Behind AP’s new ‘husband, wife’ guideline

It's an attempt to fix a perceived slight to married gay couples

The Associated Press did the right thing on Thursday. After a week in which gay reporters, LGBT blogs, gay advocacy organizations, and even AP reporters expressed dismay at a misguided memo that seemed to say the words “husband” and “wife” didn’t apply to legally married gay couples, the news organization corrected itself with a beautifully simple addition to its Stylebook.

From now on, the Stylebook will say, “Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.”

This is exactly right. Legally married gay couples are just as hitched as their straight counterparts — they shouldn’t need a different word to refer to their spouse just because they happen to be in a same-sex partnership instead of an opposite-sex one.

That’s why the original memo was such a doozy when it was posted at Romenesko last week. The first version read:

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 stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

The second version, meant to clarify things later that day, said:

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.

Clearly, the second version is not better. It seemed to say that AP’s default position was to avoid using husband and wife for married gay couples. Multiple blogs criticized the Associated Press for this misstep, from Gawker and Buzzfeed to gay media heavyweights like AmericaBlog and Towleroad (the one exception was a post from a gay writer at Slate). Janet Kornblum, a former reporter for USA Today and CNET, wrote on AmericaBlog, “It’s the last sentence that really puts the nail in the coffin, likening civil unions to same-sex marriages. Isn’t the whole point of marriage that it really is different from civil unions.” She continued,

Surely the straightlaced AP wasn’t saying that husbands are not husbands and wives are not wives—unless they are heterosexual.

That would be taking a stand, equating legal gay marriages with civil unions and not, well, marriages … And the AP does not take stands. At least it isn’t supposed to.

She’s right. The Associated Press doesn’t take stands. And that was the most puzzling thing about this. AP does an excellent, thorough job covering LGBT issues. In the seven months I’ve been writing this column, AP has been one of the most evenhanded news organizations when it comes to gay and lesbian stories. AP staffers, knowing their reputation was on the line, were very concerned and put pressure on the organization to correct things (as did bloggers and the public) — which it did, over a week later.

So what happened here? After several conversations with AP employees (who all requested anonymity), it is clear that this was not some fiat from bigwigs at the Associated Press. It also did not reflect what is practiced by AP reporters, who actually do tend to refer to married gays and lesbians as a “husband” or “wife,” reserving “partner” for those who are in domestic partnerships, civil unions, and other relationships. And it was not the AP as an organization “playing politics” and trying to weigh in on one side of a social issue. The organization was not, in fact, taking a stand.

Instead, it may have been a simple mistake, where a too-hasty response was written after a query came in from one of AP’s member editors. One source suggested that the guidance may have been meant to be flexible, leaving the question of what to call a gay person’s spouse up to the gay people involved (That’s what Slate thought, too). Or, of course, it may have come from ignorance or a misunderstanding of what the legal reality is for gay people in states where they can marry. I can’t know for sure, because neither those who sent out the original memo nor the AP’s spokesman are commenting beyond the release of the new Stylebook entry.

I wish they would tell us what happened, because a look into the reasoning behind the initial two memos would be helpful. If the point of those original memos was, in fact, to restrict the words “husband” and “wife” to heterosexuals only, then they owe the gay community an apology. However, if it was just an honest, rushed mistake, they should own up to it with a simple admission of error, which is what news organizations do when they get something wrong.

And the Associated Press — or those few individuals who created the memo — got this wrong at first, pure and simple. Gay and gay-friendly organizations, media outlets, and writers were completely correct to be both worried and outraged. The Associated Press should have made this husband-and-wife addition to its stylebook within a few days of the original memo, not 10 days later. Those 10 days allowed concern to become anger and anger to become fury, in the process painting the entire organization as bigoted, which it is absolutely not.

Though I must say, a late revision is certainly better than no revision at all. It is a good one, and I’m glad they made it.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: ,