Getting personal, going public

Veteran tech reporterIna Fried is acutely sensitive to disclosing sexual identity, both in a storyand in her career.

Fried’s AllThingsD.comwriter bio contains a blink-and-you-miss-it acknowledgment: “Her reportingspanned several continents, two genders and included chronicling the HewlettPackard-Compaq merger, Bill Gates’ transition from software giant to philanthropist,as well as the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.”

“Ian Fried” was herbyline starting as a staff writer for in 2000. Three years later, shetransitioned from male to female in the workplace, though she was privately outto friends and family for years.

More so than manyjournalists, Fried is aware of the politics and problems in writing aboutsexual identity but said journalists shouldn’t shy away from the topic.

“One big question is,‘When is it relevant?’” she said. “One question is, ‘When would I includewhether someone is heterosexual or bisexual?’ Typically that might be in afeatures story on a person in their personal life.”

Fried suggests writersworking on personal stories offer sources opportunities to talk candidlywithout making assumptions.

“I think sometimesit’s just indicating that you’re open to it,” she said. “If you’re interviewinga subject, instead of saying, ‘Are you married?’ say, ‘What’s your home lifelike?’ — something that’s a broader question that doesn’t presupposeheterosexuality.”

Entering an interviewwith an open mind and broad agenda can lead to untold stories. One writer atthe University of Virginia reflected on the school’s history and its perceptionas an institution catering to southern gentlemen – perhaps even prejudiciallyso. He wondered if LGBT communities felt those stigmas and stereotypes, aquestion that led to the series “Gay at UVA.”

‘Gay at UVA’

Over the decades, asthe common definition of “gay” went from merry to almost exclusivelyhomosexual, so too did the UVA tradition of singing the school’s “Good OldSong” after touchdowns.

“We come from oldVirginia, where all is bright and gay,” fans would sing, immediately followedby a chant of “not gay!”

Reflected across yearsof articles, columns and letters in the pages of the Cavalier Daily, the “not gay” chant provoked a movement by students who argued it createdan insensitive climate for LGBT communities on campus. Though the tradition hasfaded in recent football seasons, the stigma that UVA is LGBT-unfriendly stuckaround.

Tom Anderson, focuseditor at the CavalierDaily, wanted to cover theissues facing gay students but was unsure where to start. He contacted studentleaders at various LGBT groups for some background.

“I sat them down andwe talked about issues facing students right now,” Anderson said, “and I wantedto know their thoughts about the community here, if they were comfortable beinggay at UVA, and what needed to be done to make life easier for LGBTQ students.”

Anderson published“Gay at UVA,” a three-part series covering diverse issues such as employment,Greek life and curriculum changes — topics he discovered from the initialconversations with student leaders.

“I started with veryopen-ended questions and got the issues together, and I used that to guide thearticle,” he said.

He pursued sources byemailing LGBT groups, asking them to forward a general request for studentswilling to speak with him. Anderson got many responses but saw some voids — heheard back from more men than women, for example. If he felt a specific voicewas missing, such as a transgender student, he asked the group for someone inparticular.

Since the sourcesresponded to him, Anderson said they didn’t express concern over what they werecomfortable with him printing. If a source was wary about specific details thatemerged during interviews, he said he likely would have respected their wishesand not printed them.

Anderson found lettingthe sources open up gave him plenty of material to work with. The first storyfocused on faculty benefits for same-sex couples, and professor Ellen Bassopenly talked about what issues were important to her.

“She told thisnarrative about how it costs her thousands of dollars to be gay,” Andersonsaid, “and I thought it was a great way to start that article and thought itwas a great quote.”

Even though Andersonknew a source’s sexual identity, was it necessary to label the person for thereader? He said he wasn’t always consciously thinking to label sources on firstreference, but contextual clues in quotes were enough for the purpose of thestories. Notably, one source was identified as straight, but perhaps not for anobvious reason.

“I was never thinking,‘I have to make sure this person has to be labeled as straight because I don’twant people thinking they’re gay,’” Anderson said. “I was just thinking I wantto label this person as straight so the reader knows that all different typesof voices are weighing in on this and that it’s a balanced article.”

The paper wrote aneditorial based on issues Anderson profiled in the series, which was wellreceived by readers and sources alike. Anderson sees LGBT coverage increasingin the future for college journalists as communities grow more prominent.

“I just felt like itwas worth writing about and worth educating people about this community thatexists at this university and kind of separated from many facets of theuniversity,” Anderson said.

News vs. features

When Ina Fried decidedto let co-workers and sources in on her private life as a transgenderindividual, she took a methodical approach. She told some co-workers in person,others in an office-wide email. Fried cycled through her Rolodex of industrycontacts, further expanding the circle of people who would know her as “Ina.”

“I thought myco-workers would be accepting,” Fried said. “I thought the people that Icovered would be generally accepting, but I was pretty overwhelmed.”

People whom she hadn’theard from in years re-emerged with support. Instead of building a wall betweenher co-workers and sources, the admission created bonding experiences.

Eight years later,Fried’s story is well known in the tech industry, and she has since begunadvocating for all LGBT journalists. Fried served as secretary and vice presidentof print and new media at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association,currently acting as chair of the Transgender and Allied Task Force.

