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    March 30, 2008

    WaPo 'ins' gay soldier killed in Iraq

    Posted by: Chris

    Rogers_allen The Washington Post ombudsman has gently criticized the paper's editorial judgment for "inning" a gay soldier killed in Iraq, omitting his sexual orientation from a story about his life.

    Deborah Howell tackled the issue after a Washington Blade story quoted friends of Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers who were upset the Post ignored that Rogers was effectively the first openly gay soldier killed in the Iraq war. Rogers was out to many friends and was active in AVER, a gay veterans group.

    Howell's look behind the scenes in the Post newsroom was quite telling:

    For The Post, Rogers's death raised an unanswerable question: Would he have wanted to be identified as gay? Friends also struggled with that question but decided to tell The Post that he was because, they said, he wanted the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule repealed. …

    [The reporter] first wrote a story that included his friends talking about his orientation; some at the paper felt that was the right thing to do. But the material was omitted when the story was published. Many editors discussed the issue, and it was "an agonizing decision," one said. The decision ultimately was made by Executive Editor Len Downie, who said that 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 incorporates the views of the story subject into the editorial decision:

    "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."

    I'm not sure what "evidence" Downie needed to to prove Rogers' sexual orientation. Ex-boyfriends? Love letters? Did the reporter search for them? Yes it's true that heterosexuals can join gay rights groups and have gay friends, and that is true. But still why wasn't Rogers' participation in the group, which was confirmed, in and of itself newsworthy, along with what his gay friends had to say about him?

    Howell eventually concludes in the last paragraph of her column that the story should have included Rogers' sexual orientation, but 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.

    Cautious OK but the way the story was handled suggests a real double standard, however well-intentioned, is at work here. My own belief is that real reason for the omission -- which has been an ongoing issue with obituaries at the Post that I've written about a number of times over the years -- was signaled in the opening line of Howell's column:

    What should a newspaper print about a person's most private life in a story after his death?

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

    I'm not of the school that the press "owes us" our heroes and thus should report sexual orientation more frequently. But I do believe the same editorial standards ought to apply to gay and straight alike.

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    Comments

    1. Scott on Mar 30, 2008 8:09:32 AM:

      This is not a positive story no matter what angle you look at it. Since World War II the military retains openly gay soldiers during wartime because they need them while during peacetime they discharge gay soldiers. If we were in peacetime Alan would not have been in the army.

      The military conducted a survey last year to find the attitudes of soldiers to possible gay soldiers serving with them and if gay people should be in the military. The majority (around 73%) said they would have "no problem" with a gay soldier serving with them. The majority (around 76%) said gay people should not serve in the military. The fact is they want gay people as canon fodder. They don't give a shit about gay people. In the final months of NAZI rule gay concentration camp victims were used as canon fodder by the NAZIs.

      I will not support the ending of DADT until the military apologizes for participating in NAZI laws that kept gay concentration camp victims in prison until their "time" was served in full. Some gay prisons weren't released until the 70s.

    1. Out of Eygpt on Mar 30, 2008 11:02:21 AM:

      It continues to fascinate me that homosexual people seem to identify first re: their sexual orientation. An orientation would appear to be just that, one small, very small aspect of the composite.
      This young man was first and foremost a soldier, a courageous individual who believed in what his country stood for enough to sacrifice his life for it. He was an American.
      Thank you, Sir, I am honored that you served for me.
      He was a son, perhaps a brother, certainly a friend, a human being, a black man among black men, a child of God.
      This, my friend, would not even do justice to all the other aspects of this incredible miracle called man, a thinking, feeling being struggling on the path of life in search, as we all are, of the truth and peace of mind and heart.

    1. The Gay Curmudgeon on Mar 30, 2008 12:44:35 PM:

      I had thought that privacy was called for when some negative outcome could result from its breaching. Having learned a little about Maj. Alan G. Rogers I find the idea that anything could sully his service a less than credible rationale.

      His Georgetown thesis was on the negative effects of DADT on the military and he worked with the Service members Legal Defense Network and American Veterans for Equal Rights. By all accounts he was as open about his orientation as he could be and still serve his country.

      Of all the actors in this piece, it is the military and perhaps some family members who most desire non-disclosure that he was a gay man. The military wants privacy because without it the cruelty and hypocrisy of the DADT policy and it's enforcement becomes even more apparent. The family wants privacy because of their own attitudes and feelings about Major Rogers life and how it might reflect on them.

