Rumors that CNN's Thomas Roberts had come out at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference in Florida last week must have seemed a little puzzling to the Headline News anchor. While Roberts did appear on a panel called “Off Camera: The Challenges for LGBT TV Anchors,” it was really only the most recent stage in a seven-year coming out process.
Roberts first came out as a gay journalist to co-workers at NBC affiliate WAVY-TV in Norfolk, VA, in 1999. In an exclusive interview with AfterElton.com, he described those first steps out of the closet: “It's painful to open up and trust people with something I was guarding with everything I had… (but) most of my fears have been put aside because of the kindness of the people I work with.”
Roberts wanted to make sure his colleagues heard about it from him, rather than on the newsroom grapevine, saying, “Friends might have felt slighted if they heard it other than from me.”
What prompted his decision to come out in the workplace at that time? “I was happy, I was in a relationship, and I was very proud. I had the support of family, and of my friends. It was … about not wasting any more time. I'd wasted enough time.” Roberts and his partner are still together and will celebrate their anniversary on September 30.
As well as being named one of the “50 Most Beautiful Atlantans” by Jezebel magazine, Roberts was approached by People magazine to be featured in its “Sexiest Bachelors” issue. He turned them down for a simple reason: “I'm not a bachelor. I thought it would be false advertising… (And) I didn't think it was the right venue to talk about it.”
Roberts joined the NLGJA a year ago, although he's been involved with the organization in other ways in the past. He agreed to participate at this year's conference when “a friend who was going to be involved as the moderator asked if I would be interested in being on the panel. I thought it could be helpful to younger journalists, and also a growing experience for me.”
Was he worried about the effect it would have on his career? “I had some concerns, but not enough to stop me from doing it,” Roberts said. “There was some trepidation… about making yourself vulnerable to a group of journalists with questions, to experience being on the other side, being in the hot seat, to come up with thoughtful, truthful answers in the way that I wanted…. It's the largest step I've taken to be more active in the organization, and to interact with other gay journalists….
“No one advised me against doing it. I have no regrets, but I have some concerns about some of the reporting, certain correlations that are being drawn.”
Roberts was referring to online reports and speculation that CNN Headline News' re-shuffling of its anchor positions, including canceling the time slot previously anchored by Roberts, was somehow related to his appearance at the NLGJA event. He was adamant that the timing of the two was purely coincidental.
Asked if he thought Thomas' higher profile as a gay journalist had anything to do with his show being canceled, panel moderator Patrick Nolan, the openly gay news anchor for FOX Four News Florida, responded, “Without knowing anything about the situation, it seems unlikely. As an anchor who has been hired, fired, demoted, and promoted, it's just part of the normal course of things.”
NLGJA president Eric Hegedus agreed, saying such speculation is “based on conjecture from people who are seeing two separate events that aren't connected.” He expressed concern about tying the two events together, saying that Roberts ' appearance on the panel is “not really significant because Thomas is just being honest and being comfortable. It's part of transparency. It's about being who you are. Coming out is not negative. It just isn't. You're just being honest. They can try to make it negative, but it isn't.”
“CNN has been a fantastic place to work,” said Roberts . “The management has been nothing but supportive and I'm very grateful to them.” In fact, he said, he appeared at the Headliners Gala this spring in New York City to present CNN's $100,000.00 donation to the NLGJA's first Leroy F. Aarons Scholarship Award. Roberts will continue to anchor Headline News on the weekend, as well as report during the week.
Lesbian blogger and NLGJA panelist Pam Spaulding commented on her blog that some of the anchors seemed to feel that it was easier to be out to their co-workers than their viewers. Does Roberts feel that way? “That's a great question. It's true, with your co-workers, people you have coffee with, lunch with, daily face-to-face dialogue with, talk with about their lives, families, the ups and downs – with them, I want to feel I can talk about my life in the same way. It's a true give and take,” he answered.
“With viewers, there are moments we can give a little of ourselves, but the viewer at home isn't missing anything by not seeing that part of my life. I want viewers to find me to be an objective journalist…. There is not one journalist … who doesn't have a personal issue at times, but what you pride yourself on is your integrity as a journalist. I'm very proud of that, I've worked hard at that all my life. I won't throw that away.”
How would Roberts advise young lesbian and gay journalists struggling with how open to be about their sexual orientation? “For younger journalists, there are lots of factors to consider,” he said. “There are all kinds of fears we accumulate through high school, college, even going back as far as grade school, that are carried into the adult years. That fear can really hold you back. It (coming out) has to be when people feel… they are ready for it. It's hard to live afraid…. Hopefully, everyone, gay or straight, journalists or doctors or otherwise, can overcome that obstacle, because it stands in the way of you being the best you can be, with your job, with your family, with everything, and not have to be afraid anymore.”
When asked if being in the closet compromised journalistic integrity and stood in the way of being the best you can be, Roberts replied, “Ask a closeted journalist.”