‘Tipping Point’

12.31.13

Robin Roberts’s Coming Out Party

The ABC anchor’s low-key coming out party was hardly the first on a national platform—and it won’t be the last. Out-and-proud gay anchors on why it still matters.

As co-host of America’s top-rated network morning show, Robin Roberts is certainly the highest-profile television news personality to come out as gay. But the 53-year-old cohost of ABC’s Good Morning America—whose recovery last year from a rare bone marrow disease was, unlike her sexual orientation, regularly featured on the program—is by no means the first.

That distinction belongs to MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts (no relation), who took the plunge in September 2006, a mere seven years back, but also a lifetime ago when prevailing attitudes in the United States were more resistant to same-sex marriage, to homosexuals serving openly in the military, and even to gay people delivering the news on mainstream media outlets.

MSNBC’s Roberts has since been joined by a coterie of out-and-proud gay anchors and correspondents, notably CNN’s Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper, HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki, NBC News’s John Yang, and his NBC colleagues Jenna Wolfe and Stephanie Gosk, who recently went public with the birth of their daughter Harper.  Meteorologist Sam Champion,  who recently left GMA for The Weather Channel, is also openly gay. It won’t surprise MSNBC’s Roberts if semi-closeted anchors at other news organizations follow suit in coming months.

“I think we’ve reached a beautiful tipping point,” MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts says, “where people can be authentic.”

“I was the first one on a national platform, cable, or network. There wasn’t anybody else,” says MSNBC’s Roberts, 41, who declared his sexual identity at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference in Miami. “I was asked to sit on a panel about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] anchors and talked about what it is like to be openly gay in the newsroom. There were reporters there and they wrote about it.”

It was, for Roberts, a butterflies-in-the-stomach decision. “By that point I had been out with my family and the important people that are in your life,” says Roberts, who was married last year to his life-partner, Patrick Abner, “but there’s always going to be certain people who have an opinion of you, and may not like you. But life is long, and this is me. You’ve got to march to the beat of your own drum. And once it was done, it was a great big relief.”

Don Lemon recalls that his own coming-out in 2011—which took the form of a full-dress publicity tour  to promote his memoir, Transparent. “[It] was a positive experience, CNN was very supportive, but it was also very scary. I didn’t know what people would think of me. I didn’t know if I’d still have a career.” He says that when Thomas Roberts came out five years earlier, the climate was even more forbidding. “Thomas was really out there on the ledge, all by himself, for quite a while,” Lemon says.  “When I came out, he said, ‘Congratulations. It’s good to finally have some company out here.’”

Robin Roberts’s coming-out, by comparison, was less a public confession than a quiet acknowledgement of what has been long apparent. It was hardly a shock—or even news—to people in and around the TV journalism business. It was no-drama and low-key.

“The fact that you use the term ‘low-key’—that’s the best part of it for me; mine was the opposite of low-key,” says MSNBC weekend morning host Kornacki, who marked his own coming-out two years ago with a regretful essay in Salon—regretful, because, at 32, he’d waited so long to embrace his sexual identity. “I view it as a good thing that it already wasn’t an issue for her professionally, or at least internally, where she worked.”

Yet because of her prominence, it has had an outsized impact on the media-political complex. Since Sunday, when the GMA star slipped a reference to her “long time girlfriend, Amber,” into an emotional Facebook post about her arduous return to good health, her personal disclosure has been celebrated by everyone from first lady Michelle Obama, who tweeted “I am so happy for you and Amber! You continue to make us all proud,” to the gay rights organization GLAAD, which praised her “unwavering” courage. (The GMA host was on vacation Monday and unavailable for comment.)

“I think we’ve reached a beautiful tipping point,” Thomas Roberts says, “where people can be authentic, and be fully integrated with who they are in the workplace, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, or a morning show host.”        

Public relations guru Howard Bragman, a consultant to ABC News and a frequent contributor to GMA, agrees that Robin Roberts’s coming-out is confirmation that “we’ve turned the corner” on the road to equal rights and public acceptance of prominent homosexuals. “Certainly 20 years ago, this wouldn’t be happening with one of the two lead anchors on the biggest morning show in America,” says Bragman, who is gay. “Things are changing rapidly,” he says, noting that in recent weeks courts in New Mexico and Utah have approved same-sex marriage.

Thus Robin Roberts’s coming-out arrives at a curious sociocultural moment—when, on the one hand, same-sex couples are increasingly accepted as commonplace by a rapidly growing segment of Americans, and general workplace etiquette is such that an otherwise liberal actor, Alec Baldwin, was recently fired from his just-launched MSNBC show for shouting anti-gay slurs at an intrusive paparazzo. On the other hand, an immensely popular reality-show star, wildly-bearded patriarch Phil Robertson of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, shared a homophobic and racist rant with a glossy men’s magazine and, because his franchise is such a monster hit, suffered zero consequences. He skated away from the season-long suspension that A&E’s bosses sought to impose on him. “That was a battle that may have been lost in a war that has been won,” says Bragman, who is vice chairman of Reputation.com, an online reputation management company.

In other words, it’s complicated.

“It was absolutely earth-shattering when people came out 30 years ago, but with every passing decade it is less so,” says gay rights trailblazer Elizabeth Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign. “Robin is basically coming out in a period of enormous victory for the LGBT community. Many, many things have already been achieved. She’s coming out very late.”

And yet Birch—who, by the way, would like to offer her services as a sensitivity trainer to the Duck Dynasty cast (which would probably make for a couple of very entertaining episodes)—sees value in this Ginny-come-lately acknowledgement of gayness.

“It’s important for a public figure to always come to terms with the truth of their lives, and it’s significant that she’s African-American—one more role model that is very helpful within any community,” Birch says. “Robin now has a chance to bring an intelligent interpretive consciousness of what it means to be an LGBT American to Middle America…Don’t forget, there is a whole thing that happens once you come out. It is huge. It can be completely euphoric when you find out that, ‘oh my God, they [the viewers] don’t hate me, they are actually welcoming me.’ So I say to Robin, welcome to the tribe!”