Fried said sexualidentity shouldn’t be taboo in a feature story, but news articles can bedifferent, as they don’t always have willing sources. Newsrooms have to maketough decisions, balancing news value against privacy concerns when reportingon LGBT issues, sexual identity in particular.

“Certainly there aretimes when it might be relevant,” Fried said, “but I think one also has toconsider the environment: Is it safe for this person to be publicly identifiedin this way? In general, I think there’s a difference between asking somebodythe question of how they identify and what ends up going in the story.”

The discrepancy Friedhighlights played out at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill lastfall. A vague news tip rapidly turned into a major campus story, pushing thecollege to reevaluate its non-discrimination policy and inciting reader responsethat put the paper on the defensive.

Controversy at UNC

Andy Thomason,university editor at the Daily TarHeel, heard from a fellow newseditor that campus Christian a cappella group Psalm 100 apparently removed amember who was gay. As the paper was wrapping up production for the week on aThursday in August, Andy discovered the member in question was Will Thomason —no relation — a well-known senior on campus who considered a bid for studentbody president.

On Friday, after achance encounter on campus, the two set up a call that afternoon. Over thephone, Andy said Will was “cagey” with the details as nothing official hadhappened. Psalm 100 was holding an official vote Saturday, so the two plannedto meet the day after once Will knew more.

“I was committed tobeing really sensitive and very careful about the way that I approached this,”Andy said.

On Sunday, Andy set upa private room in the Daily TarHeel office to talk with Will,initially keeping everything off the record given the sensitive situation.

“I basically get thesense that he has been kicked out for not agreeing with the rest of the groupmembers’ views that homosexuality is a sin,” Andy said. “He makes that veryclear. He also is very careful not to demonize the group because he’s stillfriends with them.”

That Will was kickedout for “not agreeing” with the other members’ views on homosexuality was afundamental distinction. Like all student groups, Psalm 100 is subject to UNC’snon-discrimination policy, which states that sexuality and othercharacteristics cannot be used to exclude members. The group’s school-ratifiedconstitution, however, allows it to limit membership to those who share acertain set of beliefs as defined by the Bible. Will’s situation exposed, asAndy put it, “a gray area” in the policy that wouldn’t be resolved for weeks.

But to write a story,Andy needed details from other members.

Will returned to thenewsroom a few hours later with two Psalm 100 members who said he would be letback into the group, which Andy chalked up to the possible threat of negativepress.

“Part of me was kindof disappointed because we wouldn’t have the story, and part of me was happyfor Will because he clearly liked being in this group,” he said.

A text from Will laterthat night made it clear the story was not over. Psalm 100 members again votedWill out of the group, and Andy continued discussions with his source.

“At this point, he hadbecome sort of indignant, so he was willing to talk to me a lot on the record,”he said.

Identifying sources

Reflecting on hisremoval three months later, Will may have lost some indignation in his tone butremained firm in one regard: Despite the group’s stance, he said he was kickedout of Psalm 100 for being gay.

“I’ve had a specificbelief about and been an advocate for gay rights since I got in the group,” hesaid, “and I have had discussions about things with members of the group, so Ido think it was about my status as opposed to my belief.”

For Psalm 100, Willsaid being an ally to the LGBT community was not an issue until he came out.

Although Will had agirlfriend his freshman year, he said he otherwise remained ambiguous about hissexuality. Last spring, a Psalm 100 member confirmed with Will a rumor that heis gay. That member brought it to the attention of the group’s directors, andthey held an initial vote for all members to decide whether to remove Will.

Will chose not to bepresent during the Saturday vote but understood it was based on his sexuality.It was unanimous, with three abstentions, to oust him.

After meeting withAndy and the two other Psalm 100 members the next day, Will spoke prior to thesecond vote — again unanimous but with two abstaining members who then leftPsalm 100.

Andy used hiseditorial discretion during interviews with Will to navigate what he wascomfortable talking about on and off the record, determining what could go inthe paper. Andy said off-the-record interviews are rare at the Daily Tar Heel, but when they occur the paper’s policy is that details stay between thesource and the writer.

But what remainedelusive throughout their interviews was the disclosure of Will’s sexuality, avital detail in the story because it raised the question of whether he waskicked out for not sharing fellow group members’ views.

“Even that afternoonthe day before the story, he was telling me he would really only feelcomfortable as ‘not identifying as a heterosexual,’” Andy said. “Kind of aconvoluted thing, but this is such a sensitive issue that I say, ‘OK, that’sfine.’”

Despite attempts tosimplify Will’s non-identification identification, Andy said Will remainedsteadfast on the phrasing. Andy labored over the wording and structure onhis story working Monday night on the paper’s 12:30 a.m. deadline.

Daily Tar Heel Editor-in-Chief Steven Norton and ManagingEditor Tarini Parti were concerned with the muddled phrasing of “Thomason, whodoes not identify as heterosexual” and wanted Andy to contact Will to clarify,but he was initially reluctant.

“I guess as anywriter,” he said, “I was attached to my source’s wishes, and I had spent a lotof time talking with him about what was acceptable — what he would accept — towrite the story.”

