By Neal Broverman
Originally published on Advocate.com August 10 2009 11:00 PM ET
After his talk show was canceled in 1996, Charles Perez segued into a successful career as a news broadcaster. Working as a weekday anchor for Miami's top-rated news broadcast, the openly gay 46-year-old says he was told by his bosses in March that he was a bit "too anchor-like." But later that month -- after an ugly breakup with his ex-boyfriend became blog fodder and a private e-mail to his therapist about gender identity issues was sent to everyone in Perez's address book, allegedly by the ex -- Perez says his boss, himself a gay man, told him he was "too soft" and that he and his female co-anchor acted "like girlfriends" on the air.
Perez was demoted to weekend anchor in July, and filed a discrimination suit weeks later. Days after the suit was brought, Perez was fired from his job.
In this exclusive interview, Perez pulls no punches on his termination, his future, and the ugly side of the news business.
Advocate.com:Clearly once you filed the suit, there was tension. But when you were let go on Thursday, was that a surprise?Charles Perez: I felt it in my gut, but it wasn’t a surprise.
What’s funny is that the station's had an enormous amount of phone calls and e-mails from amazing viewers who have been super supportive, but I think to the station, it makes it feel like they’re pushed up against a wall. They have a very shallow view of the viewer. When they took me off of the anchor desk, their decision was to say nothing, to do nothing, and to act as if I had never been there. They told that to my co-anchor after very publicly promoting me and running promos for a year. It had a whole passing of the baton, everything. Their theory was that viewers would forget that you were ever there after a few weeks, anyway. So I believe they fired me thinking, You know what? It’s going to create hell for a couple weeks, and then the viewers will forget.
Do you think your viewers really care about you being gay, about your private life in general?About 99% of the viewers don’t, at least in terms of phone calls and e-mails I’ve received and the people who come up to me on the street. I was in an elevator the other day and some old Latino guy came up to me -- could barely speak English and was glad I could respond to him in Spanish; he was probably about 70 years old -- he said, “We support you!” But I don’t think this is about the viewer. This is about advertising dollars and this is about the tendency in America to homogenize the product so that it is the least objectionable product they can put out there. That’s why they don’t care if they have gay reporters or gay producers, but if you’re the main anchor of the station, just as if you’re the main person on a talk show, they’re selling the advertising dollars on your face, and I don’t know if something happened there or not, but something smelled. As a reporter I’ve learned that when something smells, it means that something is rotten. I don’t know if an advertiser called and said, “You know what, guys, I’ve got a $10 million advertising budget, but I don’t like that you’ve got that homo sitting on the desk.”
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out in discovery when we actually have the hearing, but something changed. It was sudden, and it was a shift that not only I felt, but my coworker felt just as strongly. She thought it might be for other reasons because I have a gay news director. It was hard for her to contemplate that it would be for my sexuality, but what she wasn’t thinking was one step beyond that, which is the team of men sitting above the news director around a table who are telling him what to do.
Your former boss, news director Bill Pohovey, is gay. Do you think the homophobia you’re alleging comes from him or is he just a conduit?I think he’s a company man. I think if you had to label Bill a gay man or a company man, you would pick company man. I also talked to my agent about it. My agent said to me, “You know, Charles, you got to remember, there were Jews in the 1930s who sold out other Jews so they would stay good with the guys in power.” Never changes. It’s sad, but it’s true.
And here’s another point on that note. Bill is somebody who, with respect to his privacy, he’s pretty known in this community as being the gay person who’s never been out. So I completely suspect that the company said to him, “We better put you out there to neutralize this.” I do not, for anything, think that Bill would be the guy who says, “Well, let me put out a statement as a gay man.” I mean, most people who know him fell over when they read that.
Let’s go back to the point you made about hosts or anchors working under intense scrutiny. Anderson Cooper, who has faced plenty of rumors over his sexual orientation, operates in a world like this.I’ve spoken with Anderson but have never met him. Anderson was on Oprah; he did an hour with his mom. It was great. He talked about his childhood. He talked about his brother’s suicide. He talked about wanting to be a journalist and going to Africa in his 20s with his own camera. And I applaud him for that. There are a lot of kids who come from privilege who would have never done that. I applaud him as a newsman.
But I thought something very interesting. I thought, If you had a straight newsman with that profile of that same age, who is reasonably handsome, who is unmarried, would Oprah not have even asked the question if he was seeing somebody? And I can only imagine that it was negotiated ahead of time, or it was understood between them. And that’s the difference. It’s a subtlety that really needs to end. It’s great that Anderson is on the air and he is as successful as he is. But there is a difference now between gay men and gay women. It’s twofold. Gay women have had the benefit of giants like Ellen and Rosie. They may not have been in news, but they have certainly blazed the trail. In the television industry, it is still acceptable to have gay men in a stereotype that straight men feel comfortable with, whether it is Steven Cojocaru or Jack on Will & Grace. But the Will of Will & Grace still makes them uncomfortable. And that is partly our fault. I’m not kidding here. I’m not a perfect gay man. There were times when I could have been more out than I was, where I could have done more, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t now.
