Why it still matters that Fox’s Shep Smith is gay

There’s a lively debate going on over at the New York Times about the recent re-outing of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith.  Smith has been repeatedly outed over the years, the most recent a week ago by Gawker.

David Carr and Alex Williams at the NYT, in competing columns, find Smith’s outing to be oh-so-six-minute-ago. I disagree. Let’s discuss.

First Carr:

The culture has moved on. People see other people who happen to be gay at their workplaces, in their schools and on their televisions. Somewhere along the way, what was once a scarlet letter became just another consonant in the personal résumé. And now that gay marriage is a fact of life, a person’s sexual orientation is not only not news, it’s not very interesting.

Then Williams:

At a time when gay people can marry and fly helicopters in the Marines, is it time to consign outing to history, alongside other ’90s crazes like Zima and square-toed shoes?…

But as the puzzled responses from some Gawker readers would suggest, outing seems to have run its course. “I’m wondering why this is even news,” one commenter wrote. “So a news anchor is gay and has a boyfriend and a private life? Color me shocked. What is this, the 1950s?”

Carr and Williams, and more than a few gay people, live under the erroneous assumption that we live in a “post-gay” world where being gay is as normal, accepted and benign as being left-handed.  And admittedly, if someone kept telling me that they were left-handed, and insisting that I attend the left-hand Pride parade, it would get old fast.

But do we really in the world that Carr and Williams paint for us?

Fox News Anchor Shepard Smith, via his official bio on FoxNews.com.

Fox News Anchor Shepard Smith, via his official bio on FoxNews.com.

The notion that gays have “won,” so it’s not only safe to give up the fight, but practically our obligation to common decency to do so, is a common progressive fallacy that most famously crippled the pro-choice movement these past 40 years since Roe v. Wade became law of the land.

I remember ten years ago, sitting at lunch with then-head of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Feldt, on the day the Supreme Court issued its famous gay rights ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down state sodomy laws.  Gloria warned me not to get lazy like the pro-choice movement had gotten after they won Roe.  I didn’t know what she meant.  Gloria explained: Women just assumed that with the advent of Roe they’d won with a capital W, and the battle was over. America was now firmly and legally pro-choice, and we would never step back into the back-alley ever again.

Except it wasn’t over, not for our enemies.

The religious right, hand in hand with the Republican party, took advantage of the women’s movement’s collective sigh of political relief and whittled away at Roe for 40 years, until now, in Gloria’s estimation, Roe has become a meaningless shell of what it once was in 1973.

When you live in a progressive pro-gay city, and your friends aren’t dying in droves, it’s easy to think that we live in a post-gay world where all that concern about “gay rights” is silly and passé.

And the problem isn’t limited to straight allies at the New York Times.  I suspect a lot of younger gays have become post-gay before its time.  It’s amazing how it focuses one’s mind having your best friend(s) die slowly, incrementally, and painfully before your eyes.  For younger gays (and older reporters), I wonder if AIDS isn’t as foreign to them as the Soviet Union – a kind of quaint historical relic, like World War II is to my generation.  All are moments in history of which we should certainly be aware, and have reverence for, but which don’t bear much practical meaning to our current lives.

Or to put it another way, AIDS (and gay rights generally) is that southern guy with the confederate flag still whining about the Civil War, when you wish he’d just get over it already and STFU.

But of course, while gays may be winning the culture wars, we haven’t won by a longshot.  You still can’t get married in the overwhelming majority of American states. And there still is no federal law protecting you from being fired for being gay, or trans.  And while not as many people are dying of complications associated with HIV/AIDS, the plague continues both here and abroad.

But putting aside American culture at large, Shepard Smith’s outing is equally important in his own milieu.  No one is outing Shep Smith in order to make life better for gay reporters at the New York Times.  We’re outing Shep Smith to make life better for the Shep Smiths of the world, people who work at conservative organizations, in conservative parts of the country, where gay-culturally it is still, to quote the Gawker reader, the 1950s.

