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.

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.

About That Study

A lot of talk in the media today about the study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus in Social Science Research that questions the outcomes for children raised in same-sex relationships.  The study was rolled out to the press last Thursday and the first reports on the study in the mainstream press came from the conservative newspapers Washington Times and Deseret News.

Fortunately, the folks at Box Turtle Bulletin were all over the research and quickly provided important information about the study, including news that the study was funded by two conservative foundations that fund efforts opposed to same-sex marriage–the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation.  Like most of the work at BTB, the analysis is rational and even-handed.

The best mainstream coverage of the study came from the New York Times, which did a nice job explaining both the critiques of the study but also explaining the study’s strengths, including quotes from supporters of same-sex marriage who nonetheless believe the study is significant.

Other good coverage came from Slate, which featured both the study’s author as well as a fisking of the research by William Saletan.

Beyond that, most of the coverage is predictable based on who is doing the coverage.  The conservative world thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread in a bag and the progressive/LGBT media has taken the approach that it is deeply flawed research based on a clear conservative agenda.

There is nothing more difficult than writing about social science research, especially when it comes to the LGBT community where the research is often deeply flawed or deeply limited.  In fact, a companion analysis in Social Science Research looks at the problems in many of the “kids are alright” studies on LGBT families and notes the problems that exist in that research.

For journalists, our first job is to be accurate . . . and skeptical.  We must look at research and put it into context.  While lots of people are demagoguing the research, Regenerus is fairly upfront about the study’s limitation and encourages people not to use the data to make assumptions about LGBT families in 2012.  Of course, he says that knowing that’s exactly what people are going to do with the research.

But being skeptical of research is a two-way street and journalists need to be skeptical (and find out the agenda of the researchers and funders) whether the research undermines assumptions or confirms assumptions.  There’s a lot of flawed research out there, including research that is favorable to LGBT families.

As more coverage of the study emerges, it will be important to avoid the demagogues and seek out analysts who can speak to research design and to people who have actually read the study.  What are the strengths of the study?  What are the flaws?  Are the critiques fair?  Does it matter who pays for a study?  These are all questions journalists should be asking as the study moves beyond the ideological arena and into the mainstream.

 

Do Gay Journalists Benefit from the ‘Gay Mafia’?

In an intriguing Bloggingheads video interview,  Marc Ambinder spent a few minutes talking about the incestuous relationship of Washington powerbrokers and the role the “gay mafia” plays in helping gay journalists like Ambinder.  I’m going to refer to “gay” because I’m actually very curious how male the “gay mafia” is and whether it helps lesbians.

Here’s what Ambinder has to say about the role the DC “gay mafia” plays in helping out gay journalists in the city and on the campaign trail.

“There is — and I say this term with affection — a bit of a gay mafia in the city,” he said. “Simply the fact that people who are gay knew that I was gay would often be an expediter to information. That doesn’t mean I’m sleeping with them. It just means they know that I’m gay, we shared some sort of a brotherhood and therefore they’re much more likely to talk to me and tell me things that perhaps they wouldn’t necessarily tell me.”

“If I were in the business of burning or revealing sources I could give a number of different examples where simply the fact alone that I happen to be gay and the person on the other end of the telephone happened to be gay and we both knew it, helped me move along or break a pretty big story.”

“It can be a net positive if you find the right people to talk to…. It’s a brotherhood, an established tribal group you’re a member of, so the membership benefits are conferred on you.”

Ambinder isn’t the first to suggest that gay journalists are helped out by gay folks who work in the DC political world. I would imagine the same thing happens in all sorts of situations, not just inside-the-Beltway or on the campaign trail. Political campaigns are relatively notorious for being staffed by gay reporters and producers. Even on the television show “Scandal,” we learn that the chief of staff–and former campaign manager–is in a same-sex relationship with a journalist who covered the campaign.

The larger question is whether profiting from the “outsider/insider” status of being gay is a bad thing. It seems that building a rapport with a source is one of the things a journalist does. If part of that rapport building is based on your sexual orientation (or race or religion or alma mater), there’s no real harm there.

But the perception that there is a “gay mafia,” especially in Washington, can also be damaging. When Rep. Mark Foley was finally forced from office for sending inappropriate messages to pages, there was a widespread perception that Foley had been protected by the Republican “gay mafia” and the gay reporters who wouldn’t report on what they saw in private. Gay entertainment journalists are routinely criticized for keeping the secrets of the “gay mafia” in Hollywood. This is the second-cousin to the suggestion that LGBT journalists can’t be objective on covering gay issues.

So what do you think. Has your journalism been helped because of the “gay mafia”? Is there a parallel “lesbian mafia” or does the help of other gay people extend to lesbian journalists?