Those gay details

Same-sex marriage has been a part of Canadian life for a few years. But is media language still behind federal legislation?

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Scott Brison and Maxime St. Pierre: Partners before and after their wedding.

By Aaron Burnett

Karyn Haag sighs heavily and shuts the back door of her Halifax apartment. She’s exhausted and hungry after treading the streets all day handing out resumes.
She slowly drags her feet up the stairs to her bedroom, finds Shannon Webb-Campbell and gives her a quick kiss.

Shannon is Karyn’s same-sex partner. Wait. Strike that. Too politically correct.

Lesbian lover? No. Too lush.

Girlfriend? Maybe. But straight women often use that word to describe each other. So how can writers capture Shannon and Karyn’s relationship?

A database search of pieces published in the past year shows many journalists get confused when writing stories featuring gay and lesbian relationships. Among a variety of other phrases, ‘same-sex partner’, ‘homosexual relationship’ and ‘gay lover’ fill newspaper pages and broadcast airwaves.

According to Statistics Canada’s latest census, there are more than 45,000 same-sex couples in the country, more than 7,000 of which are legally married. But there is no real set of guidelines for writing about gay and lesbian relationships. CBC’s current book of standards and practices contains a whole section on equality between the sexes, but no references to sexual orientation. The Canadian Press stylebook has but one paragraph devoted to the issue.

Canadian Press Stylebook editor Patti Tasko says with new stories breaking on same-sex marriage over the last few years, the paragraph has received a lot of attention and questions from journalists.

“People weren’t being bigoted. They were just struggling with it,” Tasko says.

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Tasko says she has had discussions with other people at Canadian Press about whether the word ‘partner’ was specific or descriptive enough.burnett1_01.jpg She says it’s the word she sees most often. She explains that’s because reporters can use ‘partner’ when they’re not sure what their subjects are calling each other.

“‘Partners’. ‘Spouses’. Both those are nice and inclusive and surely not words anyone would object to,” Tasko says.

Shannon and Karyn are both lesbians and freelance journalists. But they say they too struggle with what to call each other. Both say they hate ‘partner.’ Shannon goes so far as to call it “disgusting.”

“We’re not on the police force!” Shannon says through mocking laughter.

Karyn adds that for her, ‘partner’ is a safe and unromantic term.

“You’re not really declaring a whole lot when you say ‘this is my partner’. It doesn’t really have a gender,” she says. “It seems easier for people when [they’re] not necessarily comfortable with the situation.”

Shannon and Karyn say they use ‘girlfriend’, which is not included in the Canadian Press Stylebook, although Tasko says she sees no problem with its use. Shannon and Karyn say ‘girlfriend’ is the best word they have to describe each other, even though they think it has young connotations and may not capture the fact that they live together.

“‘Boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ might be interpreted to mean a relationship that wasn’t mature and to some extent a relationship that involves younger people,” says Anne Stockwell, Editor-in-Chief of The Advocate, one of North America’s most successful gay and lesbian magazines.

Liberal MP Scott Brison’s wedding to Maxime St. Pierre is the most high profile media story involving a gay relationship in recent memory.

He says he’s very comfortable with ‘partner’ to describe his relationship both before and after the August 2007 ceremony. He says ‘partner’ helps other people to infer a long-term commitment, something ‘boyfriend’ does not do.

“It’s pretty tough to introduce someone as your ‘partner’ when you’ve been together a week,” Brison says. “Your partner’s a man. Not a boy,” he adds. “It seems a little odd for someone who’s forty to be using [‘boyfriend’].”

Stockwell says she likes ‘partner’ too. “I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think it’s the best term we’ve come up with yet. I think it certainly describes the ‘we’re in this as a unit. We’re getting through life together’ function that a partnership has.”

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What about describing both ‘partners’ as a unit?

A review of the coverage on Canada’s recent census shows journalists often characterize relationships as ‘homosexual’. Articles from Canadian Press and several newspapers such as Halifax’s Daily News told their readers how the recent census was the first to count “homosexual marriages.” (The Halifax Daily News has since folded.)

Daily News reporter Beth Johnston says she chose to use ‘homosexual’ to avoid using ‘same-sex’ over and over again in her census story.

“I wouldn’t personally refer to myself as a ‘homosexual’ unless I really had to,” says Karyn. “But I have no problem referring to myself as a ‘gay person’ or a ‘lesbian’.”

“[‘Homosexual’] is so clinical,” says Shannon. “Sex has to be referenced in it. We don’t immediately think of a straight couple and think of them having sex. But as a gay couple, immediately your sexuality is on the table because it’s different.”

“Homosexual’ in reference to relationships sparks a variety of reactions in journalism. While the CP stylebook notes ‘gay’ is the preferred term, Tasko says she’s never had any complaints about the word ‘homosexual’.

