by Becky Garrison
The past week was a kaleidoscope of LGBT-related stories. How did they look through then lens of mainstream news media?
After Sojourners, a leading Christian social-justice magazine, decided not to run an ad welcoming the LGBT community, the Daily Beast observed, “Progressive Christian groups are asking whether Obama spiritual adviser Jim Wallis should still be the face of their movement.”
While a number of different interlocutors speak for Christian conservatism, the mainstream news media's reliance on Wallis as the sole mouthpiece for progressive Christianity leads to the misperception that all moderate-to-liberal Christians speak with one voice. Thus the subsequent outcry over the Sojourners decision reminds journalists of the need to seek a range of opinions instead of relying on just one source. One can find a number of liberal-minded spokespersons on the subject of progressive religion at Religion Dispatches, the Revealer, Killing the Buddha and AlterNet.
Also, when reporting on LGBT stories, an examination of an individual's or organization's funding streams and affiliations might uncover conservative alliances that influence a given religious leader's public statements on LGBT rights. For example, even though bestselling author and megachurch pastor Rob Bell was declared one of Time magazine's 100 People for 2011 for proclaiming “love wins,” Bell remains silent on the issues of LGBT church leadership and the blessing of same sex marriages. The reasons for Bell's silence are ripe for reporting.
In mainline progressive circles, the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) joined ranks this week with the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the UCC by voting in favor of the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. Coverage of this event by mainstream outlets like CNN, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times failed to provide in-depth analysis or to relate the decision to broader theological and sociological shifts in mainline Protestantism and the culture at large.
Similarly, the New York Times' reporting on Jim McGreevey's quest to become an Episcopal priest opted to sensationalize rather than contextualize the former (and formerly closeted) New Jersey governor's story. A more thorough examination of the facts suggests that the impediments to McGreevey's aspirations have more to do with his bitter divorce than his sexual orientation.
Despite some recent strides toward the acceptance of trans clergy, bisexual and trans people remain almost invisible in mainstream reporting on gay rights and faith. Journalists reporting on LGBT issues and religion may want to take a closer look at these communities, especially given the recent press around Chaz Bono, who has been promoting his book and documentary on high-profile national outlets like the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Late Show With David Letterman.
Coverage of Chaz's story in otherwise reputable outlets like the New York Times was riddled with errors, indicating a lack of understanding of how to report stories related to the trans community. For example, the Times' reporter used both male and female pronouns to describe Chaz instead of simply referring to him by his current gender. The story also focused on questions relating to his body parts, a tendency one often finds in mainstream reporting on transgender issues. (Some trans activists suggest simply using the term “trans” in order to shift the focus away from the gender binary, thus enabling others to see trans people more fully.)
Time magazine ran its interview with Chaz under a headline containing the phrase “Sex-Change Operation” instead of the preferred term “Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS),” and US magazine's publication of Chaz's remarks about Brad Pitt's and Angelina Jolie's four-year-old daughter gave the mistaken assumption that tomboy behavior “might” be linked to gender identity issues.
Such prurient reporting is reminiscent of the media-fed rumors surrounding Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan's sexuality, in which innuendo gets presented as fact and journalists bend (if not break) the ethical rules involved in outing a public figure.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) offers a media guide to aid journalists in the United States. As LGBT people continue to come out of the closet–and step into positions of increasingly greater authority in religious and political life–reporters will need to know not just who they are but how to tell their stories.
Becky Garrison is a panelist for the Washington Post's “On Faith” blog. Her additional writing credits include work for the Guardian, Killing the Buddha, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, the Revealer, Geez magazine, the High Calling, and U.S. Catholic.