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Op-ed: Why You Can Trust Openly LGBT Journalists

Op-ed: Why You Can Trust Openly LGBT Journalists

One of the first things they teach you in journalism school is that the number 1 responsibility of a journalist is to report the facts accurately, with attribution and without bias; you must do your best to put aside your prejudices and interests, in pursuit of the truth. 

And one of the first things you learn once you land a job as a journalist is that the pursuit of the truth isn’t as important to some as the pursuit of higher ratings, increased readership, or greater page views.

Truth still matters. It’s part of the equation. But the guiding principle is — and always will be — if no one will watch or read a certain story, why bother telling it?

Among the trending subjects that are attracting eyeballs these days is a new focus on LGBT stories, actors, actresses, and even journalists. The stigma within the news industry and society forced generations of LGBT Americans to conceal their most important truth, about their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity, for fear of reprisal. 

In 2015 more Americans get their news from out journalists than ever before. And while there have always been gay, lesbian, bisexual, and even trans people working in the media business, the key difference between today's journalists and those of yesterday is that today being out is no longer considered a big deal. In several states, out LGBT people are protected from discrimination by law.

But we need to remind ourselves, in this political climate of marriage equality backlash, that it still is a big deal. 

The advent of broadcasting did something no newspaper or weekly magazine had ever done: It brought not only the sounds — and eventually the real-time sights — of local and world events into our living rooms, but also the voices and ultimately the faces of those telling us the stories. In those early days, they were almost always white men. 


Before the mid-1970s, seeing a woman or an African-American, Asian, or Latino person report the news on TV was rare, and considered a novelty. And only in the last decade have we learned that some of America’s most beloved TV news personalities are gay. 

MSNBC is the latest network to bank a considerable investment of airtime on its most prominent gay male anchor, Thomas Roberts. Starting Monday, the cable channel is making a commitment of two hours every afternoon, cobbled together after MSNBC last week canceled abysmally low-rated shows hosted by Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid. While Reid will transition to work as the network’s national correspondent, the transgender community will lose prominent cisgender ally Ronan Farrow as he assumes a role of less visibility.  

With these changes, Roberts will continue to host Out There, a streamed LGBT-focused talk show appearing weekly on MSNBC’s Shift online service. 

Roberts, 42, married Patrick Abner in 2012 and has been out longer than many of his peers. He revealed that he’s gay in a 2006 speech to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this September.

In addition to the peacock’s Roberts, there is of course ABC’s Robin Roberts, who revealed she is lesbian in a letter posted to Facebook in 2013. She publicly thanked her partner, Amber Laign, for her steadfast presence as Roberts recovered from a bone-marrow transplant in 2012 to treat a rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome. 

Her former colleague at Good Morning America, Sam Champion, now at the Weather Channel, came out twice in 2012: first in a quote, published by The New York Times, about his engagement to Rubem Robierb, which he confirmed at the wedding of Thomas Roberts and Patrick Abner. Then he did it live on GMA. Champion is now managing editor at the Weather Channel and host of its morning show, AMHQ.

Anderson Cooper came out in 2012 in an email to Andrew Sullivan. One year earlier, his CNN colleague Don Lemon came out in a memoir. He revealed he didn’t hide the fact he was gay from coworkers. “I haven’t been in the closet for a long time,” he told The Advocate. “It was just something I didn’t talk about in interviews. But I would date people and I would be out.”

Also in 2011, NBC anchor Jenna Wolfe revealed in a tweet and on Today that not only was NBC correspondent Stephanie Gosk her girlfriend, but that Wolfe was pregnant with their baby. This month the couple welcomed a second daughter, Quinn, to be a little sister to 17-month-old Harper. 

Rachel Maddow has been a host on MSNBC since 2008, and in all that time she has never made any attempt to hide her sexuality. In fact, she made an impassioned plea on her cable program in 2011 for gay and lesbian news anchors to come out.

And it was also in 2011 that my former ABC colleague and friend Dan Kloeffler came out quite unexpectedly, on the air, after reading a story on World News Now about Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto coming out. Dan would later write in a blog post titled “To Boldly Go,” “For the same reason that Zach decided to come out, I too, no longer wanted to hide this part of my life.”

Transgender Americans have made significant gains in the media as well. 