The NYT’s Alex Williams provided a nice list of famous people who are now out, in an effort to prove why outing is no longer necessary.  Williams mentioned actress Jodie Foster, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, and actors Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons.

The thing is, how many of the out-and-proud gay people on that list are either conservatives, or work for Republican organizations?

Zero.

Gay visibility in America at large is far ahead of gay visibility in GOP America.  (How many transgender Republicans do you know?)  ABC News has had openly-gay reporters for years, as has NBC, CBS and now CNN.  But Fox News?  Crickets.

And Fox isn’t just a news organization – well, it’s not a news organization at all – Fox is the propaganda organ of the Republican party, a party that is still officially, and aggressively, anti-gay.  So while you could possibly argue that there’s less hypocrisy, and benefit, to a CNN reporter being gay, a reporter from Fox is an entirely different story, figure and example.

Fox’s audience has survived on a diet of anti-gay news since its inception.  And while Carr tries to argue that Fox has recently toned down its official homophobia, as Media Matters noted only yesterday, while it might be more subtle at times, anti-gay bias is still alive and kicking in Murdoch-land.

And for all the talk of late of GOP soul-searching on the gay question, when it became known last year that Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman was gay, he was promptly self-deported from the campaign.  The only gay “controversy” on the Obama campaign was whether the President would finally endorse gay marriage.  And he did.

There’s one final point where I think Carr and Williams also fall short, and it’s explained by Michelangelo Signorile:

Heterosexual sexual affairs are all perfectly acceptable for gossip blogs, and even for the respectable New York Times to report on — including about news anchors, sports stars and politicians — even when those public figures don’t want this information reported. So is boozing, divorces, three-ways, jealous rage, pill popping, Botoxing, gastric bypass surgery, Craigslist profiles, sexting, undergarment choices, Twitter liaisons — you name it. It’s all grist for the mill, titillating and exciting, especially if it’s got a heterosexual tinge to it, no matter how traumatized the public figures may be by the revelations.

And this is where Carr’s statement that “being gay carries no higher burden” is so infuriating: He just doesn’t see that, in fact, by not reporting that a male public figure is out in public with a “boyfriend” when an incident occurred, when you would normally report that he was with a “girlfriend” if he were straight, you’re actually giving gays special treatment rather than treating gays equally. You’re also enforcing the closet and keeping gays invisible.

I’m sure Carr considers himself gay-supportive, but his view is paternalistic and, to borrow a phrase he hurls at Gawker, “old school.” He doesn’t seem to get the idea that we’re not going to get any further on LGBT visibility and equality if we keep coddling people of privilege and treating the reporting of public figures’ sexual orientation as if it were a revelation of terrible information that could psychologically damage them forever. And he doesn’t see that that’s not a consideration when reporting relevant details about other issues that public figures would rather not see reported.

Bingo.

Even if one were to buy into the notion that the world is now post-gay, and it shouldn’t matter that Fox News’ Shepard Smith is gay, it sure is interesting that he’s gay.

I mean come on.  A Fox News anchor, one of their most recognized celebrities, is gay, and that’s not news or interesting or worthy of comment?  To paraphrase Mike, puhleez.

Just on a basic titillation level, it’s interesting that an anchor on the conservative GOP flag-ship is gay.  And, as Mike notes, if it were any other “personal” news about Smith, everyone would gladly report it.  But because the news is that Smith is gay, we’re supposed to pretend that that’s totally cool, but it’s also something we still need to protect and remain hush-hush about.  In essence, we’re being asked to live in the post-gay and pre-gay world simultaneously: No one cares if you’re gay, but please don’t mention it in polite company.

So which one is it?  Are we not talking about Shepard Smith being gay because it’s totally cool that he is?  Or are we not talking about it because of some retro-paternalistic notion that closeted gays need to be protected, in the same way that famous gays are still often “inned” in their newspaper obituaries?


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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