The dominant art on the front page of The Pennsylvania State University's Daily Collegian on the day after Valentine's Day, 2005, showed two couples kissing. It is a pretty picture. Snow is falling on the campus. The lovers in the foreground are wearing woolen beanies. The lovers in the background are standing under a green umbrella and wearing long, striped scarves. The red of the wool cap in the lower right corner complements the green of the umbrella in the upper left. The blue of the red cap wearer's jean jacket matches the blue of one of the scarves.

It is likely that the default assumption of heterosexuals who read the Daily Collegian, if not all members of a predominantly heterosexual society, is that two people who are kissing each other on the lips are members of both sexes. However, one of the hat wearers appears to be a woman, although the sex of her partner in the red hat and blue jacket is indeterminate. Similarly, one of the scarf-wearers appears to be a man, but the sex of the other is indeterminate.

Anyone who read the caption, however, would learn that the person in the red cap is named Katie and that the person she is kissing is named Christy. One of the scarf-wearers is named Benjamin; the other is named Ben. A reader of the caption would also have learned that these were not random smoochers caught in the act by a roving photographer, but participants in a "Flaunt Your Sexuality KissOut" staged by Allies, Penn State's lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender organization. The event was organized, one of the women told the Collegian photographer, because Valentine's Day is "the most hetero-normative day of the year." There was no accompanying story.

Two days after the photo appeared in the Collegian, the following letter ran on the paper's editorial page under the headline "Gay public affection offensive to readers":

Thank you Daily Collegian for providing such a wonderful front-page picture yesterday.
There's nothing I look forward to more than seeing a bunch of queers kissing in public. It definitely made my day. How about publishing pictures and stories about real people that actually matter for a change?
There are plenty of individuals and groups at Penn State who are good, honest people, striving every day to make a positive difference, especially this week with Thon [Dance Marathon, a student-run fundraiser for children with cancer] coming up.
These are the people who should represent Penn State on the cover of the Collegian, instead of a group of people who are nothing short of disgusting and pathetic.

Though one knows such attitudes must exist on a college campus with 40,000 students, the letter was striking for its vehemence and for the willingness of the writer, an undergraduate named Chris Kovalchick, to sign his name to it. In the week that followed, the paper received 400 letters in response to either the photograph or the Kovalchick letter, and published about a tenth of them. Among the attacks on either homosexuality or homophobia were 15 letters that either condemned or commended the paper for running the photo or the letter. At issue, then, was not just whether public displays of affection between homosexuals or homophobic attitudes are acceptable to members of this university community, but also whether the student newspaper acted appropriately when it chose to print first the KissOut photo, then the gay-bashing letter.

In a society where homosexuality was considered a normal part of life, a news photographer looking for a Valentine's Day photograph would find same-sex couples engaged in public displays of affection (PDAs) neither more nor less newsworthy than heterosexuals engaged in public displays of affection. Readers of the newspaper would find a photo of gay PDAs neither more nor less offensive than a photo of straight PDAs. That society may already exist in some urban areas. It appears to be where the rest of the western world, including the Penn State University campus, is heading. As of 2005, it was not there yet. If it were, the campus gay rights advocacy group would not have felt the need to stage a media event to call attention to gay romance.

The stunt worked: Allies called and the Collegian came running: According to widely agreed-upon notions of newsworthiness, a photo of a man publicly kissing a man and a woman publicly kissing a woman on the Penn State campus would be timely and unusual (it provided an interesting "hook" for the Collegian's coverage of Valentine's Day) and potentially controversial. As then-Collegian editor Jimmy Young put it, publishing the KissOut photo was an opportunity to "test the waters." The newspaper, he said, "is a great place to gauge how the public feels about this issue."
Here is how one member of the public felt about it: "Most people have no problem with gays, but they don't want it staring in their face that they should be accepting it." Members of oppressed minorities know that attitude well: They're acceptable as long as they're invisible. The Collegian made the sexuality in homosexuality visible in a way that perhaps it had never been before at Penn State.

Interestingly enough, two letter writers insisted that they weren't bothered by the homosexuality of the lovers, but by "seeing public displays of affection of ANY sort on the front page of the Collegian." One of these complainants wrote, "I'm tired of having to walk around couples sucking face on my way to class. I believe these sorts of 'activities' have their time and place- not in front of everyone else on campus."

The one point of agreement between the paper's defenders and its detractors was that the paper was promoting acceptance of homosexuality. Neither side seemed to question whether the paper should be engaging in advocacy; their only concern was whether they agreed with the paper's position. One of the four letter writers who thanked the paper for publishing the KissOut photo said he was proud to attend a university "that isn't afraid of diversity." None of the writers who decried the photo argued that the paper should have "balanced" it by including anti-gay opinions in an accompanying story.

