Context Important With Term ‘Openly’ Gay

Truth be told, I was surprised that my post yesterday on the term “openly” gay caused such a stir. I had honestly thought that one was a long settled issue.

In fact, I remember in 2006 having that debate in the newsroom of the Ashland (Ore.) Daily Tidings and the only one who thought we should refer to a City Council candidate as being “openly” gay was our very “openly” Christian online editor – who also though climate change, 9/11 and the moon landing were all hoaxes.

I was even more surprised at how many people defended it. But as I looked closely at the different examples cited, I realized that context is very important on this one.

Meredyth Whitty, who works in the Legislative Press Bureau at the State House, points out in a comment on the previous post that she sometimes uses the term “openly” gay. But read her comment and you’ll notice the difference in context:

Generally, I agree with you about the use of “openly,” but with an exception: I’ve actually used “openly gay” in some of our press releases about this issue. We say that Speaker Fox is the first openly gay person to hold the top leadership position in either chamber in Rhode Island. We don’t really know that no one else in one of those positions over the course of history was gay. Actually, just based on the percentage of the population that is gay, I’d bet you some were. We just know that no one else spoke publicly about it. So for the sake of accuracy and honesty, openly gay makes sense in that case.


Similarly – it was pointed out to me by a number of ProJo defenders – the New York Times even uses the term in this headline. And The Advocate, the New York Times of the gay community, if you will, uses the term openly gay to describe David Cicilline.

But just because there are a certain number of openly gay legislators in America doesn’t mean we should describe any of them individually as being openly gay. One use implies there are lawmakers who have not gone public with their sexual preferences; the other implies there is reason not to.

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Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.

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