WashPost Labeling: 'Landmark Gay Rights Activists' vs. Falwell's 'Religious Conservatives'
Sunday's Washington Post Magazine had another one of those true Post chestnuts, chronicling how cruel and backward the state of Virginia is to lesbians. April Witt's story focused on two women who entered into a civil union in Vermont now battling for custody of an artificially inseminated daughter. Vermont says Janet the lesbian partner is automatically a parent, Virginia says not so fast. The story contained several elements that the gay left does not appreciate -- Lisa the birth mother left behind homosexuality and embraced Christianity, and the story mentions ex-gay authors and ministries. But it also carried the classic tendency to divide the ideological combat between "conservatives" and not liberals, but "gay rights activists," activists whose work is in historic "landmark" cases.
The trend starts early in the story: "On one side are lawyers who are leading gay-rights activists; on the other are legal combatants for a conservative Christian foundation associated with Jerry Falwell."
And: "Lisa began attending a conservative Christian church...she found a book called Restoring Sexual Identity: Hope for Women Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attraction. The author, Anne Paulk, and her husband, John, became the poster couple for the conservative Christian ex-gay movement in the late 1990s, when they were featured in full-page newspaper ads urging gays and lesbians to become straight."
Here's the one L-word: "The Paulks and others working in ex-gay Christian ministries infuriate many gay activists, liberals and therapists with their contention that homosexuality is not biologically determined and that gays and lesbians can choose to be heterosexual." The trend continued:
Eventually, [Lisa] found Steve Cable, the president and founder of an organization promoting conservative social values called Vermont Renewal, who had lobbied vigorously against Vermont legally recognizing same-sex unions....
Liberty Counsel, based in Florida, is partly funded by religious conservative leader Jerry Falwell....
Gay-rights activists rallied to Janet's defense, including Joseph Price, a lawyer from Arent Fox in Washington, who agreed to represent Janet in Virginia pro bono.
Lisa's first lawyer was Deborah Lashman, described as a pioneer (and not labeled as ideological) by Witt. She was an advocate in "landmark" cases and an "outspoken" lobbyist, but never a liberal:
Lashman is a central figure in the history of legal rights for gay parents in Vermont. In a landmark 1993 case, Lashman had tried, unsuccessfully at first, to adopt the biological children of her longtime lesbian partner, Jane Van Buren. Van Buren had conceived the children through artificial insemination; she and Lashman were raising them together. A probate judge had ruled that Lashman could not adopt the children because she and Van Buren were not married, an option not available to them under Vermont law. The women appealed. In the nation's first appellate-level ruling in such a case, the Vermont Supreme Court said that Lashman could adopt her partner's biological children.
Lashman later became an outspoken board member of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, which supports same-sex marriage.
You can't imagine Witt honoring say, the Paulks, as pioneers in gender "history" with their "landmark" decision to leave homosexuality behind. These are not just adjectives, but honorifics, telling the reader where the reporter thinks history and the "landmarks" need to go. They're steering the history bandwagon and no back-seat drivers are welcome.
Witt's story also might be faulted for its provocative opening, placed in capital letters for sensationalistic punch:
JANET AND LISA MILLER-JENKINS MADE LOVE IN THE MORNING BEFORE LEAVING FOR THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE. At least that's how Janet remembers it. "We had a connection in the morning before we left," Janet said.
Witt then proclaimed, "As with other couples who have split, their truths have diverged; through the lens of loss, each views their time together differently." You would think a newspaper that hallows the idea of truth would not allow sentences like "their truths have diverged." One woman is telling the truth, the other is lying. Even if you can't figure it out in every case, it's literary and not journalistic to claim they can hold completely contradictory "truths."
UPDATE: April Witt did a tour on the chat room at washingtonpost.com and responded to a question about her labeling choices this way:
Labels are always a disaster. There are all kinds of liberals and kinds of conservatives. There are conservatives who want the religious right out of the nation's bedroom. There are gay activists who vote for fiscal conservatives. So I thought it would be expeditious to refer to religious conservatives v. gay activists. Obviously, you disagree.