GLAAD at 25: Persuading the Associated Press to Restrict Use of a Problematic Word

By GLAAD |
November 23, 2010

This month, GLAAD will celebrate 25 years of amplifying LGBT voices. As part of that celebration, GLAAD Blog will revisit some of GLAAD’s culture-changing work as told by former and current staff members and volunteers.

As the organization celebrates this milestone moment I'd like to reflect on GLAAD's work in persuading the Associated Press to restrict use of the problematic term, "homosexual," when reporting on gay and lesbian lives. Nicknamed "the journalist's bible," the AP Stylebook is the most widely used style guide for reporters and editors in the United States.

When I joined the GLAAD team in 2005 I embarked and what became a years long journey of educating mainstream media outlets about how to cover our community in the most fair and responsible way. Much of that education would involve explaining what terms the media should and shouldn't be using to describe who we are.

My brilliant former colleague Sean Lund, GLAAD's Director of Messaging at the time, filled me in on the latest edition of GLAAD's Media Reference Guide-- a key resource for journalists that has continually expanded since its inception during GLAAD's early years. The guide provides a roadmap for mainstream journalists on how to report about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with fairness, accuracy and respect.

One of the most important parts of that guide is the section on terminology-- which includes a comprehensive list of words along with explanations of which terms are appropriate, which are problematic and which are defamatory. The word "homosexual," I learned is a problematic term used to denigrate our community.  Here's GLAAD's specific guideline:

Offensive: "homosexual" (n. or adj.)
Preferred: "gay" (adj.); "gay man" or "lesbian" (n.); "gay person/people"

Please use "gay" or "lesbian" to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word "homosexual," it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using "homosexual" except in direct quotes. Please also avoid using "homosexual" as a style variation simply to avoid repeated use of the word "gay."

The guideline explained in detail why this word should be avoided and I remember receiving complaints from our constituents whenever the AP used the term in its headlines and in the body of its stories. I reached out on numerous occasions and asked that it be replaced with "gay and lesbian," but unfortunately I had a big road block in my way.  The Associated Press' own stylebook sanctioned use of the term.  The entry for gay at that time read:

gay Acceptable as popular synonym for both male and female homosexuals (n. and adj.), although it is generally associated with males, while lesbian is the more common term for female homosexuals. Avoid references to gay, homosexual or alternative "lifestyle."

So while GLAAD had clear guidelines on this word-- AP's Stylebook allowed its use, preventing me from convincing many editors to change it in direct violation of its own standards.

In late 2005 I asked for a meeting with the editor who oversaw changes to the AP Stylebook. My colleagues had a similar meeting with AP earlier that year alongside the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), to discuss overall LGBT terminology in the stylebook.

Armed with solid arguments about the history of the term and its continued exploitation by far right anti-gay groups I made GLAAD's case. Just a few months later we received the good news.  AP informed us that it was updating the gay entry in its stylebook to add a caution about use of the word "homosexual."  From that point forward the new entry would read:

gay Used to describe men and women attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. Preferred over homosexual except in clinical contexts or references to sexual activity. Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to "sexual preference" or to a gay or alternative "lifestyle."

That meeting had a huge impact on all future  Associated Press coverage of our community. A seemingly small edit to the AP Stylebook changed the way thousands of future articles described gay and lesbian lives.   The AP stopped painting our loving committed relationships with a problematic term and instead used accurate terms to describe us.  In making the change AP joined The New York Times and The Washington Post, outlets that already had such restrictions in place. Of all the campaigns I've worked on at GLAAD, the AP Stylebook change is my one of my proudest moments because of its far reaching effect.

My former colleague Sean Lund summed up this issue beautifully in a 2007 Huffington Post piece titled, The "H" Word:

Throughout my life, I have known couples whose love and devotion was palpable. The way they would look at each other, complete each other's sentences and tend to each other's unseen needs would bear witness to the powerful connection they shared; a connection that brought together two people and created an enduring bond embodying love, dedication, responsibility, mutual care and sacrifice -- a commitment greater than the sum of its parts.

So why would anyone think it acceptable to use language that reduces gay people and our loving, committed relationships to "just sex"? Do we treat people who aren't gay in such a disrespectful, condescending way? Do we trivialize the richness and the depth of the commitment they share?

The word "homosexual" belongs to a bygone era, much like the "F-word." Both words send a message that gay people are less than you. Less than human. Just plain less than. And in so doing, they erode the mutual respect we all hunger for and the dignity we all deserve.

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