Jimmy Young denied the paper was "trying to push the gay agenda." If heterosexuals had staged a KissOut, he said, "we would have published that also." But then he added, "Gay people can participate in Valentine's Day too," which sounds like acceptance, which is the "gay agenda," if anything is.

As for the Kovalchick letter, four writers said the Collegian should never have printed it. "To understand why this letter is morally wrong," a physics professor wrote, "substitute your ethnic or religious group for gays. In my case, the statement would be that he is disgusted by seniors, or Jews, or people with beards kissing. Such a statement is outrageous and should not appear in the Collegian." Such letters in turn drew responses that defended the Collegian's decision to publish the letter as a First Amendment issue, which, of course, it is not. The First Amendment protects both Kovalchick's right to speak and the Collegian's right to print or not print whatever it likes.

But legal obligations are one thing; ethical obligations are another. Like most newspapers, the Collegian believes that it should serve as a forum where all may speak. In his editor's column, Jimmy Young said he would publish letters attacking other groups, as long as they did not contain "vulgar language or epithets, or had directly attacked someone's life"- a clearer standard than the one articulated in the Collegian's letters policy, which states that the paper reserves the right to reject those that "do not conform to standards of good taste" (one writer said Kovalchick's letter should have been rejected on those very grounds). An opinion like Kovalchick's, Young wrote, "needs to be exposed to show a true representation of the student body."

But then Young acknowledged that he had more than making sure "all voices are heard" in mind: "Kovalchick's letter and the responses that agree with him show that our community may have more work to do than previously thought to combat homophobia," he wrote. In other words, like publication of the KissOut photo, publication of Kovalchick's letter was, paradoxically, an act of advocacy. The photograph made the LGBTA community visible; Kovalchick's letter made them- and their supporters -and the bigotry they face- even more visible. The controversy reflects a core contradiction between journalism's dual traditions of objectivity and advocacy. To the extent that the place of homosexuality in American culture is contested, the newspaper should avoid taking sides and ensure fair coverage of both points of view. To the extent that homosexuals are an oppressed minority, however, the paper should, in the words of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, "tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so" and "give voice to the voiceless."

One of the letter writers who faulted the Collegian for tacitly condoning behavior he regarded as sinful predicted that "it'll probably be another generation until society is okay with open gayness." It's looking like it might happen sooner than that. But even if the letter writer was correct that we are still a generation away, his acknowledgment that we are moving toward full acceptance of homosexuality may morally justify, if not compel newspapers to get ahead of the curve on this issue. For it makes no more sense for the press to continue treating the acceptability of homosexuality as an open question than it made for the newspapers of a generation or two ago to continue treating the equality of blacks as an open question. Homophobes now, like racists then (and now), are holdouts against a culture that is leaving their worldview behind. The question of whether homosexuality is a sin cannot be answered; what seems clear is that fewer and fewer people are going to believe that homosexuality is sinful.

While it is true that the acceptability of homosexuality remains contested territory to a degree that racism is not, journalistic neutrality remains tenable only if the harm that bigotry does to the victims of bigotry more or less matches the harm tolerance does to the bigots. But bigotry plainly harms its victims more. This being the case, the sooner the news media promote tolerance over bigotry, the better. After all, no one expects journalists to remain neutral on the subject of violent crime or genocide.

The KissOut has become an annual event at Penn State. The Collegian has covered all of them in much the same way. None of the photos published in 2006, 2007, 2008 or 2009 generated as much controversy as the first one. It was tempting to conclude that the university community had, if not accepted the tradition, at least gotten used to it. A likelier explanation, however, was that it was the Kovalchick letter that generated the uproar rather than the KissOut photo; that it was unusual for someone to stick his neck out the way Kovalchick did, and indeed, no one else had.

Until this year, that is. Here is an excerpt from a letter by a student named Coleman Butterworth that is quite similar to Kovalchick's:

Yesterday when I opened the paper, I found a full color photo on the front page of couples kissing at the LGBTA KissOut. It is one thing for the group itself to be outspoken and over the top, but for the Collegian to cover each and every meeting and throw the images of such activities in the faces of every person who opens the paper is appalling.
After the uproar over a hunting picture put on the front page of the paper a few months ago, I find it incredible that the Collegian would up the ante and put such an explicit photo on the front page. Be an unbiased, credible news organization and respect the sensitive views of both Democrats and Republicans.


All told, opinion page editor Matt Brown tells me he has received nine letters in response to the 2010 KissOut photo. Two, including the Butterworth letter, took exception to the photo. The other seven either defended publication of the photo or voiced their disagreement with Butterworth. Clearly, homophobic attitudes persist. Less clear is what to make of the relatively muted response to the expression of those attitudes. It seems unlikely that they are more acceptable than they were five years ago. Are they rather so far out of the mainstream now that they no longer seem as threatening and are therefore less worthy of a response? Or is it just that fewer students are reading their student newspaper? We will have to see what happens next Valentine's Day.

 

Russell Frank is an associate professor of communications at Penn State. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..