Andy went back andforth with the editors, who argued that for clarity’s sake and the truth’ssake, he should call Will to see if he was comfortable with the simpleridentification of “gay.”

“It was kind of atouchy thing,” Andy said, “but I called him back and basically said, ‘Will, Ithink that if people read this, they’re going to be really confused about whatthe issue actually is and what the truth is.’ And he basically says, ‘I’mtrying to understand why it matters that I’m gay.’ And I reply with, ‘well, Iagree, but that doesn’t change the fact that people are going to be confusedwhile reading this.’”

Will offered a candidexplanation for the confusing label, one that shows how he has since positionedhimself at the school as an advocate for gay rights.

“Maybe it’s because ofmy personal internalized homophobia or the stigma of saying someone is gay thatI did prefer ‘non-heterosexual,’” he said. “And because, I don’t know, it’s notabout one gay person. It’s about the rights of all people who identify not asthe norm or not heterosexual. I thought it might be a better way to not make ita personal story and make it more of a recognition that I feel this way about avariety of different people.”

Still, Will understoodthe need for clarity in the story and knew readers would make the assumptionanyway, ultimately agreeing to be identified as gay.

“I saw that Andy wasreally respectful to me,” he said. “I think he was trying to tell it straight-uplike it was, but yet also willing to work with me to tell my story and be ableto tell the truth about what happened.”

The article ranTuesday, Aug. 30 with the matter-of-fact identification of “Thomason, who isgay.”

‘Not black and white’

Almost immediately, itseemed, the story caused controversy. The first indication came from within theDaily Tar Heel itself.

“Right after thisstory went up online,” Andy said, “I got an angry call to my cell phone fromone of the members of the editorial board, completely irate. I think he thoughtthat I had outed Will for some purpose of journalistic ambition or something.”

There was some concernfrom readers that Will’s sexual orientation was a label casually tossed into alarger story, but a column by Norton tried to answer to critics from theopening sentence: “The Daily TarHeel didn’t out WillThomason.”

The column went on tosay Will was out to the people who mattered to him most and the phrase“Thomason, who is gay,” was heavily debated. Beyond the concern for Will’sprivacy, public concern turned to the group that voted him out.

“A lot of people oncampus were very angry at this entire thing, and how seemingly illogical it wasthat a group would kick out a gay member, not because he was gay but because hewas OK with people being gay, including himself,” Andy said.

After aninvestigation, the university ruled Psalm 100 did not violate policy inremoving Will because it ruled members voted in accordance with itsconstitution. With the ordeal behind him, Will is working alongside students,the school’s legal counsel and UNC’s vice chancellor to clarify the school’snon-discrimination policy, ensuring a similar situation doesn’t happen in thefuture.

Will said the processhas to strike a balance by being both efficient and thorough. Still, if hecould have his way he knows when he would like to see a revised policy:“Ideally it would be tomorrow.”

Hearing how the eventsplayed out at UNC, Ina Fried noted Will’s sexuality was integral to thepotential controversy.

Fried said thesource’s willingness to talk about sexuality is an important consideration inthe interview and writing processes.

“I think it does adisservice to LGBT people to assume they don’t want to talk about it, just likeI think outing is unfair because I think there are good reasons why some peoplemay not choose to be publicly identified as LGBT, safety being one of those,”she said.

Outing someone for thesake of a story has long been a divisive issue among journalists, one Friedsaid was debated within the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

For example, ispolitical hypocrisy justification to out a politician? Fried identified ethicalquestions in the very definition of hypocrisy: Is it voting against what isperceived to be an LGBT issue? She pointed to the outing of Pete Williams,former spokesman for the defense department.

Williams was outed inthe pages of The Advocate by journalist Michelangelo Signorile in 1991when the department maintained policies that dismissed thousands of gay servicemen and women. Signorile condemned Williams for remaining in the closet whileothers lost their jobs. Fried noted that Williams did not take a stance on gayissues so much as repeat the government’s policies, illustrating one of many grayareas journalists face when writing about sexual identity.

Fried said journalistscan expect to encounter these questions as LGBT issues become more prominent,and the conversations can easily move to high school publications as youngpeople are coming out earlier than ever. She reiterated that safetyconsiderations are the primary concern when journalists — and studentjournalists especially — are writing about someone’s sexual identity.

It is also importantfor journalists to remember their subject’s sexual orientation is just one partof someone’s identity, a point Will Thomason made throughout the controversythat placed him at the center.

Will was dismayed bysome reader responses and online commenters who used his story to push theirown agendas, be they pro- or anti-gay, pro- or anti-Christian, and everynuanced sentiment in between. Many distilled Will simply into the “gayChristian,” and he said he felt tokenized as they ignored his multi-facetedpersonality.

Similarly, Will isquick to point out the same could be said for the members of the group thatvoted him out. He cautions against pegging Psalm 100’s members, some of whom heremains friends with, as ignorant or mean-spirited simply based on thisoutcome.

“We like to think inblack and white, and just as the issue of homosexuality and Christianity is notblack and white, neither is this story,” he said.

By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer