Monday, July 2, 2012

Bravo, Anderson Cooper

I used to wake up just about every weekday to Anderson Cooper.  But he wouldn't know me if I sat next to him in a New York City diner.  And I have sat next to him in a New York City diner.  I'll explain later.  I did a CNN segment with him once.  It didn't feel like a friendly set over there but he was extremely friendly and welcoming.  Today the gay community welcomes him as he publicly announces he's a member of the club.  Honestly, this is not a "news bulletin" for many of us.  I'd have been more surprised if CNN reported that he's straight.  (Which CNN could very well do considering its recent track record.)  Still his statement is significant and I sincerely wish him an even happier heart and much love in his life.  Here's a blog on my memories of Anderson Cooper and why his public "coming out" is a great step forward in my opinion.
In the mid-to-late '90s, I worked on a local early morning news show, "Good Day New York," on Fox5 Television/WNYW.  I'd get up at 3:00 in the morning.  Many times I had to be at work at 4:15 or 4:30am.  My habit was to turn ABC to get the pre-dawn news and updates on the overnight developments so I'd be up on the current events by the time I got to the office.  Anderson Cooper worked on ABC then.  I'd watch his features and say, "Wow, that guy's a good reporter."  Then I noticed that he lived just a couple of blocks away from me, so I frequently saw him walking around the neighborhood.  This was when the Chelsea section of NYC was still delightfully under-the-radar and before he shot up to network stardom.  Off-camera, Anderson Cooper could really dress down then.  Military pants and festive T-shirts.  Sometimes the look was sort of "Fighting in Fallujah"-meets-"Hello Kitty."  I'd often see him in neighborhood restaurants on what seemed to be a date with another gent. I wanted to compliment him on his great journalism but I didn't want to intrude.  Through the years, when I constantly heard that chant of "Why doesn't he come out? Why doesn't he come out?," I did wish guys would shut up about it.  First of all, he certainly didn't act closeted when out with friends in the neighborhood.  Well-behaved but not closeted.  Second, I felt he didn't want to go from "journalist Anderson Cooper" to being called "openly gay journalist Anderson Cooper."  He didn't want his sexual orientation to be his intro, if you will.  No one ever said "Openly hetero news anchor Tom Brokaw" or "Openly hetero journalist Katie Couric." But "openly gay" surely would've been tagged onto his credentials.  Third, I was convinced many of those male chants sprung from his being handsome young man with network celebrity status and good pay.
If Anderson Cooper had all his intelligence, wit, soul, heart, manners and journalististic skills but possessed those qualities in a package that looked like actor Jack Black....
...most of those dudes wouldn't have cared if he came out or not.  If he looked like that, sat on a barstool in trendy Manhattan gay club and caught on fire...they wouldn't have picked up the seltzer gun to put him out.  Let's face it:  Anderson Cooper is a rich handsome TV star which makes his announcement today a juicy headline.  I started my professional TV career at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee.  I loved working on WISN but the big problem I had there was the same problem I had on my previous job which was on 93QFM Radio -- dealing with racist and homophobic bullshit.  It started with hate mail.  The n-word.  The f-word.  When I got to TV, the hate mail decreased drastically.  Just because folks are bigots doesn't mean they're stupid. They saved money on postage.  They waited until I was off work, called the station, asked for my voicemail and left verbal anonymous messages with racial slurs and/or calling me a fa***t.  I got hate voicemail. In the '80s, you didn't have openly gay people hosting syndicated entertainment talk shows and you sure as hell didn't see them doing network news.  Just like, back then, you didn't see black folks covering entertainment news, doing film reviews and hosting celebrity talk shows.  Max Robinson had broken the color barrier on ABC World News as the first black person to anchor a network evening newscast.  I co-hosted and produced a live daytime entertainment talk show on WISN called More.  One of the biggest battles I ever had with the station VP of Programming was when I wanted to fly in former NFL star Dave Kopay to talk about his new book.  He came out in The Dave Kopay Story. 
Within one hour, the $3000 budget we had to fly in any cast member of Dynasty (if we could've gotten one) was suddenly gone when I pitched flying in Dave Kopay to be a guest on our show for May ratings.  I won the battle.  He came on as a guest. I paid his L.A. plane fare out of my own pocket and he was most appreciative.  He was a great guest.  The studio audience loved him.  The guys in the audience and the crew could've cared less about him being gay.  They wanted autographs and wanted to talk about his gridiron days with the Green Bay Packers.  Kopay really had balls.  He could've stayed in the closet and made big bucks covering sports on TV like other former pro athletes.  He wanted work as a sportscaster but couldn't get any because of being openly gay.
Dave Kopay was the first NFL star who ever asked me to take him out to dinner.  I, of course, did.  After my VH1 years, I was approached to work on WNBC News and be a regular on a new live program it was launching, "Weekend Today in New York."  I was there for the premiere in September 1992 (with Matt Lauer) and one of the reasons why I quit that hit show in January 1995  because of diversity issues.  I refused to continue being treated like a 2nd class citizen.  I've blogged before that the news director at that time had "a problem" with Harvey Fierstein being openly gay and refused to air the interview of Harvey I'd taped when he was promoting Mrs. Doubtfire.  That interview could've aired on Nickelodeon.  There was nothing inappropriate in it.  The same boss nixed me doing a street fair fundraiser segment with NY members of SAGE, the organization for gay and lesbian seniors.  But hidden camera reports on irresponsible sexual practices of some gay men in sex clubs made the news.  As I've also mentioned before, my unemployed partner was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS four months after the show premiered.  I was strongly advised by gay co-workers to keep that news quiet in order to keep my job.  That's how it was in 1992.  The hardest chapter of my career was that period when I was supposed to be funny and entertaining on a live weekend news show while being caregiver to someone terminally ill off-camera.  I could not share it with staff and viewers the way Katie Couric had the freedom to share her private life when her late, wonderful husband was stricken with cancer.  I wish I'd had that freedom.  I wish I could've done segments on what it was like for me -- segments that could've helped other people also caring for someone critically ill while they tried to hold down a job.  I wish I could've helped put a face on the AIDS caregiver and partner.  But I couldn't share because I'm gay.  I could not afford to lose that job.  It took care of me and my partner.  I couldn't share his illness.  I couldn't share news that he died.  Remember, after Ellen DeGeneres came out, she didn't work for quite a while.  She was scorned.  Today, no one is saying "Wow. Can Cooper keep his job?" simply because he's gay.

