By the Stylebook: Gay grammar and describing same-sex marriages

As AP confirms use of “husband” and “wife” for same-sex married couples, Katie Toth reports on the big shifts in LGBT language Canadian Press has made over the years.


By Katie Toth

As AP confirms use of “husband” and “wife” for same-sex married couples, Katie Toth reports on the big shifts in LGBT language Canadian Press has made over the years.


By Katie Toth

After raising controversy about the language journalists should use when writing about same-sex marriages, the Associated Press released a statement last week saying they were officially adding an entry for “husband” and “wife” to the style guide. “Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested,” the AP statement read.

“The AP has never had a Stylebook entry on the question of the usage of husband and wife,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes, in a press release. “All the previous conversation was in the absence of such a formal entry. This lays down clear and simple usage.”

The decision was a victory for confused AP reporters and gay activists, after an internal style memo—followed by an awkward update—was leaked to media blogger Jim Romenesko on Feb. 12. The updated memo said:

"We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (‘Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones’) or in quotes attributed to them. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.”

The memo caused a firestorm within the American journalism community.

GLAAD said the advisory “implies a value judgment on the part of AP—that same-sex marriages ‘generally’ need vocabulary that differentiates them from opposite-sex marriages, and that said vocabulary should consist of words that also apply to unmarried couples.” John Aravosis of America Blog, an LGBT blog out of Washington D.C., said the Associated Press was “banning the use of the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ for legally wed gay couples.” The National Gay and Lesbian Journalism Association wrote an open letter to AP, saying, “One has to assume that AP would never suggest that the default term should be ‘couples’ or ‘partners’ when describing people in opposite-sex marriages. We strongly encourage you to revise the style advisory to make it clear that writers should use the same terms for married individuals, whether they are in a same-sex or opposite-sex marriage.”

When senior BuzzFeed reporter Chris Geidner read the memo, he was baffled.

“A couple in Canada, a couple in Iowa, a couple in New York—they don’t get a same sex marriage license [or an] opposite sex marriage license. They just get a marriage license,” he said in an interview. “If the same thing is happening to two people, no discussion of social politics should be involved when it comes to a reporter presenting the facts of what has happened.”

(For a more comprehensive timeline of AP’s decision, see the Storify embedded below.)

James McCarten, Canadian Press Stylebook editor, says that the “common sense” entry seemed like a reaction to the backlash after a quick call was made. McCarten warns about making style recommendations—particularly about sensitive subjects—too rashly or without input from one’s audience. “Style should be a bedrock,” he says. “You have to choose words carefully.”

CP actually has very little specific style guidance around gays and lesbians. Patti Tasko, a former editor of the CP Stylebook, says the flexibility allows reporters to make editorial decisions appropriate to the story on the ground. She also says it’s a reflection of the way gay issues are less politically-charged in Canada than for our southern counterparts.

The current policy at the Canadian Press is to ask one’s sources and let people define themselves. “Boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, husband and wife are all acceptable depending on situation,” says McCarten. “We have to maintain a certain framework—but within that framework we always respect the wishes of the person we’re talking to.”

Tasko originally added information about terms for gay and lesbian partners—including ‘husband’ and ‘wife’—in 2006 as a response to Canadian court decisions through the early 2000s and the Civil Marriage Act of 2005, which left many reporters writing stories about new same-sex couples. “I put that in the book and nobody complained and nobody even noticed,” she remembers. “I just think Canadians are just not that fired up about this kind of stuff; they’re more fired up about whether you use Canadian spelling or not.”

When it comes to language around LGBT people, the Canadian Press has seen some massive shifts over the past 30 years, McCarten remembers. “It was common practice [in the 80s and 90s] to describe in print copy… a ‘gay lifestyle.’ That was a typical phrase you’d see on the wire.”

While it may have appeared on the wire, the book was clear by as early as 1999—“don’t refer to a ‘gay lifestyle,’ or suggest the majority of homosexuals live (unorthodox) lifestyles. Most don’t.”

As early as 1989, the book had also suggested that ‘gay’ could be used as a synonym for homosexual. Nine years later, Tasko would note in the 15th (2008) edition that some people consider homosexual to be derogatory. “We used the word homosexual because that was what society was using,” Tasko said. “My main reason for avoiding homosexual is it’s such an awkward word; so clinical.”

Gerald Hannon is a queer journalist and former journalism teacher at Ryerson University. “It took a long time for ‘gay’ to be accepted,” he remembers. ‘Homophile’ was the preferred—often ignored—term for activists through the early 20th century, and a shift happened in the 70s and 80s more wholly towards ‘gay.’

“We were ‘deviants…’ I can’t remember when the changes began to happen, but slowly they did,” Hannon said. “We insisted on it.”

Tasko and McCarten both credit former CP supervising editor, Peter Buckley, for some of the biggest shifts around how gays and lesbians were discussed in Canadian media. Buckley was the general news editor before he became senior supervising editor, influencing then overseeing the Stylebook through the height of the AIDS crisis. He demanded that reporters avoid fearmongering in their stories and avoid leaving the impression that only gay people could be at risk—an advisory that remained in the stylebook until 2006.

“There was a lot of bad information out there,” Tasko says, about reporting on the illness that was originally known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). “[Buckley] didn’t want CP to be inaccurate about what little we knew at the time.”

