workplace

Is Charles Perez’s Firing a Symptom of the News Biz’s Industry-Wide Discrimination?

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Maybe we won’t pass judgment on Miami’s ABC affiliate WPLG until we hear their side of things in front of the Equal Opportunity Board, but when it comes to the firing of gay news anchor Charles Perez, one thing is becoming entirely clear: there was a climate of discrimination there. And not only was it ethically wrong and quite likely illegal, it was bad for business.

Following a discrimination complaint and firing, Perez — a former daytime talk show host — isn’t going quietly into the night. And that’s a good thing, because we need to hear more about workplaces where gay men and women are nudged to stay in the closet, or outright forced to remain there.

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While WPLG will likely defend itself against any notion of discrimination, as Perez tells The Advocate, when it came to the people watching him — and there were a lot: his news broadcast was No. 1 in the market — viewers just didn’t care if he was a homo.

About 99% of the viewers don’t, at least in terms of phone calls and e-mails I’ve received and the people who come up to me on the street. I was in an elevator the other day and some old Latino guy came up to me — could barely speak English and was glad I could respond to him in Spanish; he was probably about 70 years old — he said, “We support you!” But I don’t think this is about the viewer. This is about advertising dollars and this is about the tendency in America to homogenize the product so that it is the least objectionable product they can put out there. That’s why they don’t care if they have gay reporters or gay producers, but if you’re the main anchor of the station, just as if you’re the main person on a talk show, they’re selling the advertising dollars on your face, and I don’t know if something happened there or not, but something smelled. As a reporter I’ve learned that when something smells, it means that something is rotten. I don’t know if an advertiser called and said, “You know what, guys, I’ve got a $10 million advertising budget, but I don’t like that you’ve got that homo sitting on the desk.”

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out in discovery when we actually have the hearing, but something changed. It was sudden, and it was a shift that not only I felt, but my coworker felt just as strongly. She thought it might be for other reasons because I have a gay news director. It was hard for her to contemplate that it would be for my sexuality, but what she wasn’t thinking was one step beyond that, which is the team of men sitting above the news director around a table who are telling him what to do.

And ya know who’s not helping things? A certain CNN anchor.

I’ve spoken with Anderson but have never met him. Anderson was on Oprah; he did an hour with his mom. It was great. He talked about his childhood. He talked about his brother’s suicide. He talked about wanting to be a journalist and going to Africa in his 20s with his own camera. And I applaud him for that. There are a lot of kids who come from privilege who would have never done that. I applaud him as a newsman.

But I thought something very interesting. I thought, If you had a straight newsman with that profile of that same age, who is reasonably handsome, who is unmarried, would Oprah not have even asked the question if he was seeing somebody? And I can only imagine that it was negotiated ahead of time, or it was understood between them. And that’s the difference. It’s a subtlety that really needs to end. It’s great that Anderson is on the air and he is as successful as he is. But there is a difference now between gay men and gay women. It’s twofold. Gay women have had the benefit of giants like Ellen and Rosie. They may not have been in news, but they have certainly blazed the trail. In the television industry, it is still acceptable to have gay men in a stereotype that straight men feel comfortable with, whether it is Steven Cojocaru or Jack on Will & Grace. But the Will of Will & Grace still makes them uncomfortable. And that is partly our fault. I’m not kidding here. I’m not a perfect gay man. There were times when I could have been more out than I was, where I could have done more, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t now.

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And that’s the truth. When it comes to gay news talent, very few of these men are out of the closet. Yes, everyone knows CNN’s Anderson Cooper is gay, but while he publicly talks about his personal life, he never mentions the part about liking boys. Same goes for Good Morning America‘s Sam Champion; he’s not exactly closeted, but you won’t hear anything about that part of his personal life on air.

Does the news media still have a culture of forcing gays to stay in the closet?

Likely, but it’s still chicken-and-egg: Until more high-profile gay newscasters come out — and not just among friends and gossip columns — there will still be a taboo about letting openly gay men man the main chair. Perez was sitting (relatively) pretty at WPLG until an email to his therapist about his sexuality began circulating, and his breakup with his boyfriend became higher profile. If none of that happened, would Perez still have a job? Hard to say.

Will Anderson Cooper be forced out of CNN if he began talking openly about being a gay man? Also: hard to tell. But CNN chief Jon Klein is notorious for replacing women of a certain age with pretty young things and strapping men, so it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that his choose-y hiring practices would extend to out gay men.

What’s so interesting, then, is that while the news biz (and particularly local newscasts in many areas) has become a high point for diversity — with black anchors seated next to white and Hispanic anchors, with lady anchors seated next to male anchors, with chubby anchors working alongside slim anchors — the last remaining place where it’s still kosher to discriminate is against the gays.

(Okay, to be fair, you won’t see a transgender anchor anytime soon, either.)