Question Celebrity

With Hank Stuever
Sunday, June 26, 2005

June is Gay Pride Month (the high holy days come with the traditional observances of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York and the overdose death of Judy Garland), and I notice that The Washington Post and other mainstream newspapers have been taken to task yet again by gay-owned media for recent celeb obituary-related sins of omission: This time it's about filmmaker Ismail Merchant, who, with his creative other half, James Ivory, gave us "Howards End," "The Remains of the Day" and other high-end cinema. When Merchant, 68, died on May 25 (after surgery for stomach ulcers), The Post and others failed to mention that his partnership with Ivory was more than just professional, it was a long-term personal commitment -- yes, they were lovahs.

The Washington Blade complained the following week that The Post left out this fact, seemingly on purpose. This, after The Post and other papers didn't report writer Susan Sontag's shift in sexual orientation in her obituary late last year. (Sontag had been married to a man and had a son, but later had a long-term relationship, reportedly, with photographer Annie Leibovitz -- a fact both women rarely if ever discussed in public.) Neither Merchant nor Sontag was the kind of person you'd find on the marshal's float at a gay pride parade, preferring to occupy the auxiliary, open-door closet available to the barely famous; Sontag, who was 71, was deliberately opaque about her sexual orientation in interviews. You'd have to read eleventyseven paragraphs into an old New Yorker profile to discover the passing reference she made to being a lesbian -- something an obit writer on deadline has little time to do.

Still, it's an important fact to know, and leaving the gayness out of obituaries creates the illusion of shame. I consider myself fairly hip (and plenty gay), and it was news to me that Sontag and Merchant were on the refreshment committee. I guess I never thought about it. What the repressed ombudsman in me would tell the gripey gay media watchdogs is what I'd tell any reader in the age of the 24-hour news cycle: When a gay (or gayish) celebrity croaks, call your local obit desk (ours can be reached at 202-334-6000), and give the editors a big ol' gay heads up to make sure they know -- especially if you can point them to any previously published references by the decedent about his or her extra-fabulous time on Earth.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company