Be Smart in Covering Michael Sam As First Openly Gay Player In NFL Draft

Michael SamBy Sharif Durhams (Treasurer, NLGJA)

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement Sunday that he’s gay will make him the first openly gay participant in the NFL draft, a development that’s likely to be the topic of news and sports media discussions Sunday.

We know from other “coming out” stories, those discussions among well meaning journalists can sometimes go awry.

NLGJA member and hockey writer Tony Jovenitti puts it more bluntly in his “Out in Left Field” blog. Some of the commentary, he says, is moronic:

Most people don’t try to be morons. And most people aren’t inherently morons. Hopefully, they just don’t know any better—and some education will help them. Otherwise, they are just homophobic assholes.

And since most of you probably don’t want to be homophobic assholes, I’m going to do all my straight friends a favor and give you a guide of how NOT to react to the Michael Sam story.

Jovenitti lists “five things that you should never say when you’re talking about this story.” The list is billed as being for friends to help them avoid seeming out of step, but it can apply just as well to journalists who will be talking about this unprecedented development.

The New York TimesESPN and Outsports had early word of Sam’s announcement and all have well crafted coverage of the story.

Robin Roberts Comes Out

Robin_RobertsRobin Roberts, the co-host of Good Morning America on ABC, thanked her longtime girlfriend Amber Laign in a Facebook post on Sunday, December 29:

At this moment I am at peace and filled with joy and gratitude.

I am grateful to God, my doctors and nurses for my restored good health.

I am grateful for my sister, Sally-Ann, for being my donor and giving me the gift of life.

I am grateful for my entire family, my long time girlfriend, Amber, and friends as we prepare to celebrate a glorious new year together.

And with that, Roberts came out. In addition to her professional merits, Roberts has been in the spotlight for her very public battles with breast cancer and myelodysplastic syndrome.

By most accounts, Roberts was out to family and friends for years, just not out publicly. Reactions in general seem mostly muted, except from reliably anti-gay commenters.

And speaking of gay, it seems that “gay” instead of “lesbian” was the headline word of choice:

‘GMA’ anchor Robin Roberts publicly acknowledges she’s gay (CNN)

Robin Roberts Comes Out as Gay (E!)

Robin Roberts: No Secret She Was Gay (TMZ)

Sure, the “Yep, I’m Gay” 1997 Time magazine cover of Ellen DeGeneres used the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” but that was then, as they say. Was the use of “gay” this time around just for headline brevity or as a catch-all phrase?

Why Robin Roberts Coming Out as Gay Isn’t News — But Is Still Significant” by Brent Lang at The Wrap also uses “gay” in the headline, but gives some thoughtful analysis:

Robin Roberts coming out as a lesbian this weekend is not really news, but it’s still significant …

Coming out may be quotidian among celebrities, but discrimination against the LGBT community is alive, rampant and legally sanctioned. As Jack Mirkinson of The Huffington Post notes, the public relations fiasco surrounding A&E’s handling of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s anti-gay remarks, shows this form of bigotry is not only tolerated by broad swaths of the population. It’s embraced …

By coming out they are helping people like Phil Robertson recognize that they are on the wrong side of history — and that’s worth a few headlines.

Jenna Wolfe’s big news: She’s pregnant (and gay)

By Matthew E. Berger (NLGJA board member and vice president of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm in Washington, D.C.)

It’s been a pretty big week so far for LGBT news, with the much anticipated two days of hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. But I was also struck by the other LGBT media news of the week, how it was handled and what the headline was not.

Jenna Wolfe, the weekend anchor of NBC’s “Today,” announced on air Wednesday that she was pregnant and having a baby with fellow NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk. In the segment, Wolfe bantered with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie about buying strollers and breast pumps, and said she’d be blogging about her pregnancy adventures. Then they went to commercial.

It was typical for a morning program, and not unlike what had happened several months previously when Jenna Bush Hager announced her pregnancy on air (although George W. and Laura Bush didn’t call in this time).

Here’s what wasn’t said: Wolfe and Gosk, who was not in the segment, never mentioned the previously undisclosed news that they were both gay.

While not a household name like Anderson Cooper or Sam Champion, Wolfe is seen regularly on television, yet hadn’t been the subject of rampant rumors. She was choosing to make an announcement of her pregnancy, not of her sexual orientation, and she did it not because of outside pressure or as an act of advocacy, but because she had something exciting to share, and presumably because her audience was going to notice.

Wolfe, Gosk and NBC News didn’t shy away from the fact that the two women are lesbians. But it was never said, not because of shame or embarrassment, but because it wasn’t a big deal. By focusing on the pregnancy and the impending birth of their daughter, they skipped the “coming out” step, as if they’d been out all along.

(Disclosure: I worked for NBC News in 2007 and 2008 as a campaign reporter, but do not know Wolfe or Gosk).

I have always been very conflicted about the public coming out of any celebrity, but particularly of journalists. On the one hand, I am a big believer that having out LGBT people in the public eye is essential for raising a bright light to the civil-rights issues we face and providing role models for the next generation. That’s why I am part of NLGJA.

But at the same time, there has to be a middle ground between being in the closet and announcing you’re gay on the front page of a magazine. Many people live openly gay lives without making headlines. They are out to their family, friends and colleagues, but either do not warrant a public announcement of their sexual orientation or leave that type of advocacy to others. That’s certainly true for some LGBT journalists, who take their role as an objective arbiter of facts seriously and shy away from disclosing personal views and details of their private lives.

