June marks LGBT Pride Month. It's also the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riot when members of the gay community rose up in defiance of a police raid at a Greenwich Village tavern, launching the modern LGBT rights movement in the United States. In the past five decades, we've seen that movement make great strides, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, the legalization of gay marriage, the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, and now in about a dozen states, gender neutral I.D.s. The conversation around gay rights has moved so quickly, in fact, that it can be hard to remember where we were in the very recent past. Well, here's a reminder from our archives. After the 2012 death of Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space, the world learned something new about the pioneering astronaut. That Ride was, in fact, a lesbian survived by her partner of 27 years, a woman by the name of Tam O'Shaughnessy. This previously unknown detail of Ride's life was mentioned in one line at the end of a lengthy obituary in The New York Times. Reaction to the Times obit ranged from criticism for posthumously outing Ride to criticism for not outing her enough, raising the question of just how deeply an obituary should delve into the private life of a public person. Back then, I spoke with Bill McDonald, the obituary editor at the Times about the ethics and obligations of obit writers in telling the story of the dead. Now, the obit didn't reference her sexual preference. It just simply made reference to her longtime partner who happens to be a woman.
That's right. When we were trying to find out who were her survivors might be the only information we could go on was a statement released on her Web site, which described Dr. O'Shaughnessy as her companion of 27 years. And of course, we reported that. You know in the best of all worlds, if we'd had more time to do it, we might have tried to reach Dr. O'Shaughnessy and talk to her about their work together and about their relationship. But we had a very difficult time trying to reach anyone. It was simply a matter of deadline pressure, the logistics of newspapering and nothing more than that.
The reason we're having this conversation is because the question of sexual preference in many ways for public figures is not a personal matter. It has been heavily politicized. There is some pressure from gay rights organizations for people living in the public eye, if they're gay, to let the world know, to not be closeted. If you've chosen in your private life to remain private, should that be respected upon your death?
We don't go out of our way to describe or talk about sexuality unless there was a reason to, unless the person involved made an issue of it. Hypothetically, you know if a politician had said some homophobic things or had supported some legislation that would penalize gay Americans, and then we find out that that politician had been gay himself or something like that, then that's fair game. That's an issue then that that person was very public about. So in that case, we would have no qualms.
Historically, the Times and other newspapers have had a sort of a vocabulary of euphemism for describing the domestic arrangements of people who were not publicly out. Can you give me some examples of the phraseology that would be employed?
Longtime companion was one, and probably when I started at this newspaper in the late 80s, early 90s, that era and before, the paper was less comfortable and probably did use those kinds of locutions which are clumsy. And I think the news industry has evolved.
You don't see confirmed bachelor in the pages of the New York Times any...
You don't see confirmed bachelor. Exactly. We don't have to use those now. Where people were much less inclined to be public, now they are. And we can be therefore more public because we are essentially reporting what's on the public record. There's always a lie you have to navigate between privacy and public information and public interest.
I suppose we should actually mention here the difference between an obituary and a death notice.
The death notice is an advertisement. It's paid for by the family or someone close to them. And it is their take on the individual. And it's often a tribute, really. But what we're doing is journalism when you've just died.
There tends to be respect and delicacy lent to your memory. But journalism, strictly speaking, does not have to participate in that convention either.
No, it doesn't. And we do not withhold information that we think is useful to help portray a person. Families often request that we don't report this or that. And if it's on the public record and it's part of that person's life, we can't respect that. That runs against our conventions of journalism.
Can I ask you one hypothetical? Let's just say that I've been living for 35 years with no one spouse. But to just for argument's sake and let's say that I'm a complete civilian, nobody knows me except for 38 years ago I invented artificial cork. So the reason you're writing about me in the obit section is because I am the inventor of artificial cork. But I just had that one brief moment in the public spotlight and have lived in obscurity ever since. What do you do about the living arrangements that I have assiduously worked to keep private for decades?
We have many obituaries like that. In fact, you know where someone had their moment many years ago and became essentially private citizens afterwards? Exactly right. In many ways, was that kind of individual in this hypothetical example? We would write about that invention. We would then ask the family who the survivors are. Now, if that family member discloses that the individual was living with two other people from the opposite sex and wanted to leave it at that, we would report that. But I would suspect that if it were a very private matter, that someone wouldn't even be telling us that.
Bill, thank you very much. You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Bill MacDonald is the obituary editor at The New York Times.
That's it for this week's podcast Extra. Hey, the final episode of Brooks four part eviction series is coming out this week. If you haven't been keeping up with the series, now would be a. Great time to tune in. It's simply phenomenal. Also, if you make your way over to on the media dot org slash fiction, you'll see that we and our collaborators at the eviction lab created a tool that you can use to check the eviction rates in your state to those in the states that Brooke visited. This is just something you have to see and hear. Thanks. I'm Bob Garfield.
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