      While the closet and the social conditions that create and sustain it exist, we will continue to have this kind of conversation. While same-sex attracted people are stigmatized by society and families deal with gay relatives by ignoring them or treating them as a "dirty little secret" we'll keep having this conversation.

      This is something that has to stop. Maj. Alan G. Rogers knew that and actively worked for change in his workplace.

      I'm certain that what he wanted most was to have no need of this faint and tainted privacy. He wanted to be just like his colleagues and friends and able to share his life with them without reserve or consequence.

      ~GC

      P.s. Out-of-Egypt, I agree that one’s sexual orientation is but one facet of a human being. Yet, it isn’t at all uncommon for people who are oppressed or mistreated because of a characteristic, like their sexual orientation, religion, or even their race, to react by either identifying with it more strongly or rejecting it completely. The middle path you rightly sense as more healthy is where we might be when the oppression and mistreatment ceases and we are all simply people.

      Until then, this is where we are.

    1. Tenax on Mar 31, 2008 6:28:05 PM:

      Out Of Egypt,

      I wish we could treat our sexuality as only a small part of ourselves. My sexuality really is only a small part of my being; my family, my pets, my likes, dislikes, and accomplishments are so much more than who I find attractive. However, this little part of ourselves tend to trigger vastly negative reactions from some people. Soldiers who are open about themselves risk being ejected from the services. Simply holding hands with someone you love can put you at risk of serious physical harm in otherwise safe locations.

      Straight people often don't realize this. They have their little ways that they show affection towards their girlfriends, the photos of the wife and children at work, the good-bye kiss in the drive way, the casual chat about what they did together over the weekend or about the argument they had.

      Until homophobia is drastically reduced, we must monitor this little part of ourselves. We must be aware that, with a simple good-bye kiss, we risk our careers, our lives, and the well-being of our loved ones. The casual question of, "so, who are you seeing" may need to be broached with the utmost caution.

    1. captainlarab on Mar 31, 2008 9:01:30 PM:

      Out of Egypt: I am a lesbian former Army officer and a friend of Alan Rogers (we worked together as volunteers for American Veterans for Equal Rights).

      You're right, it's a funny thing how so many homosexuals seem to identify first r.e. their sexual orientation. I know I did that all the time...when I was in the Army. Why? Because every single day of my Army career, I was reminded in some way large or small of just how very unwelcome gays and lesbians were in the military. There was barely a day that went by that someone didn't ask me why I didn't have a boyfriend or a husband, or tried to fix me up with someone, or suggest that I was really stressed out and needed to get laid. I was scared to death that my mere lack of a boyfriend was going to be enough to get me investigated and kicked out of the military, which would have more than likely led to me having to pay back a $60,000 ROTC scholarship. So, yeah, the fact that I was a lesbian was on my mind more or less constantly.

      Now I'm in a job where it doesn't matter one whit whether anyone knows that I'm gay. I have a partner and a 3-year-old, and am basically just a faceless bureaucrat who shows up to work, earns a living, and then goes home to her family. And you know what? At this phase in my life, I consider myself "post-gay." We never go to gay Pride festivals anymore. Most of our friends are straight, and I haven't engaged in any form of gay activism for about 4 years (I've only become re-engaged by the Wash Post's mangling of my dead friend's life story).

      The moral here is that, if you want gay people to just shut up about their sexual orientation, the best bet is just to go ahead and give us full equality and treat us like everyone else. In the Canadian military, for example, where their ban on gays was repealed in 1992, there used to be a very active group of gay and lesbian servicemembers and vets. Now there isn't. Why? Because they have absolutely no reason to organize anymore and have simply faded into the fabric of Canadian society.

      That's really where I want to be, and where I want this country to be--where sexual orientation just doesn't matter anymore. But the fact that it's not there yet is not because of gays, it's because of continued discrimination by heterosexuals.

      Great blog post, Chris. As I said, I knew Alan, and you're reading the situation correctly.

    1. BobN on Mar 31, 2008 11:49:02 PM:

      Someone with more spare time than I have should scour the WaPo's pages for obituaries of other members of the military whose participation in VETERANS' organizations was treated with such discretion...

