When is it appropriate to ask a subject to disclose his/her sexual orientation for a story? Is it ever?
Spring 2012, a New York judge ruled it wasn’t defamatory to call someone gay, even if he or she was heterosexual. As more LGBT people come out and more cities and states provide protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the stigma of being LGBT has lessened. As a result, reporters are more likely to cover issues that affect LGBTs (e.g., jobs, the economy, marriage, health care), and encounter people who are openly gay. How do you ask if someone is gay without prying?
First and foremost, be sensitive. Realize that some LGBTs are out and proud and some are very much closeted. It’s a personal decision and it isn’t ethical for a reporter to pass judgment on someone else’s decision or journey.
Second, think about why you want to know and why a reader would want to know. Does it add to the story? Is it important to telling the person’s own story? Would it seem out of place if you omitted it? Would it seem out of place if you added it?
Reasons to Ask - And Reasons to Refrain from Asking
Reasons to ask:
- It adds context to the story. Are you interviewing the person specifically because s/he is a member of the LGBT community? If so, ask to confirm and ask how s/he identifies.
- It is central to the story. Would it seem out of place if you didn’t mention it? For example, if you are covering same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination laws, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s relevant to include that the person is or could be directly impacted by the events.
- If it isn’t central to the story, what is your motivation for asking? Are you trying to add diversity to your story or highlight how different populations might be impacted differently?
Reasons to avoid asking or telling:
- It would cause harm to the subject.
- It’s merely for prurient reasons or to sensationalize the story.
- Would you include the information if the subject were heterosexual? If yes, include it for an LGBT person. If not, think about why you want to include it: It needs to be relevant.
How to Frame the Question
If you aren’t sure how to ask, here are two approaches. Use what is appropriate depending on your reporting style, the story and the subject.
- Be matter of fact. Just ask, are you a member of the LGBT community? Or, are you gay? Or, do you have a partner? Treat it the same way you would someone’s age or occupation — a normal aspect of a person that you can competently cover.
- Be discreet and sensitive. If there is potential harm, or the person is a victim of a crime, use good judgment. Don’t further victimize the person.
Here are a few ways to approach the question:
- Some people reading or watching this might wonder if you have a personal stake in this issue. How do you define your sexual orientation?
- Do you mind if I ask, are you a member of the LGBT community?
- If you are comfortable telling me, do you identify as gay or lesbian?
A note of caution about asking transgender individuals to self-identify:
Because transgender individuals often face higher rates of discrimination, proceed here with extreme caution. Make sure you have a strong inclination the subject identifies as transgender before you ask and only ask if it is absolutely relevant and necessary.
- Do not ask about hormones or surgery unless that is the story focus.
- Be very careful not to sensationalize interviews with transgender people.
- Use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with how the individual lives publicly. When possible, ask which pronoun or term the subject prefers.
NLGJA Stylebook Supplement
NLGJA’s Stylebook Supplement on LGBT Terminology is intended to complement the prose stylebooks of individual publications, as well as the Associated Press stylebook, the leading stylebook in US newsrooms. It reflects the NLGJA mission of inclusive coverage of LGBT people. You can obtain a copy of the Stylebook by request, or by visiting us at www.nlgja.org.