“Good Morning America, I'm Gay.”
Newscaster and media star Robin Roberts comes Out,
and absolutely no one is surprised.
By Evelyn C. White
As I imagine was the case for many Black lesbians who’ve watched the ascent of Good Morning America (GMA) co-anchor Robin Roberts, I was not surprised to learn that she is gay.
“At last,” I thought to myself (with echoes of Etta James wafting through my head) when I read the Facebook post in which the former college basketball star and sports journalist thanked (among others) her long-time girlfriend for helping to shepherd her through major health challenges.
"I am grateful to God, my doctors and nurses for my restored good health. I am grateful for my sister, Sally-Ann, for being my donor and giving me the gift of life. I am grateful for my entire family, my long time girlfriend, Amber, and friends as we prepare to celebrate a glorious new year together."
My brother Angelo (an avid sports fan) first hipped me to Roberts back in the day when she worked at ESPN. “I think you’ll like her style,” he said with a signifying nod to my sexuality. “She’s got game.”
An infrequent television viewer, I forgot about Roberts until one day while traveling, I turned on the set in my Tucson hotel room. And there she was in a crisp, tailored suit talking hoops with a commanding ease and authority that immediately rang my (cue Sister Sledge) “We are family” bell.
Less a reflection on Roberts’ manifest talents than my slack TV habit, I didn’t exactly track her career.
Though I did watch with rapt attention the 2009 GMA summer concert show during which she (and Diane Sawyer) welcomed to a Central Park stage a worrisome Whitney Houston.
But that’s another story.
Who knows what prompted Roberts to now come clean about her decade-long romance with Amber Laign, a licensed massage therapist from the San Francisco Bay Area.
In on-air commentary during the Monday, January 6th GMA broadcast, Roberts, expanding on her December post, thanked Laign whom she noted “really loved me through a difficult year.”
She also shared a photo of herself and Laign at the wedding of her niece Judith, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I believe that coming Out is a personal choice. To each her/his own, I say. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Roberts finally reached a tipping point with regard to the intense media focus (albeit self-generated), in recent years, on her battle with breast cancer and later, a rare blood disorder.
And despite assertions that her family and close friends have long known of the relationship, I’d wager that the weight of keeping an (open) secret was exacting a heavy toll on Roberts’ mind, body and spirit. In coming Out, she kicked to the curb a major stressor. Like the closet, stress kills.
And then there’s the integrity factor. A refreshing mix of “ready for the runway” and “round the way home girl,” Roberts has always struck me (obviously, from a distance) as an honorable woman. In giving public props to her partner, she freed them both.
As for a “value-added” factor, Roberts’ revelation provides an opportunity for gays and lesbians of African descent to reflect on the forebears upon whose shoulders we stand. In their superb (and sublimely titled) book, "Time on Two Crosses", editors Devon Carbado and Don Weise present the collected writings of Bayard Rustin.
The chief organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was relegated to the sidelines by civil rights honchos who feared that his stance as an unapologetic gay man (who’d once been jailed on trumped up “morals” charges) would bring disgrace upon the movement.
Then there’s Billy Strayhorn, the openly gay arranger/composer who crafted for the Duke Ellington band such signature tunes as “Take the ‘A’ Train.” About the man who died in 1967 (of esophageal cancer) with his male partner at his bedside, a grief-stricken Ellington said: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head.”
The flurry of headlines about Roberts also evoked memories of a late 1980s-era conversation I had with pioneering Black lesbian author/activist Barbara Smith.
At the time, Barbara had secured a major book contract to write the first comprehensive history of African American gays and lesbians. News of the landmark project sparked excitement among queer Black folk from Syracuse to San Francisco.
Alas, during a gathering in Atlanta, Barbara shared with me her frustrations with a coterie of “marquee” Black gays and lesbians who’d rebuffed her interview requests.
As she lamented the “chapters I couldn’t write,” I sensed the psychic pain that Barbara suffered as a standard bearer for our community. The O’Jays put it this way: “They smile in your face …” The highly anticipated (and still much needed) book was never published.
A founding member of early Black feminist groups such as the Combahee River Collective and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Barbara has since retreated from the national gay spotlight (or so it seems to me).
Here’s hoping that the newly Out Roberts knows a bit about Barbara’s righteous labor on behalf of (especially) Black lesbians.
Mindful of the massive media coverage of Roberts’ health maladies, I also conjure Pat Parker, the Oakland, California-based Black lesbian poet who threw down every time she stepped to the podium.
I was lucky to attend a reading that Parker gave at the San Francisco Women’s Building. Out and proud Audre “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” Lorde was also on the bill.
With their fierce poems and loving camaraderie, Pat and Audre evoked roundhouse cheers from the audience. Not long after the event, Parker succumbed to breast cancer.
Felled by the same disease, Audre died a few years later. Ditto for the explosive Black lesbian poet June “Wrong is not my name” Jordan. Unlike Roberts’ sojourn with cancer, the experiences of Parker, Lorde and Jordan never made headline news. I salute their trailblazing lives and legacy.
As another news cycle comes to an end, Robin Roberts stands as a multi-million dollar earning Black lesbian media celebrity with unprecedented social, cultural, and political clout.
I had nary such a role model as a 1960s era queer Black girl searching for positive mirror reflections of myself. And so I say “put your foot on the rock” sister Roberts. And thanks for putting a new spin on the meaning of Good Morning America.
A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life.
A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Evelyn C. White is
the author of "Alice Walker: A Life".