Public Death, Private Life
What should a newspaper print about a person's most private life in a story after his death?
The Post ran a story March 22 about the burial at Arlington National Cemetery of Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers, a decorated war hero killed in an explosion in Baghdad. The subject of much journalistic soul-searching, the story did not mention that Rogers's friends said that he was gay and was well known in local gay veterans' circles. The Washington Blade, a gay-oriented newspaper, identified him as gay in a story Friday that was critical of The Post.
For The Post, Rogers's death raised an unanswerable question: Would he have wanted to be identified as gay? Friends also struggled with that question but decided to tell The Post that he was because, they said, he wanted the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule repealed. Yet a cousin and a close friend felt that his sexual orientation was not important; his immediate family members are deceased.
The Post story would have made any soldier proud. It quoted his commanding officer: "As God would have it . . . he shielded two men who probably would have been killed if Alan had not been there." Rogers was "an exceptional, brilliant person -- just well-spoken and instantly could relate to anyone."
A gay group tipped The Post that there should be a story saying Rogers was the first openly gay soldier to die in Iraq. Reporter Donna St. George was assigned to the story and interviewed friends who said that he was gay but couldn't share that in the military under the "don't ask, don't tell" rule.
St. George first wrote a story that included his friends talking about his orientation; some at the paper felt that was the right thing to do. But the material was omitted when the story was published. Many editors discussed the issue, and it was "an agonizing decision," one said. The decision ultimately was made by Executive Editor Len Downie, who said that there was no proof that Rogers was gay and no clear indication that, if he was, he wanted the information made public.
Downie said that what Rogers's friends said and the fact that Rogers was a former treasurer of American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) were not enough. Downie pointed out that many straight journalists belong to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
Downie's ruling was in line with The Post's stylebook policy. "A person's sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story . . . . Not everyone espousing gay rights causes is homosexual. When identifying an individual as gay or homosexual, be cautious about invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known."
Rogers's cousin, Cathy Long of Ocala, Fla., said that she was the closest in the family to him. To her, "The Post did a wonderful job. Personally, as far as the family is concerned, we really didn't know about this until after his death. It was in the back of our minds, but we didn't discuss it." She is glad The Post story did not say that he was gay. "I really feel Alan was a lot more than that." She thought the Blade story was "self-serving whatever their cause is and that they're trying to use Alan to do that."
Shay Hill, his beneficiary and University of Florida roommate, said that he and Rogers were "like brothers" and that he knew Rogers was gay. "He worked to change the system from within. You don't out yourself to make a point. Just because he's gay should have no more relevance than I'm straight. It's not fair to make a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be."
Other friends felt differently. James A. "Tony" Smith of Alexandria, an Air Force veteran, knew Rogers through AVER. He said that Rogers "was very open about being gay. It was a major part of his life. It does a disservice to his memory" not to mention it.
Rogers abided by "don't ask, don't tell" only because "he wanted to stay a soldier," Smith said. "He was first and foremost a soldier, and he loved serving his country." Rogers's ties to the veterans group were "widely and publicly known." Austin Rooke, Rogers's friend and a former Army captain, said, "He was among the most open active-duty military people I've ever met. I can't imagine him not wanting people to know."
Tami Sadowski said that she was one of Rogers's closest friends. She and her husband traveled and socialized with him regularly. "Being gay was a huge and very defining part of his life."
Sharon Alexander, director of legislative affairs for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was a friend of Rogers and lobbies for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." She ultimately concluded that he would have wanted "that part of his story to be told to help move the issue of repeal forward."
Kevin Naff, editor of the Blade, said in an e-mail, "It's a double standard to report basic facts about straight subjects like marital status, while actively suppressing similar information about gay subjects. It was clear that Maj. Rogers led as openly gay a life as was possible, given his military service. He worked for a gay rights organization, had gay friends and patronized D.C.-area gay clubs. It's unfortunate The Post . . . chose not to present a full picture of this brave man's life."
The Post was right to be cautious, but there was enough evidence -- particularly of Rogers's feelings about "don't ask, don't tell" -- to warrant quoting his friends and adding that dimension to the story of his life. The story would have been richer for it.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.