It Does Get Better
March 1, 2012
by John Long
Thomas Roberts is breaking new ground as an openly gay anchor on the MSNBC daily news. He will be in Kansas City for the grand opening of the Like Me Lighthouse on March 10, lending his support to his friend Chely Wright, the country music artist who started the Like Me Organization.
The gay ceiling in television news is one that it takes a lot of time to break through. There have been openly gay journalists on television both nationally and locally. But it’s rarely discussed on the air, unlike the way heterosexual TV newscasters freely talk on air about their spouses and children. Landing a spot on the coveted evening news programs is a slow process, as it is with females, African Americans and other minorities.
Before joining MSNBC in April 2010, Roberts was a news anchor at CNN and a correspondent for CBS News, in addition to the entertainment programs Entertainment Tonight and The Insider. He received an Emmy Award nomination and a Virginia Associated Press award in 2002 for his investigation of a local puppy mill that was subsequently shut down. He received an Edward R. Murrow award in 2001 for When Parents Don’t Pay, a documentary he produced. He has also received recognition as an advocate for the LGBT community with a Visibility Award from the Human Rights Campaign in October 2011. He has also been a speaker at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) conference. He is up for a GLAAD Media Award this year and will also be a presenter at the awards ceremony this spring.
Roberts is well on his way to breaking the gay glass ceiling in broadcast journalism with his daily 11 a.m. anchor spot on MSNBC and his position as a fill-in host for the Today show and MSNBC’s First Look. He’s even had the challenge — perhaps one of his biggest — of sitting on the couch and getting a word in as a guest host on the ABC talk show The View.
“I had a lovely time there. The ladies of The View and the staff were fantastic. It’s funny, I was seated in the center of the group and you would think that’s the best seat. It’s one of the hardest seats. It’s like watching a ping-pong match of the conversation just volleying back and forth and you have to really throw yourself in there and interject yourself.”
Roberts said he came out professionally in 2006 when speaking on a panel at the NLGJA conference, although many of his colleagues had known he was gay for years. When I asked him whether he had thought about not coming out for the sake of his career, Roberts said, “I was concerned. However, for me it wasn’t worth not being open and honest. I thought that for younger people coming out in this profession or for any kids out there, you need to know that there are people that are living happy, productive lives. Sometimes you just need to raise your hand and be accounted for. For me, it was the best decision I ever made.”
Roberts said that television is making progress in offering openly gay journalists key roles in the news and that the prospect of openly gay nighttime news anchors is not far away.
“I think that logically, it will happen. In the evening, there’s Rachel Maddow, who is the first openly gay prime time anchor to have a major role in the nighttime conversations.”
When I asked whether he thought his being openly gay might help other journalists come out, Roberts said, “I think so. I saw Don Lemon [the CNN anchor who came out in 2011"> last year, and he thanked me and said, ‘Thank you for being the first,’ and I appreciate that. I hope I have. I think that I have certainly showed people that there is a way to have your personal and professional lives meet up and that when you leave the building you don’t have to duck around the corner and try and be somebody else.”
Roberts will celebrate his 12th anniversary with his partner, Patrick Abner, this fall. They live in New York City and got engaged last year after marriage equality passed in New York.
Roberts has made an “It Gets Better” video (www.itgetsbetter.org/video/entry2547), and for him it’s very personal, and very true. He was molested as a teenager by the family’s parish priest in Baltimore. In 2005, after years of silence, Roberts came forward to testify against the former priest, who received a five-year sentence with all but 18 months suspended. At the age of 15, he attempted suicide and was rescued by his sister, who found him in his room after an overdose of pills.
“The one thing that brought me to a suicide attempt was being hopeless” Roberts said, “and thinking that I didn’t have any choice. It was out of fear and out of shame. But for anybody out there that might be suffering from this, I would recommend it just takes talking to one person. For any kids that are struggling with their sexuality or any fear they have of being open and honest or fear that they might be jeopardizing the love of their families, there is a big world out there that is going to love them for exactly who they are and … they shouldn’t deprive the rest of us from getting to know them.”