The journalists in the ballroom had spent an extended weekend learning why, exactly, Marshall McPeek should not have said what he said.
So it was no surprise that his attempt to open his volunteer emcee gig Saturday with a joke landed with a thud, then sparked instant anger that caused people to storm out of the closing ceremonies of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists.
McPeek, a weatherman for Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned Fox 28 and ABC 6 in Columbus, Ohio, started the ceremony by welcoming “ladies and gentlemen, things and its” — something critics took as a derogatory reference to the transgender and non-cisgender people in the suddenly outraged audience.
The quip was especially jarring because NLGJA has been trying to be an “inclusive organization for transgender and nonbinary audiences.” Hours before McPeek grabbed the microphone, the group’s conference had hosted a diversity and intersection workshop to report on “often-ignored communities with greater sensitivity and understanding.”
By the end of Saturday night, McPeek was no longer a member of the association of LGBTQ journalists, resigning the membership he has held since 1995 after issuing a hasty, onstage apology.
NLGJA, facing criticism that it doesn’t do enough to address the needs of the entire LGBTQ community, extended an apology of its own the next day, saying it was sorry for an “inappropriately, unscripted remark that does not reflect our values.”
Late Tuesday, McPeek released a statement on Twitter, his first public statements about the incident since Saturday.
“As a gay man, I have been on the receiving end of hateful words and judging glances, especially while being ‘out’ in high-profile positions in television news,” he wrote. “So, I am especially saddened by the irony that my poor choice of words has hurt others in the same way.”
But attendees and others across the nation were still livid days later.
“It is technically, factually literally dehumanizing language. And it is mired in an intense history of prejudice against transgender people,” one conference attendee who attended the closing ceremonies told The Washington Post, saying she did not want her name used in an article that could be critical of NLGJA. “It’s a specifically nonhuman way in which trans people are dehumanized everyday.
“. . . It’s just that no effort has been made to understand the community. If you don’t even know the community, how can you put yourself up as a leader in it,” she said, adding that she did not blame NLGJA for McPeek’s comments.
McPeek declined to comment on this story, saying he was not permitted to comment without his employer’s consent, and provided no explanation for his inflammatory word choice.
He directed The Post to a Facebook post by one of his colleagues, Monica Day. She called McPeek an “ADVOCATE for ALL in the LGBTQ community.” She said McPeek had made the “things and its” comment before, and it was never taken as an insult.
That changed Saturday.
“When I heard about the comment, I was mortified,” Sharif Durhams, the newly elected president of NLGJA, told The Washington Post in an email. Durhams is a former Post employee.
“People have used slurs about my race and sexual orientation,” said Durhams, who is black. “There are comments that are painful and that you can’t take back. We’re supposed to provide a space that’s safe.”
People who attended the conference said McPeek’s comments underscored that NLGJA needs to do more to address the needs of a wider swath of sexual minorities.
“Far too often, that derogatory ‘things and its’ comment has been hurled at us by gay men and our detractors,” journalist Monica Roberts wrote on her TransGriot blog. “It definitely shouldn’t have happened during a journalism organization convention dedicated to ensuring accurate and respectful coverage of the TBLGQ.”
Durhams told The Post that he realizes the work ahead for the organization.
“We have and have had transgender and nonbinary members on our board of directors, and we listen to them,” he wrote.
“Transgender and nonbinary members pitch panels, and we ask them to lead those panels. Transgender and nonbinary members weigh in when we change our stylebook and when we work with media organizations on fixing problematic coverage. We’re going to continue to do all of that.”
But that work will continue without McPeek.
This post has been updated.