While some historic shifts have been made, the language around sexuality and gender continues to evolve, and McCarten wants to stay on top of it. He will consider the best ways to write about people who prefer gender-neutral pronouns before the release of the next edition. “The Peter Buckleys of this world probably never would have imagined that this would come to the fore.”


The grammar of gay couples

On Thursday, Feb. 21, the AP Stylebook officially noted that "husband" and "wife" could be used for married couples regardless of orientation, after LGBT media had taken AP to task for a week. Why? A leaked internal memo, originally advising gay married people be called "partners."

Storified by Katie Toth· Thu, Feb 28 2013 08:01:31

In early February, media critic Jim Romenesko posted an internal AP style memo which stated that “…generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.” 
AP’s memo on same-sex couples | JIMROMENESKO.COMUPDATE: AP spokesman Paul Colford writes: "The Monday internal memo you’ve posted [at the bottom of this post] was soon after rewritten a…
The Press, whose style guidelines form a standard not only for its own reporters but for the majority of American news outlets, was soon facing ire:
@APSTYLEBOOK: Why does the AP not "generally" refer to same-sex couples who are married as married? I mean, journalism.Chris Geidner
.@chrisgeidner Note that @apstylebook is now claiming they fixed it. They didn’t Aravosis
AP bans use of words "husband," "wife" for legally wed gay couplesUPDATE: There appears to be open dissension at the Associated Press (AP) over the media entity’s new policy, announced yesterday, not to …
Seriously AP? It is like you CAN’T stay away from bad decisions in this category… DAHL
Gawker described the guideline as “a jarring ‘separate but equal’ standard for married couples.”
Associated Press: ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ Are for Heterosexual Couples OnlyFrom the Associated Press today, a bizarre memo that specifies the terms "husband" and "wife" are to be used to refer to heterosexual cou…
The Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation said the memo “implies a value judgement on the part of AP.” Because the Press had a history of referring to gays and lesbians as husbands or wives in the past, it was unclear “what, exactly, writers are supposed to take away from this.”
What the Associated Press Marriage Memo Means | GLAAD
When the Associated Press’ media team declined to respond through social media channels, @FakeAPStylebook stepped in:
Avoid using "husband" or "wife" in reference to same-sex married couples; instead use "roommates" or "confirmed co-bachelors."Fake AP Stylebook
@FakeAPStylebook is "boston marriage" still cq?J.R. Lind
Meanwhile, journalists and gay activists debated whether the new style guidelines were unethical, and whether it mattered: 
It’s not that it’s "wrong" as a political or philosophical thing; it’s factually wrong, and the @APStylebook is simply inaccurate.Chris Geidner
.@chrisgeidner Are you saying @APstylebook is merely wrong factually (i.e. inaccurate) but not wrong morally (i.e. unethical)?Allyson Robinson
@allysonrobinson I’m saying we don’t need to get to those debates. It’s factually wrong, and as a journalistic enterprise, that ends debate.Chris Geidner
However, Jeffrey Bloomer at Slate suggested that the guideline was a positive step. Bloomer wrote that the Associated Press had clarified the existing state of national tension about gay marriage: 

“Legal gay marriage remains an elusive thing, even in U.S. states that allow it, because the Defense of Marriage Act prevents full equality. Some states (and countries, for that matter) have civil unions, some have gay marriage, and some have granted no legal form of marriage to same-sex couples at all. This attempt by the AP to establish a standard usage is less a value judgement than an effort to provide a consistent guideline where none really exists.  Instead, it grants authority on the matter to the couples, who really should get to decide.”
No, the Associated Press Didn’t Ban "Husband" and "Wife" for Gay MarriagesThe Associated Press Stylebook, the sturdy, fondly parodied newspaper reference guide, has lately found itself in the unwelcome position …
@slate Does #marriage confer the terms wife and husband? What about husband and husband? Wife and wife? #LGBT Hughes
Some disagreed with Bloomer’s line of reasoning.
@PDColford_AP If same-sex couples didn’t want to be referred to as husband or wife they wouldn’t have gotten married. @aravosisDR CC
Meanwhile, reporters on the ground—including senior reporter David Crary, as well as The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists’ Association—were challenging the new guidelines. 

The NLGA said the guidance  “suggest[ed] a double standard for same-sex individuals in legally recognized marriages.”
Open Letter to AP Stylebook EditorWe appreciate the AP guidance to use terms people use about themselves. The revision to the original memo was a step in the right directi…
Crary said he would “continue to depict them on equal terms, linguistically and otherwise, with heterosexual married couples, with no hesitation about using husband and wife in the cases where that’s the appropriate term.”
AP reporter: I won’t follow new anti-gay rule banning "husband" "wife"There appears to be open dissension at the Associated Press (AP) over the media entity’s new policy, announced yesterday, not to necessar…
On Thursday, Feb. 21, the Associated Press changed course. They added a new entry to the stylebook, making it official that “husband” and “wife” can be used to describe members of any married couple regardless of orientation. 
The arc of your universe, bending – AP stylebook: "Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable" L. Hauser
When teaching #j202, I make fun of the some seemingly arbitrary @APStylebook rules. But, today it did good. Duncan