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.

The Undocumented Closet

One of the most buzzed about stories of the week is the revelation by openly gay journalist Jose Antonio Vargas that he is an undocumented immigrant.  There are two nice summaries of reactions inside the journalism world at Richard Prince’s Journal-isms blog at the Maynard Center, including the reaction by the Asian American Journalists Association.

What I hadn’t seen much is how all of this relates to LGBT issues.  Fortunately, Sean Bugg at MetroWeekly has taken a look at this issues, comparing being an undocumented immigrant to being in the “the closet” for LGBT people.  In the provocative piece, he challenges the suggestion that Vargas’ deceptions raise questions about his ethics as a journalist.

Now that we’ve advanced far enough that it’s impossible to swing a dead cat in theWashington Post newsroom without hitting an openly homosexual reporter, it’s easy to forget how strong the closet recently was for gay and lesbian journalists (and let’s not forget that it’s as strong as ever for transgender journalists). There are plenty of working journalists who have ”told lie after lie” to protect themselves from anti-gay discrimination or termination, only to come out later. By Shafer’s logic, formerly closeted gay journalists are no more than confessed liars who can’t be trusted.

It’s a fascinating argument, although I’m not sure it completely holds up.  Admittedly, it’s the lawyer in me (who has written about immigration issues in the workplace) that bristles at the suggestion that being “in the closet” about your immigration status is comparable to being “in the closet” about your sexual orientation.  Lying about who you are dating doesn’t put your employer in jeopardy for violating a host of federal laws.  Lying about who your gender identity doesn’t represent a fraud that can result in your being permanently removed from the country.

I agree with Bugg that criticisms that Vargas is no longer reliable as a journalist because he so actively lied and deceived is overstated, but there is a significant difference between being deceptive about your sexual orientation or gender identity and being deceptive about the documents you are mandated to provide before being legally hired.  Telling a boss that you are gay and asking him to keep a secret is different on many levels than asking a boss that your are an undocumented immigrant and asking him to keep a secret (even if it puts the company into legal liability).

So what do you think?  Are the two “closets” similar?  Would Erik Wemple and Jack Shafer have similar concerns about LGBT journalists who have consistently lied about their sexual orientation or gender identity?

Why the Press Quotes the Traditional Values Coalition

This morning, I opened up Roll Call to see that Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition has an opinion piece trashing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The piece has enraged Jillian Weiss at Bilerico Project who complains TVC is a “hate group,” yet they are quoted by mainstream media outlets.

I spent a few years covering ENDA in Congress and have dealt with (and quoted) Lafferty and TVC. Lafferty is incredibly engaging, talks in perfect soundbites, is amazingly media savvy, and her organization cranks out press releases like nobodies business.  She’s accessible to the press, returns phone calls, is easy to identify at hearings, and has a great sense of humor.

Her organization also represents the only organized opposition to ENDA in Washington.

There’s the dilemma that reporters face when covering ENDA.  They need some balance, members of Congress are incredibly vague about their opposition, staff don’t like to talk about it, so you call up TVC because you need a lively quote from the opposition. On deadline, it’s a natural move.

There came a point where I quit calling them or quoting them. I worked for a specialized publication geared towards lawyers and the business/labor community.  TVC’s concerns weren’t relevant to the concerns of my readers and therefore continuing to quote them didn’t really make sense.

But as a reporter, you have a dilemma.  If you are going to be fair and accurate, you want to quote some opposition to ENDA.  Since ENDA can’t seem to ever get passed, there is clearly opposition out there.  But the opposition doesn’t really have a spokesman or interest group, only enough votes to filibuster in the Senate.  That creates a bind for journalists.  How do you reflect that opposition if no one seems to want to talk about it?  You end up turning to TVC or Focus on the Family or other social conservative groups, even if ENDA is ultimately a business or legal story.

As to the “hate group” label that is a favorite in the LGBT and progressive world, it’s just not that clear cut.  The Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “hate groups” is far from scientific and is often criticized for its role in SPLC fundraising. Mainstream media, understandably, is reluctant to use the SPLC “hate group” designation when describing organizations like TVC.

So where does that leave journalists?  Journalists probably need to be more suspicious of sources like TVC who appear to lack a real constituency in Congress.  Journalists also need to do better in cultivating sources who can talk about opposing ENDA, if that’s the goal.  Look who appears as witnesses in Senate and House hearings. Find out what the business lobby has to say. Try to get members of Congress (or their staff) to speak about their concerns regarding the bill.  Using a “dial a quote” source is sloppy journalism that doesn’t really serve your readers/viewers.

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Tax Advice for Freelancers

As more and more people are working in non-traditional settings and now have income as a freelancer, tax season is especially . . . taxing (who can avoid that trite pun?). At the NLGJA conference in Miami, I moderated a panel on tax and business advice for freelancers and it was a great conversation. The most surprising piece of advice came from the tax attorney who said everyone should do their own taxes, at least once, using online tax software so that you can understand what’s deductible and how it all works. I thought it was great advice.

To that general point, the New York Times has an “Ask the Expert” feature that has included Howard Samuels, a CPA who had done tax seminars for the Freelancers Union and Mediabistro. Here are his two columns on tax advice for freelancers.

Speaking of taxes, you may be able to deduct the cost of attending NLGJA’s conference as a business expense whether you are a freelancer or not, your membership may be deductible no matter your status, and a donation to NLGJA is likely a charitable deduction.

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HRC’s Corporate Equality Index-The Media

The Human Rights Campaign issues its Corporate Equality Index today and a number of media organizations are included in the survey.  The index evaluates employers based on (1) equal employment opportunity, including gender identity or expressions; (2) employment benefits; (3) organizational LGBT competency; (4) public commitment; and (5) responsible citizenship.

While HRC is optimistic about the scores, especially during the economic downturn, Darryl Herrschaft said at HRC’s blog that there is still work to be done.

But, as we all know, LGBT workers still face many challenges in the workplace, and these policies alone do not mean that our daily work lives automatically become free from challenges for being LGBT.

Those receiving a perfect score include:

Clear Channel Communications Inc.

Cox Enterprises Inc.

Time Warner Inc.

Viacom Inc.

Walt Disney Co.

New York Times Co.

United Business Media LLC

Other Media Companies Included in the Survey:

Comcast Corp.                          95

SIRIUS XM Radio Inc.           80

McGraw-Hill                               80

General Electric                        80

Thomson Reuters                    75

Pearson Inc.                               75

Gannett Co. Inc.                        65

Scholastic Corp.                        50

From the beginning, NLGJA was committed to improving the lives of LGBT journalists in the workplace and the survey results show how those who work at major, corporate media are doing.  The number of media companies scoring 100 show the changing picture of LGBT journalists, but there is still room for more advocacy for those working in smaller markets and for smaller companies.