Communication Currents

Representing Gay Families in the News

April 1, 2009
Critical and Cultural Studies, Mass Communication, Political Communication

Rarely today can you open a newspaper, turn on the television, or surf the internet without reading messages about California's Proposition 8 and seeing adjoining pictures of gay families. In November 2008 California voters passed Proposition 8, thereby changing the California state constitution to restrict marriage to a union of a man and a woman. This vote had the effect of overriding an earlier California Supreme Court ruling that gays and lesbians could marry. Although the passage of Proposition 8 was a shock for many Americans, it is not surprising considering the symbolic meaning of how gay families are presented in major US news articles and photographs from 2004 to 2005.

Proposition 8 is the latest example of how civil rights of gay families have fluctuated in recent years. Recall former President George W. Bush's call on February 24, 2004 for a US Constitutional Amendment protecting marriage between a man and a woman. Yet, in August of 2005, the California Supreme Court's ruling on three separate cases established California as the first state in the country to grant full parenthood to same-sex partners, despite the absence of legal adoption or a biological connection. By the end of 2005, steps to pass laws to ban gays and lesbians from adopting children were underway around the country.

Crucially, during this same time period there was also an increase in the visibility of gay families in major mainstream American newspapers and newsmagazines, ranging from the New York Times to Newsweek and US News & World Report. This increase in visibility was not entirely positive for gay families. Instead, in many ways the articles and photographs were homophobic and privileged heterosexuality. This occurred even as the news coverage consistently affirmed the love between children and their same-sex parents. That is, the verbal and visual media representations overwhelmingly focused on heterosexual children of same-sex parents in four problematic ways. The children were portrayed as scientific experiments, as silent or coming out about their same-sex parents, as overly heterosexual, and as extremely feminine or masculine.

For example, the children were the focal points of the majority of the photographs. The children were also emphasized as the main subjects of scientific research on same-sex parenting. In addition, reporters almost always described the children as stereotypical girls and boys who were very sure that they liked the opposite sex. Meanwhile, gay and lesbian parents and homosexual children were absent, or at least sidelined in the verbal and visual media communication. Exemplifying this is the discovery that narratives from or images of the parents were rarely included in the newspaper and newsmagazine articles. Even in the one New York Times Magazine article that identified a lesbian daughter, it was her overly heterosexual and feminine sister who was photographed for the newsmagazine cover and written about the most in the story.

Much communication scholarship suggests that news media representations of homosexuality influence whether gays and lesbians feel equal and are treated equally in American society. Therefore, recent major US news articles and photographs may support political legislation like Proposition 8 that promotes families with heterosexual parents and heterosexual children, and excludes families with gay and lesbian parents and homosexual children. Put differently, gay families appear to be okay in the news only if gay and lesbian parents raise feminine and masculine heterosexual children.

This is not to say that justice and equality for gays and lesbians is impossible. More verbal and visual media about gays and lesbians having families is important for including them in American society. In addition, mediated messages need to portray more diversity in gender, sexuality, and demographics, such as by representing households with openly gay and lesbian children who have same-sex parents of mixed racial backgrounds and live in various neighborhoods across the country. Newspapers and newsmagazines covering gay families should also make an effort to feature gay and lesbian parents speaking up for themselves instead of highlighting heterosexual children. Such communication might create a better world where people with unconventional sexualities, and those in gay families, have the same liberties as the civil rights currently given to heterosexual Americans.

About the author (s)

Jamie Landau

University of Georgia

Doctoral Candidate