The Brides Wore White  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 2002

The Brides Wore White   

Will the New York Times' printing of a same-sex marriage announcement prompt other papers to do so?

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     


In many ways, it was like all the other wedding announcements in the Sunday New York Times. The loving couple was pedigreed--Ivy League educations, political connections, esteemed families. Their "how we met" story, adorable. And they beamed from their photograph. All the usual, except, of course, that both parties grinning in that photo were men.

By publishing on September 1 the civil union of New Yorkers Daniel Gross and Steven Goldstein, the Times marked a first, and it came less than two weeks after Executive Editor Howell Raines announced the paper would run same-sex union notices. The news has thrilled gay and lesbian advocacy groups while prompting debate in the newspaper industry and among readers.

"It was a great announcement," says Cathy Renna, news media director for the New York-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She and other staffers were so excited about it that they went out Saturday to buy the Times' early edition. "It was typical in so many ways, but it was also striking in that it really exemplified some of the unique things about gay and lesbian relationships. Like [Gross'] mother saying, 'Oy' because he's in love with a man and then being at the ceremony and celebrating with them."

The Times isn't the first newspaper to publish a same-sex union notice--Vermont's Brattleboro Reformer might claim that distinction. The paper has been running them for more than 10 years. However, the Times joining the club is big news since the paper is widely regarded as the industry's pacesetter. If the Times does it, others will likely follow.

Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, says, "I think the assumption is that once the New York Times has crossed over to include same-sex commitment announcements, other news organizations that were unsure about the propriety of doing so will follow suit.... It's a big deal when the New York Times does it."

Times Public Relations Director Toby Usnik says the paper's policy had been under periodic review for years, usually in response to requests from same-sex couples or organizations promoting their rights. "We finally decided that if we waited for same-sex unions to achieve legal parity with marriage, we would not depart from our tradition any time soon," Usnik says. "And it was clear that a social phenomenon was occurring in our city and many other cities, at an increasing rate, journalistically newsworthy apart from the legal issue."

Times readers took the notice in stride. According to Usnik, "A few messages have cited well-understood religious and traditional arguments against same-sex marriage. And some messages have applauded our decision--no big surprises."

Since the Times' announcement, more newspapers have contacted GLAAD for help in setting guidelines for publishing same-sex union notices, Renna says. About 125 of 1,468 U.S. dailies publish the notices, she says, but guidelines vary. For instance, some papers charge money for the announcements (even though "regular" marriage notices are free), and others do not put the same-sex write-ups on the same page as heterosexual ones. According to GLAAD, papers that have, or would, run same-sex marriage announcements include the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, Newark's Star-Ledger, the Baltimore Sun and the Miami Herald.

"We've really taken this on as a campaign," Renna says. "The only way we're going to achieve equality is if people understand us, and this is just one way of telling our stories."

Elliott says that running these notices is part of a newspaper's responsibility. "The job of a news organization is to give people an accurate view of the community in which they live and running these announcements helps them do that," she says, adding that in doing that job, newspapers can offend readers. "Sometimes it's justified. Sometimes it's not. This is one of the times that it's justified."

Charles Broadwell, editor and publisher of North Carolina's Fayetteville Observer, is willing to take the risk. In mid-July, he was walking through the office when a reader came in saying he wanted his civil union--sanctioned in Vermont--published on the "Celebrations" page. The newspaper, with a circulation of about 65,000 daily, 75,000 Sunday, serves a 10-county region in southeastern North Carolina, including a large military population based at Pope Air Force Base and Ft. Bragg.

After some research, Broadwell decided to run the announcement because that section of the paper "is essentially a community bulletin board with announcements in people's lives, and I wasn't comfortable denying this person and his partner that opportunity," he says. He wrote a column explaining his decision, noting that refusing "such an announcement--which we print for free, along with most of the more standard announcements--would be hypocritical or even discriminatory."

Readers weren't exactly applauding the decision. E-mails crowded Broadwell's inbox--about 750 within a week--and at least two dozen people cancelled their subscriptions. Then letters poured in from across the country. "We started getting letters that week, locally, and it continued for a solid six weeks. We've been publishing letters every day, slamming us--and occasionally praising us," Broadwell says. "I didn't appreciate that this was a lightning-rod issue before."

Broadwell says the newspaper will require same-sex couples to prove they have a legal bond--only available in Vermont--before publishing their announcement. Therefore, he doesn't expect to see many more in the Observer. Still, he says, he made the right decision. "Some people say, 'Hey, you're ahead of the curve,' but we just did what we thought was right."

But just because a newspaper serves a small market doesn't mean it serves small minds. The 12,000-circulation Brattleboro Reformer ran its first same-sex union announcement in 1989. Linda DuCharme, then the paper's assistant managing editor, remembers receiving the announcement, turning to the managing editor and saying, "What do you think?"

"He said, 'Run it,' we all said, 'Run it,' and nobody called to complain," says DuCharme, who's no longer with the paper. "Ten years later, this same couple submitted an anniversary party picture, and we ran that."

The aptly named Reformer's current assistant managing editor, James Pentland, says it's great that the big guys are finally ready to run the announcements. "I think large newspapers, like large ships, are a little slow to come around," he says.

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