Covering gay marriage when it’s really, really personal

On a sticky August day last year in Cincinnati, I filed into the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on assignment for Al Jazeera America’s website to cover oral arguments in the four cases challenging state bans on same-sex marriage—the same cases that led to last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

Seated next to me happened to be Heidi Hall, then a reporter from The Tennessean, with whom I had worked in early 2000 at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. We hadn’t seen one another in 14 years, and as we caught up she spotted the gold band on my left hand.

“Oh, are you married now?” she asked, as long-lost acquaintances do.

“Well,” I said, lowering my voice so as not to be overheard by the phalanx of anti-gay-marriage lawyers seated in front of us, “that actually kind of depends on what happens in this courtroom today.”

It was an uncomfortable collision of the personal and the professional. I was there as a journalist to relay to my readers facts and analysis of what took place. And, also, I am gay. Even more specifically, I am gay with a longtime partner; we wanted to legally wed, and were working on adopting a baby in Michigan.

In other words, I had a direct stake in how this story turned out. We’d had an emotionally powerful but legally meaningless wedding in 2007 in Las Vegas, where we lived then, because it was that organic moment in our relationship to do so and, really, who could predict when the law would be any different?

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The fact is, I didn’t just have an opinion about whether the judges in Cincinnati or the justices in Washington D.C. should strike down Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Their decisions would impact our tax filings, how state courts treated us when we finalized an adoption and, of course, how we felt about ourselves as American citizens.

Should I have covered this? Even now, I’m not entirely sure. I did it because I wanted to, because my editors and I believed in my ability to keep my personal opinions out of these stories as I try to do with any other, and because I’m a freelance writer who makes his living covering the biggest issues of our times. Nobody can dispute that this was one. I could have tried to insist that we disclose my personal stake to readers so they could decide for themselves whether the news was being fairly delivered to them, but if nobody has complained about bias in a situation like this, is it really necessary or desirable to encourage people to look for it?

I got in touch with George Cowles, a member of the First Free Will Baptist Church in suburban Detroit, whom I’d quoted in a February 2014 piece for Al Jazeera when he picketed in support of traditional marriage outside the federal courthouse in Detroit.

“You’re a homosexual! The whole media is full of homosexuals! Truth and God never had a chance!” Cowles growled when I reached him Monday by phone. When I asked if he remembered talking to me, he cut me off in anger. It was the only time he’d ever been quoted by the national media, he said, so he “sure as sugar” remembered. “How could any decent, right-thinking person expect someone like you to give us a fair shake? You quoted me to make me look crazy.”

For the record, here’s what I wrote that day:

Yet George Cowles, 82, seethed after the first several hours of testimony, in which the plaintiffs’ attorney and experts insisted there’s no difference between the quality of same-sex and heterosexual parenting. Digging under his overcoat into the breast pocket of his brown button-down shirt to pull out his pocket-size King James Bible, he said, “There’s a big difference! Just read this and you’ll know it!”

“Why don’t they ask how many of them had mothers and fathers, and if they did, why would they want to go off man with man, woman with woman?” said Cowles, who along with his wife, Doris, 72, was with a group from the First Free Will Baptist Church in suburban Ypsilanti, Mich. The couple’s 30-year marriage is the second for both of them, with a blended family of nine children. “If they want to put themselves on the path to hell, that’s fine, but don’t take these children along with them.”

Ironically, the Michigan case ended up mattering so much to my partner and me precisely because, as journalists, we both had tried for years to stay out of the news while covering it. We never went to another state to legally wed because, with no tangible effect on us in the state where we lived, that seemed like a political, not a romantic, gesture. Likewise, when marriage became available for one day in March 2014 in Michigan by federal district court fiat—before the 6th Circuit halted it while the appeal pended—we also didn’t rush out to partake. We wanted to legally wed, but only once the matter was settled for good in our own state. We never imagined that we would keep moving away from states just before marrying there was possible—first Nevada, then Virginia—or that a blue state like Michigan would be among the final holdouts. It just happened that way.

Offering some absolution for my possible journalistic sins was Kelly McBride, the ethics guru at the Poynter Institute. “You have the same stake as someone who is straight-married,” she told me via Facebook chat over the weekend. “We all have a stake. As the guy who’s been discriminated against, you have an experience that might make you a little more passionate. But we all have some sort of experience of marriage. As someone who’s been through a shitty divorce, my experience creates a different emotion.” McBride told me that my wishing to marry was the equivalent of “being black and wanting to sit at the counter. You can’t have a conflict of interest because of who you are.”

I want to accept that, but to me it remains a very curious question: When exactly do the controversial topics of our times cease to be controversial and become generally accepted truths? In retrospect we know that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s were morally right, but who got to make the decision that journalists could operate from a place of assuming so? Sometimes these things happen organically, but sometimes they don’t—and a major Supreme Court ruling or swing in popular sentiment isn’t always an accurate barometer. It’s been 40 years since the high court found a constitutional right both for women to have abortions and for states to put people to death, and there’s still more than one legitimate side to these questions.

Furthermore, aren’t there levels of distance that are appropriate, with or without public disclosure? There may be no problem with allowing a Latina to cover immigration reform, but would it be proper for her to cover the arrest of her own undocumented cousin? Jews can and have covered the Israeli-Palestinian issue with insight and balance for ages, but is it possible to reconcile having a New York Times reporter covering that region after his own son enlisted in the Israeli military? Isn’t there a reason major publications prohibit reporters from owning stock in companies or industries they cover?

