The engineer operating the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on May 12, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 others has participated in gay rights events in San Francisco and New York, according to reports by multiple media outlets, including the New York Times.
LGBT advocacy organizations have largely remained silent on the reports that Brandon Bostian, 32, who currently lives in Queens, N.Y., participated in rallies while living in San Francisco opposing California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state in 2008.
Other media outlets quoted Bostian telling the Manhattan neighborhood newspaper Midtown Gazette in a 2012 interview that he supports marriage equality. The newspaper said the interview was conducted at a marriage equality forum held at New York City’s LGBT Community Center.
“It’s kind of insulting to have to beg people for my right to marry,” the Gazette quoted him as saying. “I feel like we shouldn’t even have to have this fight.”
Bostian has told investigators he has no memory of what happened or why the train was traveling more than 100 miles per hour in a zone with a speed limit of 50 miles per hour as the train entered a sharp curve in the tracks.
His attorney said he suffered a concussion among other injuries and his last recollection was ringing the train’s bell as it left the Philadelphia station heading to New York.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the derailment, told the media that Bostian has been cooperating with investigators.
The New York Times included the quotes published in the Gazette in a lengthy May 14 profile on Bostian that focused mostly on his lifelong love for railroads and his nine-year career with Amtrak, which began when he became a conductor in 2006. His LinkedIn page says he became an Amtrak engineer in 2010.
The New York Times story also reported that Bostian donated money to efforts opposing Proposition 8 in California.
The Los Angeles Times ran a similar profile on Bostian that, like the New York Times, mentioned his gay rights activities toward the end of its story, with information about his work as a train conductor and engineer and his past advocacy for train safety as the focus of the story.
Other media outlets, including the International Business Times, reported comments about Bostian by conservative commentator Sandy Rios, a former Fox News Channel commentator and current radio talk show host for the anti-gay American Family Association’s American Family Radio network.
On her show, “Sandy Rios in the Morning,” Rios said Bostian’s sexual orientation could have been a “factor” in the train derailment and crash.
“I think it’s something to be discussed,” she said. “I’m not inferring that this accident happened because he’s gay,” Rios said. “But I do think it’s an interesting part of the story, and I bet it will be edited out.”
She added that people dealing with “confusion that has to do with the very core of who they are” are more likely to react negatively under stress.
Spokespersons for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Media Matters, two organizations that speak out on how the LGBT community is covered by the news media, didn’t respond to requests by the Washington Blade for comment on the media coverage of Bostian’s sexual orientation.
Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign’s vice president for communications, said he doesn’t believe Bostian’s sexual orientation is relevant to stories about the Amtrak train accident.
“It should never have come up,” said Sainz in a statement to the Blade. “It’s no more important than describing someone similarly situated as being straight or highlighting one’s gender or race.”
Cathy Renna, a communications and media relations director who specializes in LGBT issues, agreed with Sainz.
“His sexual orientation is really not relevant to the conversation more than anyone’s gender or race or age,” she said. “It’s about competency. Was he doing his job right? Was there human error involved? That’s what everybody’s really concerned about.”
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who specializes in ethics in journalism, told the Blade that some of the media reports on Bostian’s sexual orientation appeared within the proper bounds of so-called “profile” reporting.
“They wanted to do what they always do on this type of story – a profile on this guy,” said Gitlin, who noted that the Los Angeles and New York Times appeared to put Bostian’s sexual orientation in a proper context.
“I don’t think that’s indecent to toss that in some 30 paragraphs in,” he said in referring to the Los Angeles Times story. “They are simply following what they can find out about the guy. Profiles do this sort of thing.”
But Gitlin said coverage of Bostian’s sexual orientation by various conservative and right-wing publications and commentators, such as that of Sandy Rios, were outside the bounds of fair and ethical reporting.
“What is indecent is this innuendo of drugs or I told you that gay people are neurotic and untrustworthy – any imputation of that sort is disgusting,” he said.