.

In the U.S., editors often see private tidbits as “prurient and irrelevant,” he explains.

“[American obituaries] read dry,” he says. “I try to overcome that by putting in anecdotes. There’s still a lot of suspicion by editors who feel it doesn’t add anything to the story.”

Bernstein noted that the British Guardian newspaper’s obituary for Luther Vandross seamlessly wove the rumors about his sexual orientation into his life story.

It read: “He filled the role of ‘lover man’ once occupied by Marvin Gaye and Al Green, yet while they brought a seductive finesse to their performances, Vandross’s voice embodied distant grace and beauty, an endless swooning romance. Acknowledging this, he noted, ‘People tend to see me platonically, fraternally. They don’t lust.’ Questions about his sexuality annoyed him; he refused to comment on speculation that he was gay.”

But, as difficult as it is to verify, or as tangential as it may seem, it can be devastating to ignore a person’s sexual orientation in an obituary.

“It further reinforces the message that it is not acceptable to be gay,” says McBride at the Poynter Institute.” For all those people out there who know the person is gay the message they hear is it’s a shameful thing. It ignores some of the core details about an individual. It tells a half-truth.”

While McBride says she understands the time and space constraints reporters were under when they wrote about Sontag’s death, she still viewed it as a “missed opportunity.”

“It’s important to acknowledge people who have contributed significantly to this world; it’s important to acknowledge their otherness,” she says. “It makes the otherness seem not so other.”

Just as when a black person enters a predominantly white field or a woman breaks into a male-dominated career, the barriers a well-known gay person break down should also be discussed, she says.

The omissions can lead to the invisibility of gay community members, whether they are heroic, common or despised.

McBride says leaving out a person’s known sexual orientation, “belies the fact that in some respects gay people are fully integrated already, we just don’t know it.”