by Jessica Carreras
At the forefront of the battle for LGBT equality are marriage rights, anti-discrimination ordinances and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. For Jackson resident Charles Meade, however, the struggle began with trying to run an engagement announcement in his local paper, the Jackson Citizen-Patriot.
This November, Meade is having a commitment ceremony in Delaware with his partner of two years, Bruce Mead. Like many couples choose to do, they wanted to place an announcement to let the people of Jackson – a city where Meade has lived for over 30 years – know about the upcoming celebration of their relationship. Instead, what they received was a rejection letter.
It is a national battle for equality that is happening under the radar, and being won and lost on the pages of newspapers across the nation: the fight to put same-sex couples in the media.
Inequality in Jackson
“Frankly, you are asking us to venture into uncharted waters,” the letter, written by Citizen-Patriot Editor Eileen Lehnert, began. It went on to say that Lehnert was denying their request to print the announcement on the paper’s Milestone page, which runs, free of charge, engagement, wedding and anniversary announcements. The letter directed Meade to the Scrapbook pages, where readers can pay to have an announcement put in the paper – anything from a birth notice to a promotion or a new puppy.
Lehnert also noted that, as a long-time resident, Meade should realize that Jackson was “slow to change,” and that her decision was not a reflection of her personal views about gay and lesbian couples.
Lehnert later told Between The Lines that the decision was about accuracy, not opinion. “What it came down to was in Michigan, same-sex marriages are not recognized,” she explained. “Our marriage, engagement and anniversary announcements are part of our news hole. To say someone was engaged to be married when that can’t happen legally, we’re uncomfortable with that.”
Meade responded by writing a letter to the editor, detailing his feelings about what he considered to be the unequal treatment of gays and lesbians. “You might as well just throw gay couples under the bus and cite state law,” Meade wrote. “It’s insolent that we can’t be treated as an equal member of this community.”
Lehnert refused to run the letter, stating that it is against the paper’s policy to “print VOP letters on any firm’s business practices, including our own.”
However, Meade pointed out that the paper has printed letters doing exactly that on numerous occasions, including five that he brought to the attention of Lehnert. “That’s just a downright lie and she has no valid argument,” Meade said. “If it’s the press that’s creating the roadblock, where do we as the people have to go?”
Lehnert later clarified to BTL that there is a difference between letters that talk about news-worthy issues and one that causes an issue itself. “It’s going to be subjective and I’m not going to pretend it’s not,” she said of deciding which letters would be printed. “You can say (a previous letter was about) a business practice, but it’s one that reaches the level of news.”
Since then, Meade has talked with the Jackson TV station, who refused to run a statement urging people to combat Lehnert on her decision.
He has gone to ACLU of Michigan for help, who told him that if there were an anti-discrimination ordinance in Jackson, he could use that legal venue. Unfortunately, Jackson is one of the many U.S. cities where no such law exists protecting sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
Lastly, Meade contacted the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which works for fair treatment of LGBT people in the media. There, he found out that he is not alone.
The national newsfront
Meade joins a growing number of LGBT people who are fighting for equality in a microcosmic way; people who use baby steps to make strides forward by doing things like standing up for themselves at work, being open about their relationship in a public place, or, in Meade’s case, putting their relationship in the paper.
The push for equality in media announcements, however, has already gone on for years. In 2002, GLAAD unveiled their Announcing Equality campaign. It was started to try to get daily newspapers around the country to allow same-sex wedding and engagement announcements, and has since done just that. When the project launched, a national survey revealed that only 69 daily papers would allow the practice. In 2006, the number was up to 504. Now, over 900 daily papers around the nation accept same-sex wedding, civil union or commitment ceremony announcements.
Over 15 of them are in Michigan, including the Detroit Free Press and News, the Ann Arbor News, the Lansing State Journal and papers as small as the Ionia Sentinel-Standard, which has a circulation of 3,500 papers and serves a city of just over 10,000 people.
However, many other Michigan newspapers specifically do not allow same-sex announcements to be printed. Among them are the Grand Rapids Press, the Flint Journal and the Bay City Times, according to GLAAD’s 2006 survey.
Still others who print the announcements have strict requirements. The Traverse City Record-Eagle will only print an announcement for a same-sex couple who are being married in a state or country where it is legal. If the couple runs a picture, they cannot be kissing.
Lehnert counts the Citizen-Patriot among those 900, stating that Meade and Mead can print their engagement – as long as they pay for it. “It really got down to accuracy and legality,” Lehnert explained. “Whether we run it in the news pages or advertising pages, we’d get a reaction. I’m not ducking an inevitable reaction.”
Still, Meade – along with GLAAD – said that option is not enough. “Milestones is free. Scrapbook, you have to pay for,” Meade said of the different announcement pages. “I just know it’s not right. I’m really tired of people who, for whatever reason, don’t think they have to recognize our relationship.”
Lehnert admits that they have been anticipating that this issue since same-sex marriage has come into the news forefront. But though the Citizen-Patriot has tackled tough LGBT issues before – such as the firing of transgender professor Julie Nemecek and a man’s fight against HIV – Meade’s request was the first time they had ever been faced with an announcement question.
Lehnert asked other Michigan editors for advice, and said that they agreed with her decision. However, Lehnert said it’s not a closed case. “We didn’t have a policy and still don’t have a policy,” she said of running same-sex announcements. “If a couple were from Jackson and were going to get married in California or another state that recognizes gay unions, we’d have to look at it again.
“We’re taking the matter on a case-by-case basis.”
The Citizen-Patriot’s stance is one many daily papers in the U.S. hold. As such, GLAAD urges couples to try to get their relationships in the paper and other print venues, even when they think the outcome will be negative.
Conversely, many other papers have told GLAAD that they are more than willing to run these announcements, but have yet to receive a request. “There are all these papers who do print announcements, but many of them haven’t gotten them before,” explained GLAAD Media Field Strategist Sarah Kennedy. “The flip side is that people think they can’t print their announcement because they’re never seen one in the paper before.”
On their Web site, GLAAD offers a downloadable guide with sample announcements, ways to make LGBT relationships more present in print media and how to go about submitting an announcement. Currently, they are working on updating their list of inclusive papers and expect the list to be online within a month or two.
The number of inclusive newspapers is nearing two-thirds of all daily U.S. papers, and stories like the one told by Meade are popping up all over the country, meaning that the disparities are being constantly challenged. For GLAAD, the effort to create equality for same-sex relationships is a war that can be won – at least on the pages of newspapers.