Rothfeld: An Untenable Paradigm
By Becca Rothfeld, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, February 18, 2013
Last week, the Associated Press released an internal memo advising its journalistic staff to refer to members of same-sex marriages as “partners” or “couples” rather than “husbands” or “wives.” Ensuing criticism from LGBTQ rights groups prompted the A.P.’s editorial board to issue a revisionary statement clarifying the publication’s stance: the terms “husband” and “wife” may be used to describe same-sex spouses only when “those involved have regularly used those terms,” reads the missive.
The A.P.’s decree is more than an isolated or publication-specific guideline. Rather, its unique status as a touchstone of editorial quality confers upon it notable power to influence the stylistic mores of publications worldwide. What began as an internal memo is bound to have widespread reverberations throughout the field of reporting — in effect, to set a new international standard regarding word choice.
And this standard is untenably homophobic. Although the A.P.’s defenders have been quick to point out that the controversial directive does not actually ban the terms “husband” and “wife,” I believe that it nonetheless serves to reinforce an inequitable norm — a norm that favors heterosexual couples, however insidiously.
Implicit in the A.P.’s mandate is the assumption that same-sex couples are responsible for taking the extra step of explicitly designating their significant others as “husbands” or “wives.” Given that it is unclear what, if anything, the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have done to earn the privilege of automatic media recognition as a couple, it seems unfair to charge the LGBTQ community with the task of explaining themselves or their relationships to a bigoted and ignorant public. The A.P. asks far too much of homosexual couples and far too little of its readership.
It is society’s obligation to challenge and ultimately revise its expectation of straightness — not any given gay, lesbian or queer couple’s obligation to explicate its marriage. Grounding the A.P.’s linguistic decree is an ideology that presumes heterosexuality, a credo of “straight until proven queer” that further entrenches the notion that gayness is somehow out of the ordinary.
In his magnum opus, “The History of Sexuality,” philosopher and historian Michel Foucault writes about the tradition of sexual confession pervading medieval Christian communities, describing it as the mechanism by which sexual mores were manufactured, regulated and normalized. In Foucault’s view, the church encouraged its adherents to couch their own sexualities in broader religious terms — to describe themselves as governed by a Christian ethics and, in so doing, to recognize the truth of Christian value systems. Confession thus represented the total internalization of the Church’s conception of sex and gender.
The modern “coming out” ritual has taken on the same essential function: by forcing LGBTQ individuals to self-identify as different, the “coming out” process also forces them to characterize their sexual identities in terms of deviance. And by forcing LGBTQ couples to formally dub their spouses “husbands” or “wives,” the A.P. forces them also to acknowledge that their marriages are somehow different from straight marriages.
Such a paradigm is untenable. Queerness should require no special announcement, no “coming out” and no imperative to justify, proclaim or explain itself. Instead, society at large should abandon its conception of queerness as an occasional abnormality and learn to regard it as an inherent possibility, if not inevitable fixture, of all sexualities.
I think we would all do well to undergo a period of sexual soul-searching before fixing ourselves in any prefigured category — because it is not just straightness that is taken for granted. It is also a very vanilla brand of heterosexuality, a brand that favors a certain set of polite sex acts, eschews anything out of the rosy-cheeked and wholesome ordinary and takes buxom blondes to be the height of attractiveness. Because so much of our collective sexuality is foist upon us, we are freed from the burden of sexual self-realization and practically invited to fall back on a set of readily accessible assumptions.
The A.P.’s memo does much to validate this particular set. It sends a clear, though tacit, message: anyone who diverges from the dominant model of heterosexuality must explicitly disavow each of its component parts. Such a doctrine is ripe for rejection.