Sometimes I wonder if we should care any more when a celeb comes out. When seemingly every couple you know is planning their same-sex wedding; openly LGBT politicos serve in the U.S. Congress; and gay hosts are an indelible part of awards shows – what difference does it make if someone in the public eye is openly queer? Yet when Robin Roberts, an anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” recently came out as a lesbian, I felt as if a cultural milestone had been reached.
Back in the day, we rarely saw (openly) LGBT people on TV. The few images of gay life then showed us to be “deviant,” monstrous or “sick.” An out game show host, sit-com star — let alone news anchor — would have been inconceivable. If Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, Joan Lunden, David Hartman, Tom Brokaw or any of the many morning shows co-hosts over the years had been gay, their careers would have ended instantly if they’d left the closet. When Ellen came out, you’d have thought the Apocalypse had arrived. News outlets blazed with the story and her career, for a time, hit the skids.
It’s hard to imagine a morning show anchor coming out even five years ago without risking being fired and unleashing vociferous homophobia. If an anchor had opted to be openly gay then, the announcement would have entailed as much choreography as a Busby Berkeley production number. The complex, nervous dance would have involved publicists, magazine covers and handwringing over sponsors and ratings.
Yet Roberts’ coming out on Dec. 29, like that of many celebs lately, appeared almost as an aside. As is often the case now with revelations from news anchors, actors and others, Roberts bypassed old school outlets for social media. Most tellingly, no Barbara Walters interview or “After School” type special was involved. In 2012, Roberts had a bone marrow transplant to treat a rare blood disorder. “I am grateful for my entire family, my long time girlfriend, Amber, and friends as we prepare to celebrate a glorious new year together,” she wrote in a Facebook post on her recovery.
Far from firing her, ABC supported Roberts. “We love Robin and Amber, who we have all known for a long time,” the network said in a statement, “We were so touched by Robin’s Facebook message today and so thankful for all the loving support she has in her life.”
The Twitterverse lit up with love for Roberts. “I am so happy for you and Amber! You continue to make us all proud – mo,” Michelle Obama tweeted.
“Go on with your bad self,” comedian and actress Wanda Sykes wrote on Twitter.
“Sending good thoughts to Robin Roberts#Loveislove,” wrote Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons.
Sure, nearly every celeb seems to be queer now, and another famous person coming out can be as exciting as your BFF’s sister’s Facebook status update. Yet, Roberts’ coming out matters.
Broadcast TV doesn’t have the power it had in the days of Yesteryear. TV audiences today are fragmented, smaller and many of us watch shows (or pieces of shows) on mobile devices. But the TV morning shows still earn big profits and ratings. The hosts of these programs continue to serve as our morning “families” and to kick-start pop culture. A politician who appears on “Today” or “Good Morning America” makes news and a movie or book plugged on these shows is likely to do well.
The TV show morning co-hosts have to daily “appear alive and alert and attractive on the air…no matter how sleepy or stressed or ugly they really feel,” writes Brian Stelter, author of “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV.”
Homophobia remains alive and well. Think “Duck Dynasty.” Roberts will encounter haters. Still, an anchor of the No. 1 morning TV show in America coming out is a moment to celebrate.