The U.S. based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) discourages using the term in its media reference guide. It says: “identifying a same-sex couple as ‘a homosexual couple,’ characterizing their relationship as ‘a homosexual relationship,’ or identifying their intimacy as ‘homosexual sex’ is extremely offensive and should be avoided.”

GLAAD’s reasoning behind this is anti-gay extremists frequently use ‘homosexual’ to portray lesbians and gay men as having a disease or psychological problem. The guide also asks reporters to avoid using ‘homosexual’ simply as a style variation to ‘gay’.

Stockwell says her staff often changes ‘homosexual’ to ‘gay’ in stories they get from wires.

The Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post all restrict using ‘homosexual’ except in clinical contexts, citing many of the reasons GLAAD puts forth.

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Both Tasko and the stylebook she edits say the language on what to call people in same-sex relationships will continue to evolve.

“There are some chapters of the Canadian Press stylebook that never change. This is one I always look at.”

burnett2_01.jpgShe says she thinks terms currently used for straight relationships will be expanded to include gay and lesbian ones.

“People won’t need to use ‘same-sex partner’ so much because you’ll understand it more intuitively,” she says. “When something’s a new concept, you tend to over-label it. But as these relationships become more a part of the mainstream, the language follows.”

But is it so desirable to use ‘straight’ language for gay and lesbian relationships?

Brison says even though he and St. Pierre are married, they use ‘partner’ as opposed to ‘husband’. He says ‘partner’ is still the most comfortable word the couple has to describe each other.

Shannon and Karyn say they shudder when thinking about the word ‘wife’. They say they doubt they would ever use it, even if they do get married.

“It seems very contrived and old-fashioned,” says Shannon. “It sounds like an ownership.”

Karyn explains why ‘wife’ grates on her ear so much. She says growing up, she was taught she was going to have a husband.

“You’re straight until proven gay,” Shannon interjects.

“I was never told I could have the option of having a wife. It just seems so strange to me,” Karyn says. “Just because I am a girl and I’m ‘supposed’ to have a husband.”

But other gay and lesbian couples are fine with adopting traditional language. In the Halifax Daily News’s census piece, Johnston uses ‘wife’ at various points in her article to show how Jamie O’Neill described her relationship with Emily O’Neill.

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How did Johnston know what word to use?

She asked the question.

That was all she had to do.

“When I was interviewing Jamie she referred to Emily as her wife and I said ‘is that what you call her?’ and she said yes. She was perfectly fine,” Johnston says.

“Ask,” says Shannon. “It’s not a rude question to ask how you want to be described. It’s really considerate.”

Stockwell agrees. In fact, she says curiosity is not only generally inconsequential, sometimes it’s even welcome.burnett3_01.jpg

“I like it that people have to ask if they’re not certain. Anything that gets people to talk about our relationships in respectful and legitimately curious ways I’m all for,” she says.

Brison says it’s entirely appropriate for a journalist to ask the question if it;s relevant to a story. “I’d feel fine about that,” he says. “Absolutely.”

Stockwell says asking is often unnecessary. Instead, intuitively reading the situation and listening to the words gay and lesbian couples use to describe each other will usually give a journalist the answer.

But what if you can’t talk to the person you’re writing about? What if you’re not able to intuitively read their interview or ask them how they would like to be described?

“You’d probably opt for the more generic term but that’s always second best of course,” says Tasko. “It’s better to call someone a ‘partner’ than to wrongly call them a ‘husband’ or a ‘wife’. So if you don’t know for sure you might opt for ‘partner’, whether they’re gay or straight.”

But it’s important for journalists to ask and follow a person’s preference whenever possible. Tasko says when people don’t ask or listen closely enough, words get overused and lose their meaning.

“That’s why you see the word ‘partner’ so often. Because you didn’t ask or you don’t want to ask or you forgot. It’s like asking someone’s age,” she says.

Shannon and Karyn say they feel ‘partner’ is getting used so much that it’s starting to become cliché. They say they don’t feel the word represents the variety of gay and lesbian relationships that exist.

“If you use ‘partner’ over and over and over, it kind of starts to sound like every homosexual couple is a partner and would describe themselves as that. It kind of makes everything seem the same. I’m pretty sure most heterosexual relationships are not the same,” Karyn says.

Ultimately, Tasko’s advice is, if possible, find out what the people in question prefer and use that term. She says this method works as long as the wider public can understand the word.

“As a journalist you have to keep the language open. You don’t want to use language that’s only used in that one community,” she says.

Johnston says she looks to the day when labeling the issue is no longer a journalistic concern.

“It’s only going to be a matter of time before we look back with astonishment that we were even noting that it was a ‘same-sex couple’.”