Associated Press Equals Awkward Policy

black-gay-familyThe Associated Press (AP) has waded into the issue of what title should be given to partners in a same-sex marriage. An AP memo has been leaked which instructs AP Stylebook users “…not to necessarily refer to legally-wed gay couples in the same way they refer to legally-wed straight ones.” The memo is causing waves not only among AP’s own staff but also at news services from the Huffington Post to the Daily Queer News.

(The AP Stylebook is the “world’s leading authority on journalistic style impacting writers, editors, students and public relations specialists on how to ‘correctly’ refer to same-sex couples.”)

The leaked memo reads: “SAME-SEX COUPLES: 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 stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.”

The sticking point is found in the third sentence. Some are saying that sentence means, “If you’re part of a same-sex couple, the Associated Press has taken it upon itself to decide that your relationship to your spouse is not that of a ‘husband’ or a ‘wife’ but that of a ‘couple’ or a ‘partner.’” Further, other sources are surmising that, “There appears to be open dissension at the AP over the media entity’s new policy…not to necessarily refer to legally-wed gay couples in the same way they refer to legally-wed straight ones.”

So, what do same-sex married couples think about this? I’ve talked with same-sex married couples and discovered some aren’t sure of how to refer to themselves either as a married couple or individually. Part of the confusion arises from that fact that in same-sex relationships, couples find themselves legally-bound in civil unions, domestic partnerships and marriages. This leads to some calling their other-half a spouse, a partner, a husband or a wife.

Even before same-sex marriage, which first became legal in Massachusetts in 2004 (Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ordered town clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses on May 17, 2004), gay couples were calling each other by a variety of names. Sometimes the name denoted how personal and serious the couple had become, i.e., same-sex couples would introduce each other as “lovers.” Or perhaps, not being yet that open or serious, a non-specific term such as “This is my roommate, John.” or “My friend, John.” Among lesbians, sometimes two women living together referred to themselves as “cousins.” In more established same-sex relationships, couples introduced each other as “my partner.” Or, less business-like, they could identify themselves to others by simply saying, “We are a couple.”

AP says that “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.”

One New York-based AP reporter David Crary, who writes about gay and trans issues for AP, told journalist Rex Wockner: “The AP style guidance will have no effect on how I write about legally married same-sex couples. I will 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.”

Response from readers to the new policy has been swift and clever. For instance, Steve_in_CNJ calls for even greater reporting differences between legal hetero and homo marriages: “(Writers should) avoid language suggesting that ‘gays’ are normal. For example, ‘Jones was accompanied by his partner and the partner’s parental units. The female (parental) unit noted that her spawn and Jones were symbiants since college.’” Then to further de-humanize the same-sex couple, Steve suggests that writers should, “Use quotes when an arcane synonym is not available. For example, the pair were civilly united in a ‘church’ in NYC and spent their ‘honeymoon’ somewhere before ‘settling down’ somewhere else.”

An open letter to AP from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, advised, “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.”

This is not the first time the AP Stylebook, has found itself in a “semantic political firefight.” Last year, the editors advised against the use of the word “homophobia.”

carl-matthesHey AP brass, If it’s just too difficult to adjust to how fast the English language is changing as regards the way it’s written, it’s use and meaning, consider recommending the asexual word “spouse” for all partners in all marriages.

You may contact AP with your suggestions at: 212.621.1500 or email

Carl Matthes

Friday, 15 February 2013


  1. Billy Glover says

    The “interesting part of this column is the bigot who wants to deny homosexuals marital recognition. What he thus does is force glbt people who have no interest in marriage to rush to support it to oppose such bigotry. So, thanks SteveinCNJ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *