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Coming out isn't a confession

March 10, 2010 |  7:04 pm

A careful reader of The Times has called out the staff on a couple of recent occasions over use of language involving homosexuality.

An editorial Wednesday criticizing the anti-gay voting record of state Sen. Roy Ashburn said that Ashburn "confessed that he is gay" during an interview with a right-wing radio station.

In response to the editorial, reader Paul Grein wrote:

"I can't believe that The Times' style guide, in 2010, doesn't say that its writers should use neutral terms like 'discloses' or 'reveals' rather than inherently negative terms like 'confesses' or 'admits' when talking about someone's sexual orientation."

In fact the style guide does address this type of usage. The entry reads:

Avoid the words "acknowledged," "admitted" and "avowed" unless they are appropriate to the context, as when a person in the military is accused of being gay and admits or acknowledges that it is so. In other contexts, write openly gay or gay.

Nicholas Goldberg, editor of the editorial pages, explained the thinking behind the wording:

"I don’t think we meant the word 'confessed' to suggest that he had been doing something we considered wrong. We meant 'confessed' in the sense that he had denied and denied and denied something for years that he didn’t want people to know, and then he finally came out and admitted it. In that sense it was a classic confession, which the dictionary defines as ‘to acknowledge or disclose something damaging or inconvenient to oneself.'

"However, I see your point and, frankly, if it had been mentioned to me before deadline, I would've been happy to change it."

A separate usage question came up in an article Feb. 24 about the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. That article described the policy as one that "allows gays to serve only as long as they keep their preferences hidden."

Grein had weighed in on this as well:

"Most people nowadays use the phrase 'sexual orientation' not 'sexual preferences' (and are they plural?) 'Preferences' suggests a mere 'preference' for one gender over the other. In most cases, with heterosexuals as well as gays and lesbians, it's more than just a preference."

The Times style guide gives similar counsel:

The term sexual orientation is preferred to sexual preference, sexual persuasion or other such terms.

The stylebook of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Assn. has even stronger language regarding "sexual preference":

Avoid. Politically charged term implying that sexuality is the result of a conscious choice.

I confess, I agree with Grein on both counts. The style guide does, too. 

--Deirdre Edgar

Twitter: @LATreadersrep