When Sexuality is Part of the Story

Is Sexuality Part of the Story?
Tips for Asking About Orientation or Gender
By Bao Ong

Good storytelling requires descriptive language and informative detail about our subjects. Is the story about poor migrant farm workers or wealthy investment bankers? White single mothers or African-American married couples without children?

These details are important cues for our readers/viewers. But even though labels can be instructive, they can also be detrimental — to the subject of your stories and to the notions of fairness and accuracy. Thus, reporters should be careful when identifying members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) community.

Is a person's sexuality germane to your story? In many situations, it probably isn't a matter of concern — in the same way that a person's race, ethnic background or religious beliefs are often not relevant.

"In most cases, very narrow circumstances actually make sexual orientation relevant to a story," says Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

If the story has to do with gay and lesbian issues or if your senator is being blackmailed to pass legislation in fear of being outed, then it’s obviously news. When you’re interviewing a city council member about how she voted on funding a new housing program, does it matter if she's a lesbian? Probably not. Let common sense be your guide.

"Don’t make it an issue unless it’s an issue," says Ross Sneyd, a Statehouse reporter for The Associated Press in Vermont.

If you’re thinking about approaching a subject's family or friends and asking them about the subject’s sexual orientation, do so only if the story calls for it, Sneyd adds. With minors, take extra precautions and remember that they may not be out to their family, friends or peers.

Even for subjects who are deceased, the relevancy of the subject’s sexual orientation must be determined first. "Ask yourself about what would that person’s wishes be," McBride advises.

If sexuality is relevant to the story, but you're not sure how to approach the topic, do your best not to offend. Asking about sexual orientation or gender identity, like most other questions, requires some straight talk.

"You ask them directly, don’t insinuate anything, don’t burden it with preconceived notions and be as up front as possible," McBride says.

To avoid putting your subject in a defensive position, try not to get too uptight, Sneyd says. Another method is to be more indirect with your line of questioning. You can try asking whether the subject is married. Or ask whether he or she has a partner and if so, what his or her partner’s name is.

If you’re working on a story specifically about the LGBT community, it might be appropriate to identify the straight people in your story who readers might otherwise assume are gay. The goal is providing an accurate, fair, and balanced picture of your subjects.

If you're working on a feature story, it probably is appropriate to include the sexual orientation of your subjects and information about their partners and children — in the same way that reporters routinely do when doing stories about straight people. Also, see "Why LGBT Voices Matter."

For more information on terminology used by the LGBT community, visit NLGJA's Stylebook Supplement on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Terminology.

Also see Poynter's article, "How Do You Say He's Gay?"