Bring ‘Out’ Your Dead? Gay Journos Mull Obit Complexities

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

When the essayist and public intellectual Susan Sontag died last December, the obituaries marking her passing created more of a stir among some gay writers and activists than the fact of her death.

In letters, blogs, and even an Op-Ed piece in The Los Angeles Times, there were complaints that much of the press, like the Times and The New York Times, mentioned nothing or almost nothing about Sontag’s relationships with women, including the photographer Annie Leibovitz. The New York Times’ then-Public Editor Daniel Okrent wrote in his column soon after the obit that the newspaper “could find no authoritative source that could confirm any details of a relationship.” He noted that Leibovitz would not talk with the Times about it, and Sontag’s son also declined to confirm the relationship.

Look for more of these controversies in the future as the mainstream press wrestles with the still-contentious issue of noting sexual orientation in the obits, a panel of obituary editors and writers said Friday at the 15th annual convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

After decades of employing code words such as “lifelong bachelor” or passing off as “pneumonia” as the cause of death for someone with HIV/AIDS, newspapers increasingly insist that their obits include the full truth about their subjects.

The problem is that people lead complicated lives, and do not always see their sexuality as something they want to appear in a newspaper. The NLGJA panelists said they did not want to perpetuate the phenomenon that gave the convention session its name — “The Closet Six Feet Under” — but they are also limited by journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness.

“If you’re not going to be truthful and out there when you’re alive — what are we supposed to do with you when you’re dead?” said Charles Strum, the New York Times obituaries editor since 2000.

While Sontag once referred in an interview to her relationship with Leibovitz as an “open secret,” Strum said that sort of supposedly widespread perception is not enough to merit mention in an obituary. “‘Everybody knows’ is not my standard of reporting,” he said.

Hank Stuever, a writer for The Washington Post’s Style section, made the same point: “I mean, this sounds weird to say, but once someone is dead, they can’t come out.”

While many more gay people are open about their sexual orientation, there remains a generational split among homosexuals, he said. “We still have too many people who think that [noting] the fact that someone is gay would mar an obit,” Stuever said.

Stuever called for more openness among the living, so that euphemisms and code words will no longer be necessary, and one gay skill can be allowed to atrophy: “Gay people have always known how to read a newspaper. We’re like detectives. We can read between the lines of anything.”

At the New York Times, Strum said, the decision about mentioning sexual orientation, or listing a surviving partner, is made by the family — defined broadly. “So if there’s a partner, that’s family,” he said.

But even then, there are complexities. What, for instance, do you call the surviving party in the relationship? “Do [surviving] gays want to be known as ‘spouses’? I don’t know,” Strum said. “Is ‘partner’ a better word? I don’t know.”

Carolyn Milford Gilbert, editor of the Web site, www.ObitPage.com, and founder of the International Association of Obituarists, described working with a family to accurately describe the husband of the daughter of a lesbian in a civil union with a partner. “In consultation with them, I decided, why not call him ‘son-in-law,'” Gilbert said. “They loved the idea.”

Gilbert told the NLGJA audience that, “if it’s important to you that your sexual orientation be included in your obit, then tell us about it — in advance.”

Gay people angry about, say, Sontag’s obituaries, should redirect their criticism, the Washington Post’s Stuever said: “Instead of all the blogging about how badly newspapers do in covering gay people in obits –w e should focus on how badly newspapers do in covering gay people who are alive.”

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