How not to write about the LGBT community

It takes time to find your voice in journalism. I finished my degree in June 2010 (though it, rather uncomfortably, feels a lot longer) and I still think that my voice is developing as I get older and that will probably continue as my personality and interests change. Needless to say, I probably wrote some absolute garbage a few years ago that I’d feel ashamed of in my supposedly wiser years.

Additionally, it’s hard to judge someone by one article and there’s a chance that Ellie Clarke might actually turn out to be a writer as thrilling as Caitlin Moran or Jon Ronson. You never know. A piece that was published on The Tab, which is a Leeds University student newspaper website and not to be confused with the Cambridge newspaper of the same name, is the only thing credited to her on there. If this, ‘The week I became a lesbian’, is her first published piece of work then it should act as a big learning curve. Why?

Because it’s an absolutely atrocious piece of work that showcases complete ignorance towards the LGBT community and uses tired stereotypes and clichés to illustrate her point, if there is a point to the article at all.

It’s a feature that focuses on Clarke trying to explore the LGBT scene at her university. On paper, that sounds like fairly reasonable editorial aim. However, it’s the way in which she does it that is perhaps the most soul-destroying.  Her opening two paragraphs:

It’s a golden rule that you have to mess around with your sexuality at university. A drunken kiss with a flat mate or spooning with one of the lads all counts but it has to be done.

So this week I decided to get over the prejudice and get under some girls.

What follows is basically the story of someone’s night out. That’s pretty much it. If you played a game called ‘Spot The Journalism’ you’d be struggling. Had this not have been a written piece, it would basically be a photo album on Facebook. This is the only hint that any journalism is being attempted in the entire 463 words of text:

Outside in the smoking area we were drunk enough to ask girls why so many live up to the stereotype of shaved heads, shirts and jeans – for many it’s because they don’t want to be approached by greasy guys or it’s a way of spotting other lesbians.

The rest is just a vacuum of nothing. This will sound incredibly harsh. After all, this is someone who is having fun at university (clearly) and at the same time trying to get involved in journalism. There’s no problem with either of these things. However, you’ve still got to be careful of what you’re writing, something I was told regularly in my time at university. Perhaps some of the blame should also lay with the person who ok’d the piece in the first place.

But then, if you think I’m being overly negative, you should check out the comments section. There’s a lot of angry comments and hardly any of them are exactly positive. Being called a ‘dick’ by someone on the internet is initially quite crushing but it’ll also make you stronger. Journalists have always needed a thick skin to progress in the job and the rise of online commenting/social media has made this even more important.

There are better ways of covering an LGBT society at university for a feature piece. For example, you could sit in on one of their meetings and conduct interviews with key members of the committee. Simple but effective stuff. That’s what I would probably do but I’m sure others would have their own way that would probably work, so long as it isn’t offensive.

There is one paragraph that is quite telling:

I wanted to start talking to the LGBT society so they could help me out with great gay nights (the thought of going to the “Backdoor Disco” and “Homo at Mission” alone was making me feel very nervous.) Apparently though this was “A sensitive subject for our society be involved in press articles” I thought the society would want to bat for our team but considering they didn’t even know what The Tab was anyway I didn’t hold much hope.

It’s hard not to emphasise with them when articles like this are being put online. Goodness knows what their reaction would have been had they co-operated with the writer (though you can get a rough idea in one of the vitriolic comments).

I’ve been to a few LGBT events at the University of Surrey and have always found those events to be inclusive, friendly and non-judgmental. Of course, friendliness and nicey-nice doesn’t make a provocative piece so instead some parts of the media will try to find ways of making the community sound exciting and outrageous, even if what is being written about it is grossly exaggerated or simply false. At its worst, it portrays it as fashionable. Because, as we all know, a community isn’t really a community until it’s SO totally in, uh huh?

I hope that as a result of this that Clarke writes articles in future that are this bad. I hope that this experience helps her forming a viewpoint of the LGBT community that isn’t as lazy and misguided as that article makes her opinions out to be. I was under the impression that we live in a tolerant society that respects one another, no matter of their sexuality. The media has certainly come a long way in the last few decades in their treatment of LGBT issues. However, none of this helps in the slightest.

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