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Straightwashing an American Army hero
Straightwashing an American Army hero
by Chris Crain - SGN Contributing Writer

When Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, fallen by a roadside bomb in Iraq, the Washington Post reported that his commander called him "an exceptional, brilliant person" who was eulogized as "one of the heroes of history."

What Rogers wouldn't be remembered as, at least according to the Post article on his life, is Gay.

Even though Rogers, 40, was out to friends and was active in the fight to repeal the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the editors at the Post decided to defer to the wishes of a cousin and a straight friend, who had argued that a positive tribute to his life would be sullied by that additional information.

The "agonizing decision" to effectively "straight-wash" Rogers' life was made by none other than Executive Editor Len Downie, who later told the paper's ombudsman he did so because "there was no proof Rogers was Gay and no clear indication that, if he was, he wanted the information made public."

It's fascinating to see journalists aggressive as those at the Post deferring to (some) friends and family rather than applying the same standards of newsworthiness they would to any other story. The Post stylebook even directs the staff to extend this extraordinary deference:

"A person's sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story. & Not everyone espousing Gay rights causes is homosexual. When identifying an individual as Gay or homosexual, be cautious about invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known."

There's no question that Rogers' sexual orientation was relevant: He was the first openly Gay soldier to be killed in the Iraq war, praised by his commanding officer and peers, and he had fought to repeal the ban on military service by openly Gay soldiers and sailors.

Only the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy itself perversely kept Rogers from being completely out in uniform - and thus satisfying Downie's "proof" test.

It's true that heterosexuals can join Gay rights groups and have Gay friends, but still why wasn't Rogers' involvement in American Veterans for Equal Rights, which challenges the Gay ban, in and of itself newsworthy, along with what his Gay friends had to say about him?

Deborah Howell, the Post ombudsman, eventually concedes in the last paragraph of her column that the original story should have reported on Rogers' sexual orientation, but even then she cushions her criticism.

"The Post was right to be cautious, but there was enough evidence - particularly of Rogers's feelings about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' - to warrant quoting his friends and adding that dimension to the story of his life. The story would have been richer for it."

Nonetheless, Howell leaves unquestioned the journalistic double standard, however well intentioned, that is really at fault here. And Rogers is hardly the first to be straightwashed as a result of it. It's also to blame for the omission of sexual orientation in Post obituaries for R&B crooner Luther Vandross and TV chat host Merv Griffin, among many others.

And you can even find it there in the very first sentence of Howell's column about how the Post covered Major Rogers, when she asks: "What should a newspaper print about a person's most private life in a story after his death?"

Is being Gay really the "most private life" of Major Rogers - equivalent to the identity of those he had sex with and what positions they might have enjoyed? Does Howell consider her own romantic life - the mere existence or gender of her spouse, partner etc. - to be her "most private life" to be hidden from public view at all cost?

Why is the sexual orientation of a Gay man or Lesbian treated as a "most private" secret when the sexual orientation of heterosexuals is a routine fact treated with no privacy expectation whatsoever? Howell even acknowledges that Rogers kept his romantic life - not his sex life, which is private, but his romantic life - only as private as he needed to in order to comply with "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

By treating Rogers' sexual orientation as the "love that dare not speak its name," the Post not only robbed readers of a "richer" account of his life, the newspaper unfairly put its thumb on one side of the scales in the debate over "Don't Ask Don't Tell" - straightwashing away an American hero whose self-sacrifice is itself a compelling case for allowing Gays to serve openly in the military.

Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade and five other Gay publications and now edits GayNewsWatch.com. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com

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