AP ban on using “husband” “wife” for gays could fuel lawsuit

UPDATE: VICTORY! AP has corrected its error, and created a new styleguide entry recognizing that the legal marriages of gay couples are just as much “marriages” as legal marriages of straight couples.
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The Associated Press’s ban (with two limited exceptions) on using the terms “husband” and “wife” for legally-married gay couples could have legal consequences for the wire service, should a gay employee ever sue AP for employment discrimination, says an attorney specializing in sexual orientation discrimination cases.

Hayley Gorenberg, Deputy Legal Director of Lambda Legal (the gay ACLU), says that AP’s presumption against using the terms “husband” or “wife” for legally-married gay couples, while the organization has a presumption for using those terms for heterosexual couples, could serve as an element in a job discrimination lawsuit brought against the media company by gay employees or job-seekers.

“It’s certainly plausible that repeatedly and intentionally disrespecting marital status, which the AP is trying to call its ‘style guideline,’ could contribute to a hostile workplace, which conceivably could be a component of a claim for workplace discrimination,” Gorenberg told me by phone this past Friday.

This whole story started a week ago when an Associated Press “style guidance” memo was leaked to influential media monitor Jim Romenesko.  The memo explained AP’s policy on whether, and when, to refer to legally-wed gay couples as “husband” or “wife.”  (No such AP policy appears to exist on when to refer to legally-wed heterosexuals as husband and wife.)

The guideline caused an uproar of concern among those who didn’t understand why the Associated Press would have a policy of not recognizing legal marriages of gay people in the nine states, and the District of Columbia, where such marriages are now legal.

The AP tweaked the style guidance in response to the uproar, but only at the fringes – the policy still remains that the AP will not refer to legally-married gay couples as husband or wife except under two narrow exceptions.  AP then tried to lie about the policy, claiming it was meaningless (while still refusing to do away with it) in an effort to make the brouhaha go away.

Here is the leaked policy guideline:

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.

I’ve written about this issue extensively, but the main points are as follows.

1. AP’s policy guideline only applies to the legal marriages of gay people, not the marriages of straight people.  Why?  Why isn’t AP’s standard simply to refer to spouses as husband or wife when they are in a marriage legally recognized by the state?  I.e., AP should use the same standard used in American law, and the same standard AP uses to recognize heterosexual marriages – if the state marries you, you’re married.

2. AP’s policy of using “husband” if it’s in quotes is meaningless, and offensive.  You could call yourself a martian, and AP could quote it.  They can quote anything.  They don’t need a policy telling reporters that.

3. The “regularly used” standard is simply bizarre.  How do you prove you’ve regularly used the terms husband or wife if you’re dead and AP is writing your obituary, or a story about your murder?  And what if AP is writing a story about marriage equality overall, but not writing about any specific couples – there will be no one to prove “regular use.”

And finally, referring back to point 1 above, does AP apply a “regular use” standard when it refers to heterosexuals as “husband” or “wife”?  No.

The Associated Press has arbitrarily and capriciously decided to impose a ban, with limited exceptions, on the use of the terms “husband” and “wife” for legally-married gay couples when no such ban exists with regards to heterosexual marriages.  And that could end up being used against AP in an employment discrimination lawsuit.  Here’s how it works…

One of the elements you need to show when suing your employer, or potential future employer, for job discrimination is that they affirmatively discriminated against you based on your sexual orientation.  One of the ways of showing that is by proving that the employer created a hostile workplace for members of your class, in this case, gay people.   And one of the ways of showing a hostile workplace is via AP’s ban on recognizing legal gay marriages.

Say you’re a gay AP employee.  And you write a story about a gay couple that’s legally married.  You, naturally, refer to them as married, and perhaps even as “husband” or “wife” if the story merits using any moniker at all.  Your editor points to the internal style guideline which says you are not to treat gay marriages the same way you treat straight marriages, and tells you to strike any references to “husband” or “wife,” because the legally-married gay couple has not met AP’s limited standard for gay marriages.  As a gay person, especially one who’s married (and especially if you live in a city or state that has employment protections for gay workers), you’d be rather offended that your employer just ordered you to put in print, under your own byline, that your marriage was not the same as that of the reporter working at the desk next to you.

