Thomas Roberts on His Russia Trip: 'Have a Little More Faith in Me'

In this exclusive interview, Thomas Roberts says he's 'dismayed' by the vocal criticism of his decision to host the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

October 23 2013 3:10 PM ET

Out MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts is under fire for deciding to host the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in November. In light of Russia's violent crackdown on LGBT people, critics argue that Roberts will inadvertently provide a supportive platform to Russian president Vladimir Putin's anti-LGBT agenda. Plus the pageant is run by American billionaire Donald Trump, who maintains his opposition to marriage equality — most recently when he appeared on Roberts's show last week to discuss the decision to host the pageant in Russia and hire an openly gay host.

Roberts, who has been out publicly since 2006 and has received numerous awards for his reporting and advocacy on behalf of LGBT people, hasn't shied away from those who challenge his decision. 

He published a thoughtful op-ed with MSNBC and acknowledged the privilege inherent in the unique circumstances that allow he and his husband, Patrick Abner, to travel to a country where they could be arrested and charged with so-called homosexual propaganda for holding hands in public. Roberts wrote that he plans to go to Russia in part to support the oppressed LGBT population there and cited gay American political icon Harvey Milk in promising to "give them hope." Roberts also defended his decision on an episode of MSNBC's Morning Joe last week, saying he wanted to "go and educate [him]self on what Russia's turf is like" for LGBT people. 

In an exclusive interview, The Advocate had a lengthy conversation with the out anchor, challenging his rationale for accepting the hosting gig — even after fellow gay media personality and longtime host Andy Cohen announced he was boycotting the event because he "didn't feel right setting foot in Russia as a gay man."

The Advocate: In your op-ed with MSNBC, you said that you aggressively pursued the opportunity to host this pageant when it became available. What was the thinking behind that for you? Why did you want to host this event?
Thomas Roberts: My thinking was that it's such a large, visible opportunity. It's saying, in over 190 countries, to a billion people, that we have a place at the table, we have a seat, and why give that up? While the homophobic laws are a major concern, there are unfortunately LGBT discriminatory laws that exist in other countries beyond Russia, and I thought this was a huge visible opportunity not only for ... our own country, for Russia as well, but for the 188 countries where this is going to be seen. So I thought this was a fantastic opportunity for people to learn about me being openly gay and marriage and my husband being with me, and send a strong message.

Do you and your husband have any plans to participate in any kind of civil disobedience — by being publicly affectionate, or something like that? 
You know, I haven't made any calculated plans to do anything other than just continue to live my life. And I know what American turf is like, so I want to go and educate myself on what the Russian turf is like. I certainly don't want to cause an international incident, but I do go there on a different set of privileges, having been invited to cohost this, and that demonstrates a great hypocrisy that someone like me can go there and bring their husband and be on the world stage, yet I'm not equal in their eyes or I am somehow less than. Well, that's just ridiculous.

I absolutely agree. So given that different level of privilege you just mentioned, can we talk a little bit about what that looks like on a practical level? Will you be traveling with a security detail?
I don't know all the details of that yet ...

[At this point, Roberts's representative interjected and confirmed that Roberts will have security with him while in Russia.]

Great, thank you. Well, I guess that answers that. How would you respond to folks who say it's tough to see what life is like on the Russian playing field for LGBT people when you are on a different level and attending there with a different level of security than the average queer person in Russia enjoys?
Well, in advance of making this decision to accept this assignment, a lot of critical thinking went into it. And that was me coordinating to reach out to LGBT Russian activists and to do my homework and to get a dialogue going with them. So I didn't make this decision without doing my homework, and I continue to have great drive about the purpose of why I'm going there, and why somebody like me can do a lot more than just host, cohost, Miss Universe. So I'm aligned with a cable network, a television network, and if people don't think that I'm going to do reporting from there, they're crazy.

You mentioned that you reached out and did your homework before accepting this assignment. What was the response of Russian LGBT activists that you reached out to?
I was told, don't boycott. I was told that this is too big of an opportunity and that voices like theirs need representation. So what they want is, while they don't feel safe, they want influential people to come in and speak out. Not only can I speak out ahead of time, before going, but I also have a great capacity to cover and storytell. So, that's why this assignment was so attractive to me. 

