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

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com October 23 2013 4:10 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.

Going back to the pageant, how do you respond to folks who critique that fact this is a a trip to a homophobic country to host a pageant that is arguably sexist and is hosted by someone who doesn't believe you and your husband have the right to be married? How do you respond to critique that all of that doesn't necessarily amount to standing up for LGBT Russians?
Well, that’s a really loaded question. Let's pull it apart. The Miss Universe competition has existed and will continue to exist for a very long time. And I think that there are people that would say that it's outdated. But there are many women who have come up through this program in developing nations who have gone on to have great political careers, very wonderful careers [that] made a difference to the world. And it's more than about just the beauty part of things. I think there is a boldness and confidence and brains that we're all looking for in these modern times. Most of the Miss Universe winners then spend a year, like Olivia Culpo has — her platform was HIV/AIDS awareness, and she has spent the year educating and trying to raise awareness, using the crown on her head to do so. So the crown is a means to an end for these very smart women, to try to utilize the name and the brand to push through their agenda — and many of them are wonderful social agendas. So on that point I feel strongly. I certain commend Olivia Culpo for the work she’s done over the last year. 

In working with Donald Trump, I look forward to it. I’ve never had the opportunity before, so I shouldn’t make a prejudgment about it. And in regards to it being in Russia, this is an opportunity for me as a reporter and as a curious LGBT individual living in America, to go and learn a lot of things. It’s about so much more than me just showing up to cohost Miss Universe. Personally and professionally, it’s about so much more. So I would hope that people understand the reasons why I’m going are completely authentic. And I’ve been out there since 2006, trying to make it a little bit better in the smallest ways possible that I can, just by showing up. And I feel strongly that you got to show up.

I absolutely agree. Given that it’s clearly important for you to show up and to be out for a long time in your profession, what are your thoughts about media anchors who stay closeted?
I can only speak to my experience, and I know that I have never regretted it, and I’m really glad that I did it when I did it. And I think we’re seeing a domino effect of other great, wonderful people who have done the same thing. It only helps us in the long run. But, I think that the tide is turning. … There’s still a great deal of homophobia that exists in this country, but when the president comes out and is standing on your side, that’s a sea change. And that is really special. It’s important. I’ve said it and there are no take-backs. And I don’t think that anybody else is going to get to that White House without a message of inclusion like that and a recognition of integration of the contribution that LGBT Americans make in our beautiful country. So I want nothing but the best for any of us that are in their professions, but I don’t think that it's mutually exclusive that you can’t have a healthy professional life and a healthy personal life and be open and honest about it. You know, secrets are damaging. People can have a private life, but it's secret life that can be hurtful. And I think we’ve seen that time and again. When you can be fully integrated and your full self no matter what, and unafraid, it's you being the best you.  

That makes sense. Given that you’re going to Russia on this assignment and your husband will be with you, would you two ever consider vacationing in Russia?
I’ve never been before so, you’ll have to ask me after I get back.

It sounds like, overall, you generally don’t support a boycott across the board of Russian products and the country itself.
I think people have to make their own individual choices. What I support are the LGBT Russian people, who deserve equality. I don’t think that they need to be persecuted, I don’t think that they need to be shamed, I don't think they need to be treated and vilified through these homophobic laws, and that’s unfortunate. It’s very unfortunate. So we need to work in an international chorus against that. But I look at this as a great learning opportunity for myself, and this is a marathon for me, not a sprint.  

As another reporter covering this story, I can attest that it's a marathon. Do you have any thoughts about the legislation that has been introduced — and then withdrawn with the intent to reintroduce it — that would remove children from their gay and lesbian parents in Russia? Do you and your husband hope to have kids? Is that something that resonates with you?
Our personal life aside, I think that these are unrealistic laws that are trying to be processed though a very homophobic fashion. It’s unfortunate that they feel emboldened by headway made through the propaganda laws, to then try and do something like this. But they’re completely unrealistic, and they’re cruel. … But these laws are completely cruel and unusual, and they do nothing to stop LGBT people from being born and growing up and identifying as such. You know, my parents are straight. They have a gay son. We’re all part of this beautiful thing called nature, and it’s genetic — it’s a genetic lottery, what you get — and that's it. If we can all just agree that that is what happens through nature, then we can all be a whole lot better in recognizing that we can stand arm-to-arm and that we are recognized as equal individuals and not be vilified, not be criminalized, and certainly not demonized.  

I definitely agree — that's the goal. Well, that wraps up my questions. Do you have anything that you’d like to say that we didn’t touch on?
I just hope people would have faith in me. You know I feel real strongly that I’ve always tried to be, not a perfect example, but a good example, of someone who can have a wonderful professional and personal life, and trying to do the right thing by his community. I’ve never denied this community. I’ve been a part of it for a long time now, and I hope to remain a good member in standing for a long time to come. So, I just hope people would have faith in me.