The Lovings, of the famous Loving v Virginia case, via ABC on YouTube.

Does AP have the right to vitiate this marriage too? (The Lovings, of the famous Loving v Virginia case, via ABC on YouTube.)

Think of it in a different way.  You’re an African-American reporter for AP, and you are told by your boss to stop treating inter-racial couples the same as white couples in your reporting, because they’re really not the same: Only white couples are “really” married.  And, your boss forces you to put your name on a story suggesting that inter-racial marriages aren’t “real” marriages.

Do you think that might create a hostile workplace, telling African-American writers to stop treating inter-racial marriages the same way they treat whites-only marriages?

And you might not even need state or city law.  If the Associated Press has a non-discrimination policy that inclues sexual orientation, their odd policy on legal marriages of gay couples might violate their own non-discrimination policy, in terms of creating a hostile workplace.

Not to mention, does AP offer health benefits and other “family” benefits to the husbands and wives of their gay employees if they live in a state that recognizes their marriages?  If not, why not?  And if so, why the double standard of recognizing such marriages internally but not externally?

This story isn’t going away.

PS AP is trying to claim that their policy isn’t a “ban.” Really? What do you call it when you write words for a living, when your boss has the most important style guideline in the world, that every newspaper in America follows, and that boss says “don’t use this word”? It’s not a ban? When we tell people not to smoke in restaurants it’s a smoking ban. When we tell them they can’t buy guns it’s a gun ban. So when we tell them they can’t use certain words, why isn’t it a word ban? This is just one more example of how AP treats everything “gay” as an exception to the rule.

Here’s an archived report from AP on the Lovings, who fought and won the famous Supreme Court case outlawing bans on inter-racial marriage.  One wonders whether AP would have had a problem with the Lovings too:


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • rmthunter

    It wasn’t the personal opinion that bothered me — it was the implied criticism of those who prefer the traditional terms. “Cringe” is hardly value-neutral, and the idea that same-sex couples in marriage are happily buying into an antiquated idea of a marital relationship is itself somewhat insulting. It’s your preconceptions at work here, which was the gist of my comment. If you felt it was condescending, well, tit for tat.

  • Diane Torrance

    Oh, I get it. Stating a personal opinion that disagrees with culturally accepted norms within this blog is grounds for language lessons and condescension. I never suggested you or anyone else should follow our example. Thanks for making it clear only one voice counts.

  • Stev84

    In everyday German, most people actually say “Mann” or “Frau”, which simply means “man” or “woman”. So there is no difference between referring to gender in general or married people. You can only distinguish it by the use of possessive pronouns like “my” or “his”. “Gemahl(in)” is extremely antiquated and “Gatte” is used mostly in legal documents. Otherwise it’s also possible to say “Ehemann” which literally means “marriage man”.

    But yeah, words change. Lots of words people use without thinking today have somewhat unfortunate origins.

  • rmthunter

    Words fail me. You might try stepping away from your difficulties with common terminology and re-examining your preconceptions in the context of the 21st century, where egalitarian relationships, especially among same-sex couples, are the norm.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ed.adams.370 Ed Adams

    Who’s going to start investigating who in the AP organization is behind these recurrent anti-gay policies and what connection these individuals have to the anti-gay industry? It’s time for some journalists to start shining the light on the AP and find out what’s really behind all this.

  • Sweetie

    Thank you for keeping the heat on them. Your coverage of Laura Schlesslinger definitely made a difference, and so did your coverage of the DOMA hate brief.

  • Sweetie

    If the AP were to use heterosexism instead it would be more justifiable. As it is, it looks like nothing more than an attempt to legitimize anti-gay bigotry (heterosexism).

  • hollywoodstein

    Been waiting for this shoe to drop.

  • FLL

    Not permitting the words “homophobe” and “homophobia” seems pretty extreme since it amounts to censoring words that have long been recognized as part of the English language. I wonder how AP or its contributing newspapers think that they can censor parts of the English language that they dislike. The language doesn’t really belong to them but to the community of native English speakers, and dictionaries do a pretty good job of documenting English usage. So if dictionaries list entries for “homophobe” and “homophobia,” where’s their excuse at AP?