In doing that research, did you consult with any other LGBT anchors, like Rachel Maddow, at MSNBC, about this decision?
No, I didn't. I consulted with the [Human Rights Campaign] and with GLAAD. I wanted to find out their take on what they thought about this decision by me. They are two organizations that I have done a great deal of work with and that have not only had my personal support but professional support. So a lot of counsel, a lot of advice, went into this. Certainly great LGBT activists, who are mentors of mine — I reached out to them as well. So, I am a little dismayed at some of the reaction that people have had, that have wanted to try to attack my personal and professional belief for what I'm standing up for, but I respect their right to do that. But I wish they would have a little more faith in me.

Given that there has been some vocal critique, how do you respond to critics who say you are going there primarily because — I presume you're being paid to host it — you're going there to line your pockets?
Well, that's just silly. I mean, I show up to work every day, and we still work in a country where there are gay and lesbian people who can be fired every day at work. In 33 states you can be fired based on gender identity, 29 states they explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation; we have the Employment Non-Discrimination Act languishing in Washington, D.C., and has for decades. 

So that's silly, that would be like telling all of these bloggers and reporters and everyone else, don't show up to work in the United States. And nobody boycotted last year, when Miss Universe was held in Las Vegas, and we hadn't had decisions on marriage equality by that point. And I think that we had just gotten out from "don't ask, don't tell," but nobody was asking for a boycott of that, so it's interesting to me. I find it very interesting that people would take this tone with me.

On a similar note, Andy Cohen, who is another openly gay media personality, was originally scheduled to host the pageant, and backed out saying he didn't feel right as a gay man setting foot in Russia. Do you think that he made the wrong call?
No, I don't think he made the wrong call, but in doing my own research on this, I was told that he wasn't officially given the job — he decided to boycott before getting the official offer. So I don't think he made the wrong call. From what I've read, I don't know if it was his call to make. He decided to boycott before he had the offer. So, for me, this was something I thought was too great of an opportunity to miss out on. And I think Andy's great. I think he's done a great job before. But I appreciate that I know I can bring something else to this and be able to push the envelope a little bit further with being able to report for our networks.

Editor's note: Donald Trump told the New York Post on August 16 that Cohen had not been formally asked to host the show, "but I can understand his feelings on the matter. It is my hope that the Miss Universe Pageant will help foster common understanding and appreciation of the rights of all individuals," Trump continued.

Speaking about the pageant itself, how do you respond to critics who critique your working with Donald Trump, who was on your program just last week talking about whether or not his opposition to marriage equality has changed and his decision to host the pageant in Russia. How do you respond to folks who would say you are kind of working with the enemy on this one?
Well, that's not the way that I view it. But I respect that they have a right to their own opinion.

What is the way that you view it?
Well, I view this, again, as an opportunity. You know, Donald Trump does have a large following of people. I asked him point-blank about recognizing the fact that he's offering a gay, married man this job, along with NBC, and recognizing that we're fully integrated and fully acceptable and great members of society — which he agrees with! — he just doesn't feel the same way about marriage equality. But I hope to work on the Donald while we're around him.

What do you think is the likelihood that President Putin will accept the Donald's invitation to attend the pageant?
You know, I have no idea. But I would expect that Putin might show up. But I don't know. This is the first time the Miss Universe competition has ever been held there. I know they're excited about the opportunity to have it there. So there might be a good chance.

And, if that happens, what might you say to Vladimir Putin?
[Laughs] "The camera is this way, please sit down." I'd want to get him for an interview, that's why I'd say, "The camera is over here, please come over and sit down. Let me talk to you."

And do you feel like you'd be comfortable challenging him on these anti-LGBT policies that he's signed into law?
I don't think that I'd have a problem asking him tough questions, I mean, that's my job. Now, you know, just because it happens to directly impact a person like me doesn't mean that I get to be any less professional. 

Right. Absolutely. I think that's something you've demonstrated in your previous work. … On that note, do you consider yourself an activist or an advocate?
Well, I certainly consider myself an example of what equality can be, what it can look like. And I certainly feel confident lending my support to all LGBT advocacy groups that are seeking equality, and I have for a long time. And I always will.

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