We should not assume that the only options are “closeted” and “gay icon.” Many actors, politicians and journalists are out, but just haven’t told you. It was as if Wolfe and Gosk were saying, “I never told you I am straight, so why should I tell you I am gay?”

Wolfe, Gosk and NBC are perhaps making a bigger statement in their handling of this news than if they had the two women on the couch announcing that they are lesbians. What they are saying is that having two gay correspondents shouldn’t make headlines. But that doesn’t mean anyone is ashamed of who they are.

Sam Champion Comes Out

Almost at the end of an October 5th New York Times article on the wedding of openly gay MSNBC anchor Thom Roberts was a hidden gem:

Sam Champion (right) and Rubem Robierb

Among the 170 or so guests at the reception was Sam Champion, the weather anchor at ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He took a turn on the dance floor with his partner, the photographer Rubem Robierb.

“We’re getting married New Year’s Eve in Miami,” Mr. Champion said in the spirit of the moment.

Mr. Robierb corrected him: “We’ll do it here officially, and then have a party in Miami.”

And so with that, Sam Champion came out. No big announcement, just a by-the-way quote. An article on October 8th by Jack Mirkinson, media editor at The Huffington Post, picks up on that observation:

The announcement on Friday that ABC News weatherman Sam Champion is marrying his boyfriend is yet another sign that gay marriage and gay rights are increasingly becoming a settled issue in many corners of the media.

These days, a well-known television personality can both publicly announce that he’s gay and share news of his engagement at the same time, and have the entire news division he works for celebrate the news, with nobody batting an eye. This is, of course, as it should be — but that doesn’t make it any less noteworthy.

Though much of the media is ostensibly “objective” and avoids taking stands on particular issues, there are certain things that are settled questions. It is broadly acceptable, for instance, for a Wolf Blitzer type to denounce racism or anti-Semitism, even though Blitzer would never reveal who he voted for, or what he thinks about abortion.

It’s becoming apparent that support for gay rights could be on its way to being one of those things that everyone takes for granted. That’s why the way the news of Champion’s engagement unfolded is so instructive.

NLGJA congratulated Champion on the day of the NYT article with this statement:

We want to applaud and recognize Good Morning America weatherman Sam Champion, who came out publicly for the first time today and announced his engagement.

“On behalf of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, I would like to extend my sincerest congratulations to Sam Champion, who has been a longtime supporter of our efforts,” said NLGJA President Michael Triplett.

“Journalists who acknowledge their sexual orientation, especially those on television, become important role models for the next generation, who see that they can be honest, succeed in this profession and be respected as journalists. The strong support that journalists who have come out in recent years have received from their peers and their viewers will hopefully spark others to live their lives openly.

Being a native New Yorker, I remember Champion as the local ABC weatherman. Even back then I certainly heard rumors he was gay. Although to many people he was hiding in plain sight (remember Anderson Cooper anyone?), he might say that he wasn’t hiding, just not telling, at least not on the record, until now.

I do sincerely hope that the way this all played out encourages others. The water is warm, and it seems like it’s only getting warmer.

Why Journalists Coming Out (and Being Out) Still Matters

It’s easy to be a little cynical about the news today that Anderson Cooper has confirmed, “the fact is, I’m gay.” His endearing and interesting letter to Andrew Sullivan, who seems to have been out since the moment he burst onto the U.S. journalism scene, demonstrates not so much the painful and heartbreaking story of a closeted journalist, but instead someone who has just had enough with the rumors and innuendo and decided it was time to be honest with the public . . . in the interest of the public.

It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something – something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.

I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.

In his letter, Cooper explains why he hasn’t talked about being gay before and why he was concerned that being openly gay would suggest that he could not be seen as objective. What he doesn’t mention is the oft-repeated concern by television journalists that they could lose viewers or harm their employer by being openly LGBT. There is important progress in that.

In reaction to the announcement, NLGJA said on its Facebook page:

NLGJA appreciates Anderson Cooper’s honesty and his decision to publicly come out. Our members share his sentiment that as journalists, not activists, we have a significant role to play as advocates for fair & accurate coverage of the LGBT community in the mainstream media. We have worked hard to ensure that all journalists are comfortable being out in the newsroom and having it not be perceived as detrimental to their ability to do their job.

It’s important to remember that while there has been a number of journalists who have come out on national television in the last few years, the numbers are low enough that you can count them on your fingers and still have fingers left to text. The number of openly LGBT journalists in-front of the camera in major and smaller markets is still abysmally low, with women doing worse than men. Having a successful journalist like Anderson Cooper come out sends the signal that there may also be room to do it if you are in a top 20 market or in one of the tiniest markets in the country.

Cooper’s announcement also reminds us that maybe there will come a time when journalists–or anyone, for that matter–will not have to choreograph their announcement or worry about how they handle being LGBT.  That hope, of course, is something we see in the youngest generation of journalists who are open at the beginning of their careers or even before their careers take off.

That message is brought home by the death of Armando Montaño, a student member of NLGJA who was found dead in Mexico City while on an internship with the Associated Press. Montaño, who was supposed to participate in the UNITY Student Project in August, was a member of both NLGJA and NAHJ.  Mando represented the next generation of journalists for whom being LGBT is not something that needs to be hidden or obsessed about, but instead is just part of who they are as individuals . . . and journalists.

While we can thank Cooper for taking the brave step of coming out and being both a role model and a symbol, we can also thank Montaño for a glimpse into our future when coming-out letters just won’t be necessary anymore.