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Standard deviation
Do ‘community standards’ bar the publishing of gay-wedding announcements? Or are major newspapers simply rubber-stamping the comfortable status quo?

IT IS THE SMALL, everyday actions that often define the cutting edge of political movements: Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit at the back of that bus; little girls persistently asking why they can’t be on the Little League team; Kmart workers’ inquiries about their overtime pay, which led to a vast, wide-scale investigation of corporate compensation practices. The new, burgeoning movement to get newspapers to print the marriage or civil-union announcements of gay and lesbian couples is yet another example of seemingly simple requests for fairness inspiring political action and social change.

Gay-marriage proponents, as well as the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association, have been lobbying newspapers across the nation to print announcements of gay nuptials. Many smaller papers — including the Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine, the Sunday Citizen of New Hampshire, the Fayetteville Observer of North Carolina, and local community weeklies such as the Melrose Free Press, the Somerville Journal, and the Cambridge Chronicle — have recently begun carrying such announcements. As of now, however, no big-market papers print gay or lesbian wedding announcements, although several are in the process of re-evaluating their current policies. But the big question here is not whether these papers will finally say "I do" to gay-nuptial notices — that, quite frankly, seems inevitable. No, the big question is why this is such a big deal in the first place.

There’s no question that printing gay-wedding and -commitment announcements is a break from tradition, but the reluctance of papers such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times to do so now is baffling nonetheless. These papers have no trouble printing progressive editorials promoting legislation that counters discrimination against gay men. The Times has editorialized in the past in favor of anti-gay-discrimination legislation on both the city and the state level, and has also argued for coverage of transgendered people under the state’s anti-discrimination bill. The Boston Globe has editorialized in favor of domestic-partner benefits, as well as endorsing Massachusetts’s Safe School initiative, which supports the rights and safety of gay kids and students. And both papers published editorials — heartfelt, if a little pro forma — attacking the culture of queer-hating that led to Matthew Shepard’s death. But they stop short at the seemingly far-more-innocuous measure of providing a forum to celebrate gay and lesbian relationships.

On some level, the refusal to print these notices seems petty, even as the fight to get them printed comes across as frivolous. Let’s face it, the decision to print gay-nuptial notices is a battle of society-page protocol that hardly seems germane to the everyday lives of lesbians and gay men. It doesn’t, for instance, address the enormous hatreds and inequalities that gay people face daily (of which the State of Florida’s ban on adoptions by gay couples offers the most recent, much-talked-about example). What it does do, however, is question the most profound organizational principles of a functional society: manners, etiquette, social protocol, and civility. Perhaps the real revolution won’t happen in the courts or in the streets, but rather in the society pages, the columns of Dear Abby and Miss Manners, and the newest edition of the venerable grandmother of all social protocol, Emily Post’s Etiquette.

A LOOK at the history of wedding announcements explains why the question of whether to print gay-nuptial notices so vexes newspaper editors and publishers. To begin with, marriage announcements are a public manifestation of a private relationship that is regarded as a central pillar of what we like to call the civilized world. Their earliest form took place as banns, the Christian ecclesiastical mandate that upcoming weddings be announced three times in advance of the ceremony to make sure that no one has any objections to the union. In the mid-19th century, the practice morphed into the secular tradition of first announcing an engagement and then the wedding itself on the "society page" of British and American newspapers. Wedding announcements’ transition from the church to the newspaper was ascribable to the always-aspiring-upward middle class. The rich thought it vulgar to announce engagements and weddings in the popular press (after all, anyone who actually mattered would find out the happy news from their servants), and the poor simply didn’t have the social standing, or the economic clout, to make their personal lives matter to the newspaper-buying middle class.

Of course, from the 19th century onward, the American press was the voice of and to the middle class. Not only did newspapers supply readers with narratives of current events, they also set the terms of socially acceptable behavior, proper language, child-rearing, gender norms, and — through the "women’s pages" — fashions. Along with this, they reinforced the limits of social aspirations and fears: they told you who was invited to tea at the homes of the upper-middle class, and where the "bad part of town" was located; they continually demonstrated (through news stories and features) the gentility of white people and the physical, social, and moral impropriety of African-Americans and poor white people. To an extraordinarily large degree, they were the most potent gatekeepers and reinforcers of social norms, prejudicial thinking, and discriminatory behavior. At their best — with, say, the muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, who exposed political and business scandals — they fought the system. But for the most part, they capitulated to enormous social, political, and economic pressures, and often refused to confront, or expose, the myriad ills of society. After all, newspapers are driven by advertising and business interests. This socio-economic reality made the mainstream press overtly or covertly complicit in reinforcing the most base prejudices and hatreds generally accepted by the dominant culture. And, alas, to a large extent, this hasn’t changed. How else can you explain why the simple placement of a gay-wedding announcement in a newspaper in a liberal, sophisticated city is such a big deal? If this refusal weren’t so outrageous, it would simply seem rude: and what would Miss Manners say about that?

In a July 29 column, Boston Globe ombudsman (really, should this be "ombudsperson"?) Christine Chinlund wrote about the Globe’s intent to review its gay-wedding-announcement policy "with an eye toward possible change. Underline possible." While Chinlund supports such a change — "In my view, the issue of gay partnership is indeed a civil-rights matter; by extension, so is its cultural treatment — newspaper notices included" — she also acknowledges how difficult such a change will be to make. And, while she may have her own opinion, Globe editor Martin Baron has quite another: "Some may see this as an easy issue, but I see it as a difficult issue." He goes on to say, "Community standards are something we can’t ignore, but what a community standard is is hard to say." Baron’s fancy footwork — note the double verb; a rhetorical ploy worthy of Clinton, or Nixon — simply obscures the issue at hand. Of course you can’t ignore "community standards" — i.e., pretend they don’t exist — but you can certainly decide to cross or change them. But more problematic is the idea that "community standards" exist in any uncontested, authentic, sense. Mainstream newspapers in this country function under the myth that they speak for the majority or plurality. And maybe papers are — or should be — voices of their communities. The problem is, of course, whose community do they speak for, and who decides?

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Issue Date: August 8 - 15, 2002
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