Things have changed.  Sometimes it may not feel like they have, but they have.  If the kind of diversity embrace Anderson Cooper is feeling today had existed back in 1992/93, I could've shared my truth on TV and felt safe.  If it had existed in 1984, WISN TV would've paid for Dave Kopay's plane ticket.  OK. Anderson Cooper's news may have been met with -- as Claude Rains says in Casablanca -- "I'm shocked, SHOCKED..." by some.  If he was in a closet, he was in there to get a new blue shirt and some shoes. The door was definitely open. But this could mean less fear for gays and lesbians in the future in areas of the media that have not been so liberal.  Just like Max Robinson broke the network anchor color wall in the 1980s, we might see a gay or lesbian journalist anchor the network evening news in the future on ABC, NBC or CBS.  That a possibility Cooper's announcement presents.

I did a movie review segment with Anderson Cooper live on CNN in 2002.  About 6-8 minutes.  I had a fabulous time with him.  I used to eat just about every day at the Eros Diner in Chelsea, right next door to my apartment.  Anderson came in frequently.  I said "Hello" to him a lot.  He said "Hello" back never look up from his newspaper when he did.  And he was often seated right next to me.  He never recognized me -- even though I'm positive I'm the only gay black man who sat next to him on live TV to talk about Jodie Foster movies.  This always made the Greek diner staff laugh because I'd sit there with a Kathy Griffin expression on my face like I was about to say "Cooper!  Do you only look at black people when they're next to a FEMA trailer? Hello!!! Look at me and say 'Hi!' dammit!" Seriously. I could've been next to him in nothing but a thong and jackboots with a ferret on my head and he would not have noticed. And, as Kathy Griffin might say, "Bitch! Ya waited until after Pride Month was over and then you break the news!?!?!?  You coulda been a Grand Marshal in a parade!!"

But he's a nice guy. An excellent journalist. And he did something many didn't feel free enough to do 20 years ago.  Especially those with network jobs and high profiles.  We've come a long way.  All the best to him.  We snarky, slightly jaded big city types are not surprised at his news.  But it is a surprise to millions of other people, believe me.  When I was a kid, we didn't have openly gay people on TV to look up to and make us dream bigger.  Anderson Cooper's step forward today is relevant to and important for gay youth in America.  Let's give him credit for that.  Bravo, Anderson Cooper.  (Even though you don't recognize me.)




4 comments:

  1. What a great blog post. Very illustrative of how times have changed.

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  2. I do believe things have changed since the Eighties and Nineties. Anderson Cooper finally coming out is one example, but I have noticed one other. A few days ago a male contestant on Wheel of Fortune referred to his husband. He made it to the bonus round and, sure enough, when Pat asked him who was there with him, there was his husband. I believe that would have been impossible in the Eighties and Nineties. I have no doubt that they had gay contestants on game shows then, but I rather suspect that the producers probably told them to make no mention of their sexual orientation!

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  3. Terry, so great to read that about Wheel of Fortune. That too is a major step forward. As for the host, Pat Sajak, I'm not surprised. I worked with him for half a year and had a fabulous time at his wedding reception. On his CBS late night talk show, his staff was proof that he embraced diversity.

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  4. A lot of our gay friends out there really do something great for them to be recognized well, since we all know that not of all nations accept the GLBT community. I've known so many members of gaycupid dating sites who are successful in their on careers.

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