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Friday, May 07, 2004 - Page updated at 02:16 P.M.

Publishing notices of gay marriages stirs controversy

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories examining the cultural, social and political currents swirling around marriage.

News articles listing many of the rights and benefits denied gays and lesbians because they can't legally marry may overlook at least one: having wedding announcements published in their hometown paper.

Content with reporting about the gay-marriage movement with neutrality, some newspapers — particularly smaller publications — are finding themselves pulled, unwillingly, into the fray.

As gays and lesbians in recent weeks have gone to Portland or San Francisco to obtain marriage licenses, papers have been left to figure out how to deal with requests to publicly announce their new unions.

Take the Yakima Herald-Republic, a 39,000-circulation paper in Eastern Washington owned by The Seattle Times Co.

The paper had written extensively about a local couple, Jane Newall and Deborah Vuillemot, who traveled to Portland in March to marry. Yet it found itself in a quandary when the women returned from Oregon and presented their wedding announcement for publication in the Sunday Life news section.

"They had no stated policy on the issue," Newall said. "They had covered same-sex unions and written extensively about couples who had gone to Portland to marry. And their editorial position was in favor of civil unions. Given those things, we figured they'd put it in."

But three days after the women made their request, editor Sarah Jenkins called to say their announcement would not be published alongside other wedding and engagement announcements. A new policy, Jenkins told them, established since the announcement was submitted, reserves those pages for state-recognized marriages only.

Also, the paper will not publish engagement announcements for same-sex couples because "they can't at this time lead to a marriage recognized in Washington," Jenkins wrote in a column explaining the paper's position.

"The conversation kept coming back to the point that these were not legally recognized in Washington," said Bob Crider, Yakima Herald-Republic managing editor.
 
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"We're not an arm of the state, no. But until the state figures out what it wants to do, we felt comfortable with the position we took."

The paper offered Newall and her partner and other gay couples the option of publishing announcements as paid advertisements in the "Celebrations" section.

Newall and Vuillemot — insulted — called that "separate but equal" treatment. "We felt it was discriminatory, since the only weddings not legally recognized by the state were same-sex marriages. We felt that what they were telling us was that we were newsworthy but not worthy of being treated as human beings."

An increasing number of newspapers in recent years have been publishing announcements of same-sex commitment ceremonies and civil unions. Many added wedding announcements last year after gay marriages were legalized in parts of Canada.

About 245 newspapers around the United States either run same-sex union announcements or say they would be willing to do so if asked by a local resident, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

And while papers of all sizes are grappling with the issue since thousands of gay couples have wed in Canada, Portland, San Francisco, New York and New Mexico, smaller publications are having a harder time because many still run wedding and engagement announcements for free. It wasn't that long ago that newspapers struggled with another gay issue — whether to list partners' names in obituary notices.

"I don't know anywhere where marriages are being performed legally," said Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association, which represents newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and British Columbia.

In a conversation earlier this week, he said he'd not heard from member papers on the matter. "This whole thing began in anarchy. It's a cultural war, and as a newspaper I can see where you'd not want to get in the middle of it."

Kelly McBride, ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists, said that by publishing these announcements, newspapers aren't making a statement about the legality of gay marriage.

"There are a lot of people about whose marriage we may raise an eyebrow," she said. "But we don't disenfranchise them from the paper."

She said papers need to make sure they are applying the same standard to everyone who wants to announce a wedding: If they ask for legal proof of marriage from gay couples, they must ask that of all couples — a practice not in place at the Herald-Republic.

McBride recalled the decision a few years ago by the Spokesman Review in Spokane, where she worked at the time, to separate same-sex unions from other wedding announcements. "The editors decided (same-sex union announcements) would not be treated equally, they would put them under a different heading and they would not get a photo."

McBride said she argued about the historical significance of what the paper was doing: "There was a time when other people also could not get access to those very pages: people of color and in interracial marriages. Given that, we should err on the side of equality."

The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer this summer will launch sections that will include paid wedding announcements. Because the idea was conceived before gay marriage licenses were issued, advertising officials need to evaluate how same-sex wedding announcements will appear, Times spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin said.

Meanwhile, at The Oregonian in Portland — ground-zero for recent legal skirmishes on gay marriage — all paid wedding announcements, from gay and straight couples, run together in the Celebration pages of the paper's Living section.

Advertising Director Dennis Atkin said the announcements, which the paper began running less than a year ago, are for any couple with a legal bond: "If a couple wants to pay for it, we'll run it," he said.

Commitment ceremonies and civil unions are listed separately.

At the Wenatchee World, in Central Washington, editors are trying to come up with a policy nearly two months after a local gay couple requested a wedding announcement.

Ken Robertson, executive editor of the Tri-City Herald, said his paper had the outline of a policy a few weeks ago when a local gay couple asked to announce their wedding. Marriage notices from gay couples are listed under a separate heading — "Announcements" — from those for traditional unions, which are listed under "Weddings."

Robertson said the two men withdrew their request after learning their announcement would be treated differently. "We understood their concern," Robertson said. "We were trying to address reader concern that these aren't officially weddings, since state law doesn't recognize them as such.

"This is clearly a hot-button issue here and in every town in the country."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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