Last week MSNBC took a big step into 21st-century reality when, for the first time in the network's history, it demonstrated that it understands that the modern civil rights movement isn't entirely wrapped up in whether gays and lesbians can serve in the military or marry each other, that just like every other segment of American society, one of our community's key concerns is jobs and employment.
There's no question that the intention of host Thomas Roberts, an openly gay man, in bringing this issue to MSNBC's air is a good one, and we should be thankful and appreciative that out of all of his on-air colleagues, up to and including even the also-openly-gay Rachel Maddow and major civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, Mr. Roberts is leading the way at the network in covering this critical issue. Yet as is so often the case when mainstream media cover an important and well-established issue for the first time, mistakes were made, mistakes that could have been easily avoided had there been more prep work and research done on the issue before it was presented on-air for public consumption.
The segment was titled "LGBT: Next Steps" and featured a trans woman, People.com Associate Editor and Huffington Post contributor Janet Mock, and gay conservative Robert Traynham, a former staffer for virulently anti-LGBT Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
Thomas Roberts' first question was also the most revealing. After using about a third of the slightly less than five minutes allotted for the topic on his introduction, Roberts asked Traynham the leading question, "Is DOMA the next biggest obstacle to fair and equal treatment in the eyes of our government?" Traynham eagerly took the bait, beginning his response with "Without question...." While Thomas Roberts accepted Traynham's inaccurate response without challenge, anyone who's done their homework on these issues knows well that nothing could be further from the truth.
Leaving aside the patently obvious reality that the ability to make a living and provide for one's family is of far greater concern to a much larger number of LGBT Americans than the right to legally marry their partner, even a cursory examination of the known facts surrounding these issues will inevitably lead one to the conclusion that marriage is chiefly the pet issue of well-heeled 1-percenters and the organizations that cater to them, such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), while workplace rights are the primary concern of the working-class majority, particularly those who live in any of the 34 states where LGBT Americans are still denied fully inclusive basic civil rights in the workplace. At this point, with the economy and the state of our civil rights laws being what they are, it's mainly only the Beltway-bubble 1-percenters, their political patrons in Washington, D.C., and those in the mainstream media who are still eagerly gulping down that elitist Kool-Aid who still believe any differently.
The second problem with the segment was in the time allotted for it. As someone who regularly covers these issues in print and on my weekly Internet radio show, I found it particularly frustrating as a viewer that just as the conversation on this long-ignored topic was starting to get interesting, it came to an end.
I wanted to hear more from Janet Mock, who is emerging as an excellent media spokesperson for transgender people and the issues that impact our lives. I also wanted to see Robert Traynham challenged on his completely inaccurate and utterly unsupportable contention that the right of a same-sex couple to marry and file joint tax returns is somehow of greater urgency than the right of that same couple to be able to earn a living and generate enough income to provide for their family and thus make the ability to file a joint tax return, as well as many of the other federally mandated benefits associated with marriage, a valid concern in the first place.
As someone intimately familiar with these issues, it was almost humorous to watch Robert Traynham try to justify prioritizing the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because it is "outdated" while completely ignoring (or demonstrating his ignorance of) the reality that the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been around in some form since the early 1970s and has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1994, except for the 109th. Mr. Traynham also seemed completely unaware that no less of an authority than Congressman Barney Frank, the Democratic Party's go-to guy on LGBT civil rights, has said that he expects the repeal of DOMA to happen through the courts and that ENDA will be the next major LGBT civil rights legislation to be taken up by Congress.
Also very concerning was Thomas Roberts' suggestion that all three of them could legally be fired under current laws regarding LGBT workers. The truth is that because Thomas Roberts works in New York and Robert Traynham works in Washington D.C., neither of these men can be legally fired for being gay in their jurisdictions. The same would also be true of Janet Mock, assuming she works in New York City, where she was speaking on-set with Mr. Roberts. On the other hand, however, Ms. Mock would enjoy no such protections if her employer were based in most areas of New York outside New York City, while both Mr. Roberts and Mr. Traynham would be fully protected against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation anywhere in New York State.
Another concern was how it seemed that LGBT workplace rights were presented in the segment as a new issue, instead of more truthfully as one that has simply been consistently ignored for many years by MSNBC and the mainstream news media in general in favor of the flashier, more media-friendly issues of same-sex marriage and military service.
The segment began and ended with the 1-percenter issues of military service and same-sex marriage, with only two questions from Mr. Roberts to Ms. Mock on employment rights before moving on to the already-well-covered issue of same-sex marriage. While thrilled and grateful to Thomas Roberts for covering LGBT employment rights, I found it incredibly disappointing that the issue, which is so critical in the lives of millions of LGBT workers, was sandwiched between the already-covered-to-death issues of marriage and military service rather than given the focus it really deserves in a segment devoted specifically to that topic. It's my hope that Thomas Roberts, or whoever next takes on the topic at MSNBC, will devote more on-air time to an in-depth exploration of the state of LGBT employment-rights protections in the United States.
In addition, I question the inclusion of Robert Traynham in this segment, given that he's someone who was clearly focused on the single issue of same-sex marriage and apparently has little to no interest in or expertise when it comes to the issue of LGBT workplace rights. When MSNBC has covered same-sex marriage and military service in the past, the network has frequently used well-informed and supportive activists and politicians to address those issues.
In this case, however, for some reason the network saw fit to employ a conservative commentator who has worked for one of the most aggressively anti-LGBT U.S. politicians in modern history, apparently simply because he himself is gay. The results were unsurprising, perhaps even inevitable. I hope that when MSNBC next takes on the topic of LGBT employment rights, an effort will be made to eschew a one-issue same-sex-marriage-focused commentator like Mr. Traynham in favor of a more well-rounded and well-informed expert who can speak to the diversity of issues faced by LGBT Americans, not just those favored by wealthy Beltway insiders.
Thomas Roberts deserves our gratitude and our respect for bringing the issue of employment rights into the public discourse on LGBT equality on MSNBC and in the mainstream media in general, but this was just a start, a beginning of that conversation, not in any way a full or definitive examination of the topic. American LGBT workers need and deserve more, deeper, and better coverage of the issues that most directly affect our lives and the lives of the families that depend upon us to keep them out of homelessness and poverty.
Here's hoping that the next time we see LGBT employment rights covered on MSNBC, the coverage will reflect the kind of quality, in-depth attention the network already provides so well on LGBT-relevant issues favored by upper-class elites, like marriage and military service.