The following question about how to handle a soldier’s sexual orientation in an obituary was recently posed on a writers’ listserve to which I subscribe. It provoked such a heated discussion that the moderator had to shut off debate. It’s worth another look here.
Help! My alumni magazine has asked me to write a tribute/obituary for a soldier killed in action just a few months before his scheduled discharge. He was gay but had kept it quiet. His partner told me that they were planning to marry after his discharge and wants me to mention that fact. But the soldier’s parents won’t confirm the marriage plan and are horrified at the idea of publicizing the relationship. Journalistically speaking, what’s the ethical thing to do?
This is an awful dilemma. Whatever you do will hurt someone at a time when everyone must be feeling a great deal of pain.
Journalists often have to balance the right of privacy against the public’s right to know. When the two principles clash it becomes a judgment call; the journalist must decide whether revealing certain facts is important enough to justify the harm that results. But I’m having a hard time seeing this as that kind of a journalism issue. There’s no public right to know here, only two sides who can’t agree on how a man should be remembered.
In fact, I’m inclined to see your problem as a diplomatic one; it’s the parents and the partner who face more of an ethical dilemma. Your role is more of a mediator, and you need to employ some shuttle diplomacy before your deadline arrives.
If the deceased soldier was silent only because of constraints imposed by his military status and if his parents knew he planned a public ceremony, then they have to decide whether hiding it now is what their son would have wanted. As hard as it may be in this time of great pain, they should think about how their son would want to be remembered, not about their own preferences. But that assumes they knew about the relationship and the marriage plan, and you don’t know that to be true.
The partner also has to think of the deceased. Presumably the soldier talked with his partner about his parents, his feelings for them, and how he felt about their feelings for his sexuality. Would he have wanted his partner to go to the mat on this or would he have wanted to make this as easy for them as possible? Thinking this way may be impossible, but ideally the partner should try.
If they are not able to reach a decision, your choices are limited. If you can’t confirm the marriage plan, you can’t report it as fact because you can’t substantiate it. You could quote the partner’s contention, but then you might have to quote the parents denying it, the worst of all worlds and one you should avoid.
Instead I think the best thing to do is to leave out any mention of the partner. The only hard fact you have is that the deceased kept the relationship a semi-secret, and I don’t think it’s right for you to reverse that without a clearer sense of his intentions or an agreement from those closest to him (the next best thing).
I suspect not everyone will agree with my choice. You can comment below.
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