  • JozefAL

    Well, here’s a truly radical idea: Use whatever terms YOU want but stop worrying about the terms other couples want to use. I’ve known male couples who referred to each other as “husband” and female couples using the term “wife” long before the issue of same-sex marriage/marriage equality was anything more than “that Hawaiian case.”

    Incidentally, “spouse” isn’t really all that “neutral.” The ONLY reason it’s “neutral” is because it’s an English construction. The English word actually derives from “spuse” (also as “espuse”), the FEMININE form of the old French “spus” (or “espus”) and its original use in English–as “spouse”–meant “a married woman.” Taking the etymology back to the Latin, the masculine form “sponsus” meant “bridegroom” and the feminine form “sponsa” meant “bride.” And, even if you choose to use the “neutral” English word, a trip overseas will require you to resort to using the gender-appropriate form (for example, in Spanish, the equivalent word is “esposo/esposa”–the former is exclusively for males, the latter is exclusively for females and there’s NO “neutral” form available; and in German, the equivalent word would be “Gatte/Gattin” or “Gemahl/Gemahlin” with the former options being for males and the latter options being for females). So, I guess you and your “spouse” will be forced to stay in the Anglophonic world unless you want to give in to “gender stereotypes” everywhere else.

  • Diane Torrance

    I cringe every time I hear a lesbian or gay person refer to their legally wed spouse as wife or husband. My partner (will we ever be able to marry in Ohio?) does as well. Our issue isn’t that we believe the more fortunate members of our cohort aren’t as deserving of the titles as their straight counterparts. Rather, we feel the terms husband and wife are based on gender stereotypes and the division of labor within a household, i.e., the husband manages while the wife tends.

    If/when we’re allowed the opportunity to marry our intent is to refer to each other as spouse because it denotes a loving partnership of equals. We hope that when that day comes the AP will do so as well.

  • beergoggles

    Can someone with info on who the higher-ups at AP are please cross check their names against NOM, FOTF and the rest of the hate groups and bigots like Cathy-Fil-A and see what corresponds? Couple this with the AP refusing to use homophobia anylonger as well, I have a feeling they have a bigot setting the standards.

  • Stephen Clark

    AP might also consider the possibility of a defamation suit when they characterize lawful wives as unmarried lovers. Questioning the chastity of a woman, after all, was historically one of the four kinds of defamation per se. :)

  • perljammer

    You seem to be saying that news organizations will enjoy deflecting complaints by pointing to the AP Style Guide. That really doesn’t work, because Associated Press is a non-profit cooperative owned and operated by its contributing media outlets. In other words, any newspaper or radio/tv station pointing at the AP is really pointing at itself. You could look at the AP Style Guide as something not only followed, but actually created, by all of AP’s members.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Exactly. The AP style guide is the defacto standard for English-language journalism in America and in many other countries as well. From the wiki entry for Associated Press:

    As of 2005, the news collected by the AP is published and republished by more than 1,700 newspapers, in addition to more than 5,001 television and radio broadcasters. The photograph library of the AP consists of over 10 million images. The Associated Press operates 243 news bureaus and it serves at least 120 countries, with an international staff located all over the world.

  • Hue-Man

    Something I hadn’t appreciated in the prior coverage: AP “…has the most important style guideline in the world, that every newspaper in America follows,…” Gay-hating – since AP style doesn’t permit using homophobe/homophobia! – newspapers and magazines will love to justify their break-up of “deviant” marriages by claiming the AP style as the standard.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Argh you’re right. I’ll have to fix when I get home. Thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Treadway/1639093188 Roy Treadway

    The bigots at AP are pandering to bigots. What a shock.

  • NCMan

    I think you have a typo here:

    ” tells you to strike any references to “husband” or “wife,” because the
    legally-married gay couple has met AP’s limited standard for gay
    marriages.”

    It should say HASN’T met AP’s limited standard

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