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Why LGBT Voices Matter

Why LGBT Voices Matter

Inclusive Coverage Makes for Better Stories

By Jennifer Lea Reed

Journalists who strive to reflect their communities realize that inclusion goes beyond covering gays and lesbians only when their lives are subject to a political or social debate. It means inviting gay voices to participate in stories generated by commonplace life experiences. First day of school? Choose a photo of two mommies dropping off their son. Polling shoppers on what presents they’re buying during the holidays? Give the man who bought a new DVD player for his boyfriend some airtime.

Keep a couple of points in mind when beefing up representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in your stories. First, don’t use one gay source to speak for all. Republicans, Democrats, school bus drivers, stock brokers, and people of different ages and races are all in the mix.

Second, be aware of your news organization’s track record in covering stories in which lesbians or gay men have been the focus. Until recently, such news coverage likely was spotty at best. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that sources may be interested but also a little wary of participating in increased coverage. The best antidote to previously strained relations is consistent and fair inclusion.

Include LGBT sources in the same context that you include straight sources. For example, a story on worst date/best date might include gay or lesbian experiences.

Reporters and editors interested in more inclusive coverage but unsure of where to start should make a quick stop at their local gay and lesbian center. Center directors not only can clue you in on local issues but also can suggest story ideas and introduce you to new sources.

"But don't use that person as a source for quotes, use him/her as a source to find sources," says Stacy Sullivan, city editor at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. "That person has a board of directors, a circle of friends, contacts with other LGBT groups, etc. Get those names from him/her. Also, ask that person specifically for diverse sources: People of color, bisexual, women, young, old. It’s a great way to work new gay voices into the paper."

Technology will also be a boon in finding sources: nationally, regionally and locally. "Go to the Internet, go to the Internet, go to the Internet," advises Dan Hendrick, assistant managing editor at the Queens Chronicle in New York. "You will find all kinds of sources." Typing "gay Catholic" into a search engine with the closest major city, for example, may turn up a local Dignity group.

Call or e-mail the national gay organizations and ask for local contacts. Ask around the newsroom; a gay or gay-friendly colleague may help. And don’t discount the assistance that local religious groups can provide. There are progressive ministries that support the LGBT members of their congregations.

Calendar Stories

With calendar stories, there is plenty of time to ensure LGBT participation. Here are some story ideas that can include both gay and straight viewpoints:

The Valentine’s Day Barrage: how couples met, reigniting romance after years of being together, picking a Valentine’s gift, wedding day successes and disasters, dating trends, balancing romance with family or work obligations, Valentine’s dinner destinations, favorite romantic movies, etc.

Memorial Day: gay and lesbian veterans can add to a discussion of the military experience.

Mothers Day/Fathers Day: how families with gay and lesbian parents are celebrating.

July 4th: defining what it means to be an American.

Fall and winter holidays: celebrating at church or synagogue, profile of a couple’s first holiday together, setting gift limits for children, introducing a new boyfriend/girlfriend/partner at employer parties, holiday stress (which can be magnified for gays and lesbians whose families have acceptance issues), bringing a new partner home to meet the parents, coming out during the holidays, etc.

Enterprise Stories

On a deeper level, understanding the pervasiveness of discrimination against LGBT people can lead to first-rate stories. Child custody and the workplace are two areas where being gay or lesbian can have serious negative repercussions. Similarly, after the Sept. 11 attacks, government compensation was awarded without question to victims’ heterosexual spouses and partners. But extension of those benefits to the same-sex partners of victims required special action by government officials.

Whether you’re examining the law or picking your way around a disaster site, keep in mind that LGBT people may not automatically receive the same benefits that heterosexuals do, especially when such benefits are tied to a marriage certificate. Specifically ask whether these benefits extend to same-sex couples.

Other Tips

Pay attention to your use of language. Make sure definitions of family allow for non-traditional bonds, and definitions of couple do not subtly endorse mixed-sex relationships and trivialize same-sex commitments. Same-sex couples use a variety of terms to describe their relationship, including partners, spouses, girlfriends/boyfriends, husbands/wives, lovers, companions, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask which term your subjects use. Avoid putting quotation marks around descriptions; such punctuation could be considered demeaning to that relationship. Many gay people are particularly offended by the use of the term "lifestyle." Activists say it’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life — with sexuality being just one aspect of it.

Don’t accidentally further stereotypes — the gay interior designer, the lesbian mechanic — when choosing sources. It's fine to interview them, but remember they represent a facet of a diverse community.

Build trust with sources and readers. If your stories include gay sources with regularity in everyday coverage, people will notice and be more responsive.

NLGJA's Stylebook Supplement on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Terminologyincludes an extensive contact list of LGBT organizations, many of which have local or regional chapters.

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