Twenty years ago, the media landscape was very different for the LGBTQ community. Years after Ellen DeGeneres became the first mainstream actress to confirm she was gay, the sitcom Will & Grace brought prominent gay characters into American homes on a weekly basis in a way that wasn’t shameful or audacious.
It was also about 20 years ago that Sharif Durhams first started working as a professional journalist and, shortly thereafter, he joined
the NLGJA — The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. As an “out” gay man himself, he wanted to learn more about how to be a full participant in his newsroom.
Now president of the organization’s board, Durhams says things have gotten much better in terms both of coverage of LGBTQ issues and of the language journalists use when covering such topics.
“The industry was so different back then,” he says. “A lot of the discussion back then was, would some of these large organizations have policies that recognized they’d treat LGBTQ people the same” on matters of insurance, in particular, as well as other workplace benefits. “That’s a big fight NLGJA led. If you were to google it and find when large companies adopted these policies, it’s because of NLGJA. Since then, things have changed so much. We’re looking at the policies of newsrooms, are they using appropriate language to describe our communities.”
Now the new coverage emphasis is on issues relating to the trans community, but there’s a new challenge here that goes beyond how a person identifies.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been dealing with so much violence against trans people and so many trans deaths, where people can’t speak for themselves,” he says. “We’ve had to school news organizations, making sure they get the terminology right, making sure they deal with issues when the police misgender someone, making sure that they might be diving into a story in a well-meaning way but making sure they have the information they need.”
While newsrooms have received information and stylebook suggestions from NLGJA on pronoun use, sometimes the organization needs to get ahead of the news cycle. They issued a press release immediately when Chelsea Manning affirmed her name and identity, which happened to occur during the organization’s annual meeting. The editor of the New York Times happened to be speaking at the meeting the next morning and confirmed she’d informed her newsroom that the suggestions from NLGJA were immediately adopted as the paper’s official terminology.
NLGJA’s suggestions aren’t taken to heart because of the advocacy of its members alone, but because they’re journalists talking to other journalists about a community of which a reporter might not be a member.
“It’s that kind of ability to connect that’s been very valuable,” Sharif says.