    1. John on Apr 1, 2008 12:31:18 PM:

      The biggest problem facing WAPO's editors was political, but not in regards to their position on homosexuality et al.

      To 'identify' - and that is the keyword - as a gay man is a political action. While in some or many cases the identification also serves a personal or cathartic purpose is moot. WAPO's editors made the right choice if the soldier in question had not yet decided to become *politically* homosexual.

      In post-Modern gender and sexuality theory, what genital organs a person prefers to fondle is fundamentally a private matter, but also one subject to change and evolution. Ultimately, this soldier may have chosen to identify as heterosexual or bisexual. All to often, a simple curiosity and open exploration leads to an unshakeable label, and that is the real effect of heteronormativity.

    1. Scott on Apr 1, 2008 12:38:41 PM:

      Thank you tenax and captainlarab for your thoughts. They are great appreciated.

    1. captainlarab on Apr 2, 2008 10:12:43 AM:

      John: Here are a few of Alan's postings from the AVER DC Yahoo group (which had about 130 subscribers at the time). The Washington Post had most of these, since at the time Donna St. George was doing her research for this piece she was very interested in establishing a timeline, so we forwarded them to her. Read these and then you tell me whether Alan was "politically homosexual."

      His first posting to the AVER DC yahoo group was on June 11, 2004. He wrote to us asking for the location of the Pride festival, in a message entitled "Sorry I'm a slacker!" He wrote, "As I am somewhat new in town, where exactly are the booths going to be set up this weekend? I assume its in the Circle somewhere but not sure exactly where. Thanks, Alan." A week later, someone else in the group posted saying that he had met with Alan and was coordinating with Alan and Tony Smith to do some outreach at Baltimore Pride.

      On July 2, 2004, Alan wrote, "Just wanted to say thank you to all who attended our monthly Military Happy Hour last evening. It was great meeting so many new faces and reacquainting with so many others. I think the new location that Austin recommended is a hit! Look forward to seeing many of you at our River Tubing Day on Saturday July 17th...look for more info from Austin, our social chairperson, soon! Whatever your plans, have a happy and safe Independance Day weekend. Alan Rogers."

      On August 30, 2004, he posted a message entitled "AVER Membership Renewal Campaign." He encouraged everyone to pay their membership dues during the month of September and signed it, "Alan Rogers, Chapter Membership Coordinator."

      On September 29, 2004, Patrick High posted an article about how members of the state-only component of the California state militia were being exempted from Don't Ask, Don't Tell by a recently enacted California state statute. Alan responded, "Patrick, thanks for sharing this article. Wow, what an inspiring step in a long fought fight. Seems to me that this critical legislation will become precedent for other states to adopt similar stances against discimination. Kudos to those state legislators and local activist groups in CA that worked tirelessly to insure the right kind of language was included in the Act."

      On October 31, 2004, the incoming president of the AVER DC chapter, Galen Grant, announced the results of the recent chapter elections. "Alan R.," a "career military intelligence officer," was introduced as the new chapter treasurer.

      On December 3, 2004, Galen Grant wrote to the group about coordinating a visit to the VA hospital to bring care packages to the elderly vets, sometime in either December or January. Alan responded, "Galen: Jumping on the bandwagon of good ideas here...The holiday season traditionally seems to be the time that many tend to be more giving, charitable and caring about those who are less fortunate due to poverty, illness or distress of some sort. But the remaining 11 months of the year, those same people remain afflicted and frequently forgotten. Seems to me there is a more lasting value of bringing messages of
      hope and cheer year round. I too support a January vet visit following the AVER New Year Brunch that is being coordinated. Alan." He then added, "When the idea first came up in our AVER chapter meeting last month, the intent was to maintain a linkage and an identification to our veteran roots...that regardless of our sexual identity, we are veterans and need to reach out to mainstream veterans as well." (emphasis added).

      On March 10, 2005, another member of the group posted an op-ed piece that had run in the Army Times, written by an active duty lieutenant colonel and West Point Professor named Allen Bishop (it was entitled "Gays in the Military: A Question of Liberty"). Alan responded, "Thanks for sharing this [name omitted]. Its nice to see active duty field grade officers making a strong case for the repeal of DADT and publishing it in the Army Times. Curious to read some of the backlash the subsequent issues will no doubt contain. Alan."

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