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Fit to print: the New York Times isn't the first paper to run same-sex partnership announcements, but it is the first to make the whole country take notice of the change. (Media).

Several months before Joe Quenqua and Art Smith journeyed to Burlington, Vt., last year to formalize their eight-year relationship with a civil union at Lake Champlain, they did what many other New York City-area couples do. They sent a wedding announcement and photograph to The New York Times for inclusion in the newspaper's Style section.

When they hadn't heard back from the paper after a month, the couple sent several more queries about their announcement. And finally they got a response from the newspaper.

"We have given careful thought to the question, especially in the light of our editorial page's long and unequivocal support of same-sex unions and the Vermont measure in particular," the letter read. "Nevertheless, the editors have concluded that civil unions in Vermont fall short of equivalency to marriage in significant respects, and our wedding pages are still confined to marriages. We don't feel able to open those pages to civil unions in part because that would amount to taking an editorial position in the news columns on an issue that still very much divides society."

Quenqua and Smith--a publicist and a freelance writer, respectively--were surprised that the Times had formulated such a careful policy excluding announcements like theirs from the paper. "I had never seen a same-sex couple profiled in the wedding section," Quenqua says. "But their editorial pages ran a positive editorial about the Vermont decision, and it led me to believe that this editorial feeling would translate to their wedding pages."

The couple was equally surprised August 18, when they read in the Sunday edition that the Times had changed that careful policy--becoming the largest U.S. daily to publish announcements of same-sex commitment ceremonies and formal registrations of gay and lesbian partnerships. As of September, the Sunday Styles section's "Weddings" page is called "Weddings/Celebrations."

"I was so happy," Quenqua says. "I woke up Art, showed it to him, and we both had a feeling of pride. We knew it was going to happen. It was just a matter of when."

Although the largest U.S. daily to make this move, the Times follows more than 70 newspapers that al- ready have included same-sex union announcements in their wedding pages.

Prior to the Times, the most recent paper to make the change was North Carolina's 65,000-circulation Fayetteville Observer. In July the paper run the civil union announcement of Rabbi Richard Jernigan and his partner, John Nitzsche.

"Our [wedding] page is a community bulletin board about the important milestones in people's lives," the paper's editor and publisher, Charles Broadwell, says about the policy change. "I felt uncomfortable saying no [to same-sex union announcements], though that might have been more popular in our community."

Broadwell notes that his decision, in addition to garnering national recognition, prompted a flood of letters both from people who applauded the move and from others who protested it. Some canceled their subscriptions.

The move by the Times is unlikely to have much effect on the newspaper's subscriptions, but because the paper is arguably the most influential in the country, it could make a huge difference in how hundreds of other newspapers view same-sex partnerships.

"The New York Times sets both journalistic and cultural standards, and we hope and expect and will advocate that other papers follow their lead," says Joan Garry, executive director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "It means more people will hear our stories."

In fact, within a week of the Times's announcement, Garry says that almost 30 other newspapers made a similar policy change or went public with their own inclusive policies with regard to same-sex partnership announcements.

The Times's decision also may advance the struggle for same-sex marriage, some activists say. "It is one of those bellwether moments that indicates how far we have come and something that will have catalytic power itself," says Evan Wolfson, director of the Freedom to Marry Collaborative, a New York City-based organization devoted to securing the same legal marriage rights for gay couples as for heterosexuals.

Toby Usnick, a spokesman for the Times, offers little insight into how the newspaper came to its decision. "Not a single event, request, individual, or organization led to this change," he says. "We have said for several years we would review this matter. It has been an ongoing process, and in the most recent review the executive editor made this change."

But according to officials with GLAAD and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the decision came after more than a year's worth of meetings the groups had with newspaper executives regarding same-sex partnership announcements. (In August, GLAAD launched the yearlong Announcing Equality Project, which is designed to double the number of newspapers that include such announcements.)

Robert Dodge, president of NLGJA and the economics correspondent in Washington, D.C., for The Dallas Morning News, sheds more light on the process behind the change at the Times. He describes a December 2001 meeting he attended with senior Times management that included publisher and Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. "[Sulzberger] was very engaged in the issue. It was something he had given some thought to, and he was articulate in understanding the issues," Dodge says. Sulzberger, he adds, said he didn't want the newspaper "as an institution to be way out in front of society with something like this. But he also didn't want to be the last one through the gate."

While certainly met with enthusiasm from gay and lesbian readers from across the country, the Times's decision may not be as inclusive as it appears. Though the newspaper's wedding announcements are unpaid, the ones that actually run in the paper are chosen for their newsworthiness, and editors traditionally have highlighted couples of social distinction or couples with prominent families. The paper says it will stick to the same standard when considering same-sex union announcements.

But Wolfson and other same-sex marriage advocates are not troubled by the nuance. "If all we were doing was fighting to get our ceremonies listed, then you could have a class riff about it," he says. "But we are fighting for an end to discrimination and for civil marriage," he says.

Other gay men and lesbians expressed concern that seeing same-sex union announcements may give readers the false impression that gay marriage is actually legal. "I think it is critical that journalism focus on this [possible misunderstanding] and on the fact that Vermont civil unions are only good in Vermont," says Pamela Strother, executive director of NLGJA. "It's the role of journalists to report that this is not equality."

Nevertheless, for many couples, the Times's decision is cause for rejoicing--especially for those like Quenqua and Smith, who feel that in some small way they helped push the debate along. "It would be nice if [the Times] would call us and do a belated announcement," Quenqua says. "But a lot of people, I am sure, think this, and I am just glad that other people will now have that opportunity."

Quittner also writes for Business Week and the New York Post.
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Author:Quittner, Jeremy
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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