You went through a messy public breakup that was fodder for blogs and newspaper articles. Do you think that played a role in your demotion? In other words, have you witnessed ramifications from a straight anchor’s messy divorce?We’ve had straight anchors go through messy divorces, and the station stands by them and everything is fine. I don’t think a messy divorce would have been a problem. First of all, this [discrimination] began earlier than that. I don’t know if you read an earlier e-mail that went out [a private missive by Perez to his therapist that was sent to his entire address book, allegedly forwarded by his ex-boyfriend]. That was my ex trying to malign me. That’s what is the sad part of all this. It was a relationship that was coming to an end; actually, it ended. I went to my producers, and they suggested that I should get a restraining order. And I went back to them and said, “Do you want me to do this? Because this could show up in the press.” And I knew through my contract that if anything scandalous came through this, I could be fired. They don’t need to say any other reason.
What exactly does you contract say?It actually says [that] if I should be involved in anything scandalous or perceived to be scandalous, whether or not I am the cause, I could be terminated within 24 hours. So it’s pretty broad. In order to protect myself, I was appreciative that they suggested this and that I should go forward. But I wrote them an e-mail basically saying everything they said in the meeting and thanking them for their support as things go forward, and I sent it to them. They were livid because I had put it in writing, and I believe that it was their intention to let me go then because at that point -- this is before the article came out, that made it worse -- I believe that what began on March 16 when my ex circulated the e-mail was when they started to change their perception of me, to see me differently. They started to see me as gayer than they’d seen me before. I think they were really concerned. I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. I said, “Fine, show me how [the demotion] is helping you financially. Show me.” And they’ve never been able to.
When you were taken off weekdays and put on weekends, what were you told?I was told that this was because of the economy.
Meaning you made too much money?Yeah. The thing is, it wasn’t going to change my salary. So they were going to move me onto the weekend anchor desk. They had to realize here, and I don’t want to get too complex, but six months earlier they had shifted our schedules. So I was doing Sunday through Thursday anyway. They shifted the other weekday anchor Tuesday through Saturday. So we were covering the weekends anyway. My attorney asked the attorney from The Washington Post [owner of WPLG] to tell us how this is saving them money. And the Post attorney said, “Now we can get rid of our weekend anchors.” I said that they didn’t have any in the first place. “Come up with another one.” The other one was, “We’re going to single-anchor formats on all of our stations." I did a little bit of research and found that they are going to single-anchor format in none of their stations. Everything they kept throwing at me was a lie. The less the lies kept adding up, the less credibility I gave to anything else that was coming out of their mouths. When I took that in totality with their e-mails and their actions [including saying], "Charles, don’t have kids. Charles, don’t get married, we don’t need that. Charles, don’t dance with your partner," I started to say, “The writing is on the wall here.”
As I chronicled it and pulled out a one-inch stack of e-mails and started going through them, looking at the series of events, what they were saying, what they were telling me to do and not to do, I realized, You know what? They’re marginalizing me. And my friends would ask, “Where are the promos of you? You used to have promos of you and [co-anchor] Laurie [Jennings] together. Where did they disappear to? Now they’re just Laurie, or they’re Laurie and her kids.” The morning anchor of the station, they’re starting to promote him all of the time -- him with his kids and his wife. So they’re not promoting him as the journalist; they’re promoting him as the family man. Yeah, so it all started to smell and I could say, “Fine. A weekend job is still a good job.” But why be marginalized? I try not to read blogs, but some people were saying I must have been doing a bad job. But thank God for my performance reviews, because they’re great. They’re stellar, and that’s why it doesn’t add up.
How were your ratings?They’re number 1 in the market.
That seems unusual for them to change the format of a show that's doing so well.Why would the number 1 station need to go to a single-anchor format because of the economy? And despite the economy, it just didn’t ring true. We also just built a beautiful new building and filled it with new technology and all kinds of stuff. So I asked, Why would you get rid… If you owned a football team, and you had a quarterback who was throwing touchdowns, would you bench him to save money, even though you were still paying him his full salary? It doesn’t make sense. I’m the football player; I’m the quarterback. Eventually, of course, my contract doesn’t go on forever. Actually, now because they fired me, they stopped paying me. But if I had just accepted their terms, they would’ve had to keep paying me.
Charles, you wrote in The Daily Beast that you’ll never work in news again. Do you really think that’s true?Uh, yeah. I say that because I think…uh, I think corporate America does not like people to litigate against them. Regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. But I am thrilled at the possibility of something I don’t yet see. I look at people like Rachel Maddow who have created wonderful forms for themselves. Now once again, I don’t think NBC is going to come knocking at my door, but there are places. I think there are great stories to be told -- great gay and lesbian stories to be told. I am -- this is really important to me in spite of everything that has happened -- a lucky guy. I’m the lucky guy because I can take this to a public forum. The gay man or gay woman who has this happen to them who can’t do that, who lives in a state that does not have laws to protect them, really can’t do anything.
