"OMG, Anderson Cooper is gay!" I overheard a man in tight, white, clam-digger pants and a scooped, spaghetti-strapped tank-top yelling out to a muscle-bound Chelsea action hero. The exchange took place on heavily traveled Eighth Avenue and 20th Street, the heart of New York City's gay mecca.
"Oh, please," shouted back the Popeye lookalike to his friend. "That ain't no news!"
But news it was, as Cooper's disclosure went viral and gay Facebook afficionados around the country breathlessly posted the "news" on their "timelines" and sent an avalanche of texts to their pals. As a former televison journalist who, like Cooper, began his career as a war correspondent, two thoughts came to mind: first, what a courageous move by an outstanding journalist; and second, why hadn't I made the same public admission when I worked for two networks and three local television news stations in a career spanning 23 years?
The times were so different. The stigma associated with being gay was huge, and discrimination against gays in the news business was rampant. In 1979 I was hired as the first Hispanic on-air television correspondent for CBS News. I was only 25. By that time I had already worked at two local stations. Being Latino itself was a hurdle. Being gay was perceived by many as an obstacle. From my perspective, it was a macho business run predominantly by white males. An undercurrent of homophobia prevailed. I remember a highly respected Miami television anchorman doing a report on gays years before I entered the news business. The cameras recorded grainy night video of men cruising a bathroom on Miami Beach. The anchorman intoned, "Tonight we look at the sad twilight world of the homosexual." Such was the skewered perception of an allegedly "objective" journalist. Gay men and women in positions of power at the networks and local television were few and far between. The same could be said for gay men and women on the air.
In one of my first television jobs, I was befriended by an award-winning and highly respected anchorwoman. She was in the closet at work, but to close family members, friends and even colleagues, she would confide that she was gay. She passed away in the late '90s. I won't reveal her name, because I don't believe it's my place to out anyone, even posthumously. I remember that as a young gay reporter, she would pull me aside and ask me how to say phrases in Spanish to someone she was dating. When I left the station to work in another television market, we had a heart-to-heart talk. "It's time to wipe the slate clean," she told me. "Whatever you do privately behind closed doors is your business, not your boss' or your colleagues'. Be the best reporter you can be. This is a tough business. Be careful." The implication was clear.
In my next job, a female producer asked me to lunch after I'd been working at the station for six months. I had been assigned to the respected 10-o'clock news as one of two reporters on a staff of several who worked on a newscast that was at the top of the ratings. At the time, being gay did not seem relevant to my performance as a journalist. I thought that if I told people I was gay, it might affect the kinds of stories I was chosen to cover. I presumed that the meeting was to tell me I was doing a good job. Instead, the producer had something else on her mind. "Chuck, you seem to be hiding something, " she said. "Tell me. I won't share it with anyone else." I knew what she was getting at. I changed the subject.
Two years later I was hired by CBS News and disptached to cover the Nicaraguan revolution, which culminated in the ouster of dictator Anastasio Somoza and the triumph of the Sandinistas. Like Anderson Cooper, being gay had nothing to do with the firefights I was sent to cover. I put my life at risk, just like the heterosexual reporters and camera crews. While I was there, ABC newsman Bill Stewart was executed by National Guard soldiers. Cameras recorded the horrifying moment and sent out the images on the newsfeed. There was outrage around the world. Network-television personnel left Managua for a week to protest. I chose to stay behind to cover the story. I was the only TV journalist to do so. My "gayness" was beside the point. In subsequent years I covered the civil war in El Salvador and the Falklands War in Argentina.
In Cooper's eloquent admission ("The fact is, I'm gay") published in The Daily Beast, he writes:
I've found myself in some really dangerous places. For my safety and the safety of those I work with, I try to blend in as much as possible, and prefer to stick to my job of telling other people's stories, and not my own. I have found that sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist.
His words struck a chord. in 1981 I traveled with a camera crew to the village of Mozote in El Salvador. I was scheduled to interview a general. He was believed to be behind the so-called military "death squads." The military wiped out entire villages believed to be helping the guerrilas. In December 1981 the military allegedly massacred 1,000 people in Mozote. We came across their graves. The smell of death was all around us. I finally faced the general and asked the tough questions. He responded tersely and angrily. Would he have responded differently if he knew I was a gay journalist? Could I have placed my safety and that of my camera crew at risk?
Today, several states have passed gay-marriage laws. Even President Obama has jumped on the bandwagon. And gay journalist Andrew Sullivan has applauded the coming out of gay celebrities. He writes in The Daily Beast that "[t]he visibility of gay people is one of the core means for our equality." But as recently as 1989, tolerance for gays and gay jounalists was hardly as prevalent. I would cringe at the gay jokes in the newsroom. A few years earlier I overheard a colleague tell a cameraman, "You better watch when you interview those gays. You don't want to catch AIDS, you know." When I was preparing to cover New York's annual Pride parade, a producer told me, "Don't forget to get the Dykes on Bikes, and if you see a fairy in a tutu and a boa, don't forget to interview him." In December 1989 I watched the CBS special The Year With Andy Rooney. I admired Rooney immensely. Like me, he started out as a war correspondent. We both worked at CBS News. He was a role model. I was stunned when Rooney said the following: "'There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced. Too much alcohol. Too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They're all known to lead quite often to premature death." And then he added, "It wasn't as if they didn't bring it on themselves." Coming out in that climate, when even a revered journalist appeared to be gay-bashing, seemed foolhardy.
Fast-forward to 2012.
The Huffington Post reports that "Cooper becomes at least the sixth, though by far the most high-profile, openly gay anchor in the cable news business. He joins CNN colleagues Don Lemon and Jane Velez-Mitchell, as well as MSNBC's Thomas Roberts, Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki." Cooper's disclosure comes days after an Entertainment Weekly story on the emerging trend of gay people in public life who come out. It also comes at a time when some church leaders still condemn gays for their "lifestyle." That is why Cooper's disclosure is so critical. It offers hope. It shines a light. His decision to come out could influence a gay kid who is being bullied. It could help stem the tide of teenage suicides. A gay teen might say to himself or herself, "If someone as respected and well-known as Anderson Cooper can admit he's gay, then it's OK for me to admit it, too."
We've come a long way from the time, decades ago, when a female network correspondent, whispering in my ear after a news conference in El Salvador, confided in me that she was gay -- and told me that she knew I was gay, too. Clandestine disclosures. It was a time when secrets were kept and coming out could derail a journalist's career. It was a time when gay reporters who admitted to their bosses that they were HIV-positive might suffer consequences that they could not forsee. But something has changed in newsrooms around the country -- especially with Cooper's newsworthy and timely announcement. It's OK to be gay. The sky won't fall. And you'll still be working in the morning. As Cooper himself said, "I've also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater incluson and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible." If journalists of my era truly believed in being "fully visible," how different things might have turned out for a new generation of gay reporters.