Labels or no, Ride’s case seems fairly clear. The obit released by her family and published in Sally Ride Science included mention that O’Shaughnessy was her partner; Ride’s sister, Bear Scott, who is herself gay, said O’Shaughnessy “was a member of our family” and that her sister “never hid her relationship with Tam.” Though she wasn’t out in public beforehand and was by all accounts a very private person, Ride came out posthumously and was clearly willing to have her relationship acknowledged.
But the more usual case is that a semi-closeted public figure dies amid rumors that he or she is gay. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, which works to promote fair coverage of LGBT issues, doesn’t have an official policy or recommendations for how to proceed in such cases, according to group president David Steinberg. But he feels that obits should be handled with special care.
“I don’t know if an obit is the place to speculate about something that someone is not able to address,” said Steinberg, who is also the copy desk chief for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Other people feel differently. Reporters will come to me and say, ‘We’re encapsulating a life and that’s part of it,’ but I’m a copyeditor - our job is to take out things that aren’t verified.”
Striking a balance in an obituary is a tightrope walk. On the one hand, journalists don’t want to leave something out that gives a full picture of a person’s life. This is particularly important to LGBT people, who have long found their lives erased in public, often not by choice. On the other hand, journalists don’t want to elevate private details of a person’s life in a way that eclipses other accomplishments. If a straight person’s sexual orientation wouldn’t be mentioned, should a gay one’s be?
The fact is, said Keith Woods, a former dean of faculty at Poynter and currently vice president of diversity in news and operations, for NPR, that “straight people don’t have their lives pried into in quite the same way.”
He added, “You can’t escape the fact that today it still surprises people to learn that someone is something other than heterosexual. At the same time, there is an ordinariness about significant relationships. If someone has a lifelong partner, that belongs in the story as a simple fact of her life. “
Even so, Woods said, journalists need to be cautious. “We’re also really working against the notion that [being gay] is automatically relevant in journalism,” he said. “If someone fought hard to hold on to the secret of his sexuality, then that’s part of his story. But if someone is simply gay and chose not to tell anyone and that’s all you know, it’s voyeurism to make that the point of the story.”