The Associated Press' Refusal to Treat Gay and Straight Marriages Equally

I've been with my partner for 18 years. As residents of the state of New York, we could be legally married if we chose, given that New York passed a marriage equality law in 2011. My partner would then legally be my husband, and we'd have all the same rights of marriage that New York grants heterosexual couples. We could file a joint New York tax return. My husband could sue an entity for wrongful death if something terrible happened to me. If he died, I'd inherit his assets over his family or anyone else, even if there were no will, as would be the case with any heterosexual married couple.

But according to the Associated Press, that would not necessarily be a marriage, and my partner would not necessarily be my husband. The AP has decreed that he could be called my husband if I insisted on describing him as such in a quotation (i.e., "This is my husband"), or if the reporter knew that I'd called him my husband for some time, regardless of the existence of a legal contract that binds us in the state of New York -- a public record, which the reporter could obtain -- called a marriage certificate.

Confused? Last week the AP decided in an internal memo on style that was issued to reporters and then leaked to media watchdog Jim Romenesko that reporters should not refer to individuals in legal same-sex marriages as "husbands" or "wives" as they'd refer to individuals in legal heterosexual marriages. After an uproar, the AP issued an update stating that the "husband" or "wife" label is appropriate for gays under two circumstances: 1) if it's part of a quotation (which is pretty ridiculous, because anyone can dub any other person a "psychic," a "dancing bear" or even the "resurrected Jesus" if it's in a quotation, but that doesn't make it true), or 2) if reporter knows that the couple has used this terminology to describe one another in the past.

Of course, that is not the standard that the AP uses when it comes to heterosexual marriages; the legal contract issued by a state is more than enough for them. Gay bloggers and journalists pointed out the unequal treatment, and the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association wrote an open letter criticizing the AP. One AP reporter, David Crary, even told gay journalist Rex Wockner in an email that he would not be following the guideline. But the AP has refused to back down on the seemingly hastily written memo and is instead trying to downplay the entire affair.

Though the AP has not offered any further information, it seems apparent that they initially determined gay marriages to be different because not every state grants them or recognizes the gay marriages performed in the District of Columbia or the nine states where they're legal, and because the federal government doesn't recognize those marriages, either, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

But that's completely misguided. The fact that some states or the federal government don't recognize a marriage in a particular state doesn't mean that it's not a legal marriage, a contract binding two people together. Marriage licenses and certificates are only issued by states -- and only one state is needed -- and there is no federal marriage license. Before 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional, an interracial couple married in Washington, D.C., would not be recognized as married in Virginia. (In fact, they could be arrested, as were Mildred and Richard Loving, in the famous case that resulted in the end of anti-miscegenation laws.) But that doesn't mean that they weren't legally married.

What's most disturbing about this episode is that it's the second time in recent months that the AP has taken a side in the battle over gay rights while seeming to believe that it is remaining neutral. Last December I and others criticized the AP for banning the word "homophobia" because, according to the AP, it implies mental illness. My point was that whatever the literal meaning of the word may be, after 40 years of usage, it's understood that it doesn't describe an illness but a general animosity toward gays. By banning it now, the AP is caving to anti-gay crusaders who've lashed out against the use of the word for years (and who equally abhor the term "anti-gay" or any other word that describes their animosity), thus taking a side when its goal appears to be the opposite.

The AP is doing the same in this battle. Tommy Christopher at Mediaite gets it exactly right:

If the goal is fidelity to fact, then "husband" and "wife" should be used when those terms are legally appropriate, unless the subjects make some reasonable request to the contrary, such as "partners" or "couples." Equality should be the rule, rather than the exception. However, if a same-sex couple live in a state that doesn't recognize their marriage, but they consider themselves married, then a faithful reporting of fact would require both designations to be used. For example, "Smith says his husband, whom the state legally recognizes as a domestic partner," accomplishes the factual task at hand, and after that first reference, the term "husband" can be used for the duration.

By deciding that gay marriages and heterosexual marriages are not equal, presumably until every state and the federal government recognizes gay marriages, the AP is taking the side of those who claim that marriages of gay couples performed and legally binding in nine states and the District of Columbia are not legitimate. That's not a judgment that journalists should be making.