Miami-Dade County recently enacted a law that protects employees from sexual orientation discrimination. But the state of Florida doesn’t have any statewide protections, and we certainly don’t have any national protections. At this point, is a federal nondiscrimination act more imperative than marriage legislation?I think they are absolutely side-by-side. I cannot understand how it can be legal to fire someone for being gay in one state and not in the other. The same way I can’t understand why I can get married in Connecticut, but I can’t in Florida or even have it recognized. I can’t understand how it’s illegal for me to adopt a kid in Florida, but I can adopt one in California. And that’s why I think these are ultimately things that need to be codified on a federal level. They have to be. I say that so emphatically because there are people who will say, "Well this isn’t like the civil rights movement of the 1960s." Or this isn’t like a number of movements throughout our history. But there is one thing that is the same about all of them -- that is that everybody has the right to not be a second-class citizen. And that’s what this is about. And that’s why I say, you know what, whatever’s going on with me, fine. I’ll go to court, I’ll win, I’ll lose, whatever. But it may make a few more people, gay or straight, cognizant of the fact that Joe Smith who works for Bill’s plumbing might have gotten fired and had no recourse. I mean, the county ordinance is great, at least we have that, but it doesn’t have the weight of the law. The only way I have a chance of giving it something close to the weight of law is by putting a spotlight on it.
I don't know if you've seen the film Outrage! -- of which Florida governor Charlie Crist was a major subject. The focus of the film was closeted politicians who push antigay legislation.I haven’t, but I have put my arms around Charlie Crist.
I’m not saying Charlie Crist is gay, but it certainly has been rumored. How do closeted public officials and celebrities contribute to the fear of being "too gay" at work?It kind of gets to something that I wrote in The Daily Beast piece. At the end of the day, people are faced with choices, and you know, you choose your career, or you choose your soul. And I don’t know that he’s gay either, but if he is, I think he chose his career over his soul. When you’re laying there on your deathbed, what makes your having been here mean anything? Do you know David Mixner?
I do.David is so strong about this. [He says] we have to be our own parents, and children, and our own keepers. And I guess I’m learning how to do that, how to be part of that. Back in the days when I did a talk show in the early '90s -- first of all, to this day, I don’t know why it was canceled, because we had good ratings. The reason is, and I don’t think my homosexuality had anything to do with it, but the executive who was in charge of the show walked into my dressing room and she closed the door and she held up the Globe, which had done a one-page thing on a talk show host who’s gay, and she said, "Is this true?" and I said "Yes," and she said, "Charles, why didn’t you tell me?" and I said, "Because I couldn’t take the chance that you wouldn’t let me have my dream." And she looked at me and she put it down and said, "OK, I understand." And the way she said it, I just knew that I never would’ve gotten on the air. And it wasn’t because she personally was homophobic, but because why would they make the choice of someone who was a little harder to sell than somebody else? It’s that simple. And that’s why we have to neutralize it.
You seem to have a bit of compassion for people who feel they have to choose between success and sexuality.Yes, but I do think you also get to the point where the audience doesn’t care anymore. Executives still live in… I don’t have a lot of respect for TV executives. There’s a real fear-based culture there. That’s why when you have one court show that works, the next year you come out with 20 court shows. You have one celebrity talk show that works, the next year you have 20. They all are like dogs running in a circle, getting nowhere.
What do you think the chances are of winning your case?I wish it could happen tomorrow. I wish I could stand up and show the three-judge panel everything I have and lay it out. Even if I lost, I wouldn’t care as long as the truth came out. Certainly, I’d like to win, because I believe that I’m standing firm on solid ground, but I’m not here to win at the expense of the truth. I just want the truth. I want to know what really happened, and I want it to be exposed, because I don’t think this should happen anymore. I don’t like this idea that things are so politically correct that we have these euphemistic terms. Like, I’m "too soft" as opposed to saying, "he’s too gay."
The last meeting I had with them, before this e-mail became public, I was sort of too strong, too anchor-like. Sort of like Brian Williams, very kind of -- commanding. And my news director said, literally, "Charles, this is Miami, soften up, be less Brian Williams, be a little more relaxed." Cut to the thing comes out, I think two or three days later, I get called in and I was too soft, Laurie and I were too much like girlfriends, I needed to work on my masculinity. I almost fell out of my chair because it was so 180 degrees from what I was told just before that. And then it became a series of meetings and reviews that were all based on that and repetitions of that, and I’ve been called many things but I’d never been called "too soft" and "not masculine enough" and too much like we’re "acting like girlfriends" -- it was very weird. And what’s interesting is that I have all of the e-mails of me questioning him, like "How could you say this after you said that? I don’t understand, please clarify for me." And he never did. He never said, "Charles, here’s what I meant." I think because he was between a rock and a hard place.
And you're getting a lot of support.Amazing. I am… it humbles me, because when I was a kid, I watched Dave Kopay on Donohue, and there was a little part of me that -- I was 15 years old and I knew I was gay -- I thought, Wow, could I ever be that courageous one day? And I don’t think that any of us really are that courageous. What we are is we arrive where we are in a moment in time, and if we’re lucky enough, we get to stand on the shoulders of people like David Mixner and Ellen, you know?