I certainly believe gays should cover and be involved with gay issues to some extent. In 1993, much to my parents’ angst, I became the first columnist at The Daily Northwestern to come out. On my first job, at the Rockford Register Star, I complained to the editor that one of my supervisors had pulled me aside to warn me against acting “too gay” when at the cop shop doing my rounds. I was the youngest-ever board member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, was host chairman the 1998 NLGJA national convention and founded the Vegas chapter. At the Sun Sentinel, I was part of the team that persuaded the Tribune Company to provide domestic partner benefits to its employees, and I persuaded the publisher of the Las Vegas Sun to do so for his media empire.

Still, as much as I wanted to believe this was all benign, workplace fairness stuff, I also wanted to change hearts and minds. After my first partner and I had a wedding in 1999, I wrote this passage in a lengthy piece for the Sun Sentinel’s Sunday magazine:

Ninety people filled row after row of white wooden folding chairs. Some held hands and some held handkerchiefs. They seemed completely unaffected by the high Arizona desert we’d lured them into, despite beads of sweat on almost every forehead. They looked soothed by the trickle from the fast-moving Oak Creek beside us and the buzz of cicadas hidden in looming, lush cottonwood trees.

And, most of all, everyone appeared oblivious to just how radical an event this was. Revolutionaries in cocktail dresses and tuxedos, all of them.

I wrote that because I knew our wedding was, at least on some level, a political event. I believed that sharing the drama of my coming out, the process of my falling in love, and the journey of our families to that moment could be a powerful way to educate the public about lives with which they were largely unfamiliar. That moment was as personal to me as the Michigan marriage lawsuit, but at least in that moment, nobody could accuse me of pretending to be balanced.

If all of this had me so tortured, why didn’t I just leave the gay stuff to others, especially in the past two years when the matter had become so specifically personal? Yes, it was a profitable story to cover. But, also, as McBride noted, I brought insight and experience—both as a gay man and as a veteran journalist—that was valuable to the coverage. I was among the first in the national press to sense that the Michigan lawsuit could become one of the most important of the many that proliferated at the time because it was the only gay-marriage case since California’s Proposition 8 to feature an actual trial with expert testimony and cross-examinations. In a moment when Al Jazeera felt saturated with the story, I also wrote about it for BuzzFeed—by far the leader in worldwide, comprehensive coverage of the gay rights topics—in a piece they titled, “The Same-Sex Marriage Trial You Don’t Know About Just Came To A Close.” And in January, I broke a story for Bloomberg Politics about how local lawyers, especially in Michigan, were hurt by the shoddy manner in which they were treated by the national gay organizations now that their cases had made it to the big time.

Of course, I abstained during reporting from arguing with sources, some of whom made odious and hurtful claims about gay people, unless it involved a provably wrong remark or if certain questions might tell us something valuable about the speaker. Last week, as I prepared a curtain-raiser for Al Jazeera on the anticipated Supreme Court decision, I challenged National Organization for Marriage chairman John Eastman’s remark during our interview that gay people just want to “destroy the institution of marriage.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I interrupted. “Now, John, do you know any gay people? I mean, do you have any gay friends?”

“Yes I do,” he answered promptly.

“Do you think the people you know want to destroy the family? Or do they just want to take part in an institution you believe is better off excluding them?”

“Some most definitely do. They’ve told me point-blank, when we redefine marriage to encompass what we do, it will completely destroy it. … I’ve got ‘em on record saying it.” (That discussion didn’t end up in the piece for no other reason than because it didn’t fit.)

Eastman is an interesting figure for me. I went back to him again and again over the course of the last two years because he was a key architect of the legal strategy used by anti-gay-marriage forces. But we’d never spoken about me or my life; I wasn’t even sure he knew where I lived. In our talks, though, he routinely insisted “the media” had been complicit in an orchestrated, decades-long effort to normalize homosexuality and advance the gay-rights agenda.

So I wondered, now that this particular story has moved on to a new phase, what he knew or thought of me. On Saturday, I called him.

“Did you know I am gay?” I asked him.

“No, I didn’t,” he said.

“Does it change what you think of my coverage?” I asked. “And please, don’t just say what you think I want to hear. I really want to know.”

“You know, I’ve spoken many times to reporters I knew to be gay, and I didn’t really feel badly treated much at all,” he answered. “I had a pretty good run. I didn’t have anybody take me out of context that I know about. Maybe that’s because they thought the idea of anyone defending marriage was insanity enough that they didn’t need to alter what was said.”

“Do you think I should have told you or my readers?”

“I don’t profess to be a journalism ethics expert,” said a man who criticizes the media frequently, “but maybe. I don’t know. I spoke to you because you were fair and respectful to me. If I felt otherwise, I wouldn’t have kept talking to you.”

I know in this era of blurred journalistic lines that such an inquiry may seem as quaint as a Catholic beating herself up over using birth control. CNN celebrated the Supreme Court decision on Friday by, among other things, using the Twitter hashtag #LoveWins. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith told Politico’s Dylan Byers that on this and certain other civil rights questions, “there are not two sides.”

For sure, I’m overthinking it. Yet I believe it is useful to be aware of your biases, even if they are righteous and moral, and to take a regular inventory of whether you are serving readers as they expect to be served. The trade-off here was worthwhile—my coverage was both more consequential and improved by insight earned from my proximity to the topic—but only because I felt this angst and asked myself these questions along the way.

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Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.