Eden Lane was the first transgender television journalist in the U.S., appearing since 2008 and to this day on Colorado Public Television as both a reporter and a host; Lane was recently profiled by People magazine

Author, activist, and Marie Claire contributing editor Janet Mock hosts her own program on MSNBC’s Shift, So POPular, and appears frequently as a guest panelist on the cable network’s talk shows, in addition to a guest stint as a special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. 

Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox has been a frequent cohost on The View in addition to producing documentaries. 

And this month, Inside Edition hired veteran Los Angeles chopper reporter Zoey Tur as its first transgender news reporter.

For those scoring at home, that’s at least 13 out and proud media personalities, atop a long list of several thousand names belonging to both on-camera and behind-the-scenes LGBT folks, many of them members of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. 

But in spite of religious conservatives’ fears, there is no conspiracy and no gay strategy. The only meetings are about increasing diversity and creating opportunities for better visibility and reporting. As Anderson Cooper once quipped: “I’ve never actually been to the secret meeting where the gays plot their agenda, though I imagine the catering is quite amazing." 

The only grub I’ve seen in my journalism career is a variety of “breaking news pizza,” Chinese food take-out, and publicity department leftovers. Just as every newsroom has a drawer where take-out menus and packets of ketchup, salt, and pepper are kept, they also have a number of openly gay or lesbian staffers and/or managers, varying from market to market.  

But 21 months after I came out as the first trans woman in a position of editorial authority at any of the U.S. television networks, the nation’s newsrooms have yet to announce the addition of even one more transgender person. From my experience and for their sake, if there are trans folks working behind the scenes, it might be better for them that nobody publicize it. 

My coming-out was deftly handled by ABC, and my colleagues and managers welcomed me warmly. Sadly, round after round of negative attention by a tabloid reporter and a variety of traumatic health problems temporarily derailed my transition and painfully turned my triumph to trash. But not forever.

I am no longer at ABC News, yet still working as a journalist; I'm a correspondent for The Advocate and creating topical news videos for Wochit.com. This year I will celebrate 30 years of working in the news media as well as two years since I legally changed my name to Dawn. 

My career started at an all-boys Catholic high school on Long Island, where I was both a director and an anchor at the school’s black-and-white TV station. Then in my sophomore year of college, CNN hired me one month after I began my internship. Since then I’ve worked in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Florida, from small- to big-market stations to New York 1 News to Today. And while I felt I needed to conceal my true gender expression for most of the last decade, I tried to prevent that struggle from interfering with my work. 

I was the first ABC News staffer to arrive in Newtown, Conn., on that tragic December day in 2012; the producer who interrupted CBS’s network morning show on September 11, 2001, so viewers of WCBS TV could see the tragedy unfolding live at the World Trade Center; at CNN, I was lucky enough to be assigned to interview Elie Wiesel upon his winning the Nobel Peace Prize and to witness the first space shuttle launch after the Challenger disaster.

But in all those big moments and many more, I was living with a name that took me years to admit did not match my authentic gender. It wasn’t until May 2013 that I was finally out of the closet and living authentically. 

At ABC, I mostly worked in the Manhattan headquarters, coordinating information, resources, pictures, and video for Good Morning America as well as ABC News Radio, ABCNews.com, and our affiliates and stations. 

One day, as I headed home from an overnight shift, I was diverted to New Haven, Conn., where police were looking for a gunman running amok on the Yale campus. For the first time, I got to be the real me reporting on what turned out to be a false alarm. It was both eerie and exhilarating, comfortable and just downright cool ... even if the credit still went to someone named "Don."

And most of all, it was a good exercise to remind me that just as in the newsroom, the most important thing anyone coming out of their closet needs is self-confidence. 

To me, being out is about admitting your truth to more than just friends, family, and coworkers, but to yourself. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” That was the toughest challenge of all, coming to terms with my unavoidable truth. Ultimately, I realized those I loved — most of all, my children — deserved nothing less than the real me. 

And so, to all TV news viewers looking for someone truly trustworthy, I’d strongly recommend they consider that someone who’s out and proud could be the best source of reliable information. 

Because there came a day when we knew we had to face the truth about who we are, and we chose to live openly and authentically rather than live a lie. We know all too well exactly what the difference is. 

 

DAWN ENNIS is a media correspondent for The Advocate and a blogger at LifeAfterDawn.com. Follow her on Twitter @lifeafterdawn

Tags: Commentary, Media

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