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Queer Talk: New AP Guidelines ‘Generally’ Discourage Use of ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ For ‘Same-Sex Couples’

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John Aravosis has provided significant coverage of the recent Associated Press style guidelines related to married lesbian and gay couples. From AmericaBlogGay:

Here is AP’s complete, recently-leaked, style guideline on how to refer to the marriage of gay people — note that this guideline specifically targets legal weddings of gay people. It does not apply to legal weddings of straight people — only gay people. …:

‘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.’

Among others, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association responded. From NLGJA president Jen Christensen, to David Minthorn, AP’s stylebook editor:

We’re writing to you today as fellow journalists, and as members of the LGBT communities to offer some advice on how to best reference same-sex married people in news reports. …

What is troubling is the final sentence in the memo: ‘Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.’

Such guidance may be appropriate for referring to people in civil unions, for which there are no established terms and the language is still evolving, but it suggests a double standard for same-sex individuals in legally recognized marriages. One has to assume that AP would never suggest that the default term should be ‘couples’ or ‘partners’ when describing people in opposite-sex marriages. We strongly encourage you to revise the style advisory to make it clear that writers should use the same terms for married individuals, whether they are in a same-sex or opposite-sex marriage.

As the NLGJA letter notes, “Language choices like these have an impact.” As one popular phrase puts it, “It’s marriage. Not ‘gay’ marriage.”

At Buzzfeed, Chris Geidner observes that in spite of criticism, including some internal, AP is “holding firm.”

AP spokesman Paul Colford told BuzzFeed …, ‘This week’s style guidance reaffirmed AP’s existing practice. We’ve used husband and wife in the past for same-sex married couples and have made clear that reporters can continue to do so going forward.’

When covering same-sex couples who have waited decades in some cases for that marriage license, however, the idea that the AP would treat those couples’ marriages like civil unions – and not like opposite-sex couples’ marriages – has sparked questioning responses from some of AP’s own reporters and calls for a change from LGBT organizations and activists.

From another post by Aravosis: (bold in original)

The AP doesn’t refuse to call heterosexuals ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ unless and until they can prove that they’ve ‘regularly used’ the terms themselves. So why is there a different standard at AP for legal marriages of gay people?

Aravosis, who is an attorney, points out from that perspective what he says as a “mistake” in the NLGJA letter, and elsewhere.

It was suggesting that the problem with AP’s ‘gay marriage’ guideline is the last sentence of the guideline (‘Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.’). It is not enough for AP to delete the last sentence. The guideline, overall, establishes a threshold for when AP will use the terms ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ for legally-wed gay couples, but does not apply the same standard, the same threshold, the same policy to legally-wed heterosexual couples. Having two different policies for the same thing is, on its face, discriminatory, not to mention factually incorrect.

Zack Ford, at Think Progress, has this conclusion:

AP has clearly just gotten this wrong. As is the expected practice for professional journalists, it should print a retraction for the inaccurate guidance and correct the mistake.

To me, the AP decision seems yet another example of a middle of the road, play it safe, cautious incrementalism kind of thinking. Or as it’s sometimes termed, pragmatism. You do more following than leading, but there is some progress made. In this case, I do wonder how far back in the “following” crowd AP plans to remain.

(Marriage Not Gay Marriage Via WipeOutHomophobiaOnFB)

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6 Responses to Queer Talk: New AP Guidelines ‘Generally’ Discourage Use of ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ For ‘Same-Sex Couples’

  1. Cujo359 February 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    This issue could be an item of a list of “Reasons you know gay marriage has become a mainstream idea”.

    To me, the AP decision seems yet another example of a middle of the road, play it safe, cautious incrementalism kind of thinking. Or as it’s sometimes termed, pragmatism.

    Style manuals for major publications will be like that. Hopefully, they’ll define a style that antagonizes as few people as possible, while communicating ideas in a way the most people possible will understand.

    For my part, I’ve been wondering how to write about such things, should the need arise. My own policy, such as it is, is much like the AP’s – I take my first cue from the couple. Beyond that, “spouse” seems the most appropriate English word.

    • Joyce Arnold February 19, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

      “Reasons you know” — yep.

      Style manuals are indeed of the cautious type. I do think AP is behind on this one, but most likely they’ll catch up fairly soon. At least I hope they do.

      If for nothing else, just to see some ideas, check out the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association’s guidelines, for some ideas about how to write about this and other “queer” stuff.

  2. jinbaltimore February 19, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Interesting topic…how we name things.

    Cujo, just curious (and not trying to be antagonistic), do you default to “spouse” for opposite gendered couples too, unless otherwise instructed by them?

    Maybe that’s what the AP could do except in the cases of direct quotes, regardless of gender.

    • Joyce Arnold February 19, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

      “How we name things” — and the power thereof. Good point.

    • Cujo359 February 20, 2013 at 2:06 am #

      do you default to “spouse” for opposite gendered couples too, unless otherwise instructed by them?

      No, unless there’s a need to be gender-neutral. Unfortunately, when it comes to language I’m something of a conservative – I think it should change slowly, if at all. For instance, I still use masculine pronouns in cases where I’m discussing a person (or people) but there’s no reason to assume the object is masculine or feminine. It’s a good rule, and no one’s provided a better one. That’s one of the reasons I still refer to “husband” and “wife”, rather than spouse.

      OTOH, I do try to avoid gender specificity whenever possible. I write “police officer” or “fire fighter”, rather than “policeman” or “fireman”, even though the latter seem OK as designations as long as you understand that you don’t have to be a man to be one, and they’re less to type or write. (Heck, the way I generally heard those job titles pronounced, it was with the accent on the first syllables, with a schwah-sounding “mun” at the end. It’s like we already knew we were talking about a job, even back in the days When Men Ruled The Earth.) But, that’s common, accepted usage, and it makes sense, so I grit my teeth and do the extra typing. When there’s a rule about husbands/wives/spouses that’s all inclusive, generally accepted, and makes sense, I’m sure I’ll be using it some time thereafter.

      Generally speaking, a language works best when everyone who speaks or writes it knows what the words and syntax mean. That’s why I think it should change slowly, and only when necessary. Clearly, marriage roles are changing, even among heterosexuals, so maybe it’s time. I’m not likely to be an early adopter, though. ;)

      • jinbaltimore February 20, 2013 at 4:23 am #

        Thanks for the reply.

        Heh heh. I’ve tried to avoid constructs that depend on “he” or “he or she” just to not mess with it at all. Hello “one.”

.... a writer is someone who takes the universal whore of language
and turns her into a virgin again.  ~ erica jong