After days of deliberation, I sent off a $350 check to the small private college that I thought would be my home for the four years following high school.
A large envelope from the college arrived a few weeks later in the mail. Inside were the usual forms about financial aid and housing, but there was also a form I didn’t expect – a “covenant.”
The school required students to sign a document that forbid several activities, including “homosexual behavior.” The joy I felt as a soon-to-be undergraduate quickly evaporated. My “behavior” wasn’t welcome there. The folder was tucked away, and I sent a check to another school.
While I wasn’t open about being gay at the time, attending a school where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people are accepted was important to me. Fortunately, I found that place. The school – and myself – are better, because of that accepting environment.
In the wake of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and several similar bills pending in U.S. state legislatures, the Society is making it known today that it is also a welcoming place for all.
As the Society’s Membership Committee Chair Robyn Davis Sekula writes on her committee’s blog, “SPJ is open for everyone, no matter the person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or any other factor. If you’re a journalist, you’re welcome here, and always will be.”
To show the Society’s acceptance of all journalists, it’s asking members to post selfies on social media with the hashtag #SPJ4ALL.
As someone who is gay and involved in a fair amount of the Society’s activities, I can attest that Robyn’s words are very true. I also support the #SPJ4ALL campaign, but it brings me back to a personal struggle I endured when I first entered journalism. Specifically, is it OK to be openly gay in a newsroom?
The question may sound silly at a time when the majority of states allow same-sex marriage and public support for legal recognition of those unions are at an all-time high, but it’s one that I – and I assume many other people – struggled or struggle with from time to time.
I’d sometimes avoid writing about LGBTQ issues out of fear that people would claim those stories were biased or driven by an agenda. The words of the Society’s Code of Ethics echoed through my head: “Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
After a couple years, I realized that I was doing a disservice to myself, peers and readers. Also, to focus on that specific principle within the Society’s Code misrepresents the entire document.
Openly LGBTQ journalists enrich stories with unique perspectives. For example, LGBTQ journalists may pay special attention to issues often unconsciously ignored or overlooked by others. They are also resources to their colleagues, who may not understand certain concerns, topics or terminology.
As for the Society’s Code, focusing on the principle regarding conflicts of interest results in people losing the proverbial forest for the trees. “The code should be read as a whole,” it says. “Individual principles should not be taken out of context.”
When someone takes a broader look at the Code, it says that ethical journalism treats “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” What’s more, it says that journalists should “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”
The Society and its Code don’t tell people to hide who they are in newsrooms or while reporting. More than anything, the spirit and words of the Code tell journalists to be themselves while understanding and accounting for their personal beliefs and biases.
While it may not always be easy – or safe in some places, being open about being LGBTQ will add to newsroom diversity and ultimately benefit everyone.
Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.