MSNBC Anchor Thomas Roberts’ Tips For Coming Out to Your Fam

Thomas Roberts is an award-winning journalist for MSNBC — and when you’re the first openly gay person to anchor network news, being an advocate in the LGBT community comes with the gig.

Thomas Roberts, who anchors his own self-titled show on weekdays at 1 p.m. and sometimes fills in on The Today Show, has been nothing short of active in the LGBT community. In addition to clinching the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD Media Awards for promoting LGBT equality, he’s also been a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race,

Also last year, Thomas made history with OUT@NBCUniversal, the first LGBT and ally employee group in the entertainment industry and corporate America to march under an LGBT-inclusive banner in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

We talked with Thomas, who lives in NYC with his husband Patrick Abner, about how he came out, and advice he would give to someone who might be nervous about coming out.

Let’s start with your story, how did you come out? 

So I was 27 when I officially came out to my family and for me, and telling them that I was gay, was the true coming out. That was the true freedom to be an adult and be integrated.

It was October 5, 1999. It was my 27th birthday and I did if for myself as my own birthday present. So I was working in Florida in local TV news, I was highly closeted because I thought that being out would affect my career trajectory, and I hadn’t really confronted what it would mean to be public about it, but I figured that I needed to have private support first before I ever was a public figure to be coming out.

So for my 27th birthday, I flew home to Baltimore from Florida and I sat with my mom at the kitchen table and I said I had something to tell her, and I got very emotional. I had a hard time being able to express the words. Even though I had gone over it in my head and I was gonna do this and I felt ready, I just started crying.

And my mom said, “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” and I’m like “I can’t say, I can’t say” and she’s like I’ll guess. And I said okay, and she goes “You’ve murdered someone”. I said No? She goes someone’s pregnant, and I said No? and then she goes “Okay, you’re gay.” And I said yes, and she said, “I’m so sorry you’ve had to carry this by yourself for so long, and this has been such a burden on you I’m so sorry.” And then she hugged me, and I couldn’t believe it.

But I was so upset and I was crying so hard, she thought I had murdered somebody! And my mother being my mother, obviously she’d help me bury the body, but she guessed it. I was just so upset, she thought it was murder, that’s how upset I was, but I was so relieved once I told her and then it’s still complex from there but once I had her, the rest of it fell like dominoes in place for my life and the support system I needed, and that’s what I think is truly coming out, when you can do that to your family.

Why did you feel like you had to wait so long to tell everyone? 

I think there was a disapproval baked in my way of thinking because of being raised Catholic, and having a religious structure, also not having any role models to look up to. I didn’t have people that I saw in the public eye or even in our own family structure or around my life that were positive images of gay men, and that kept me from being integrated, from being compassionate to myself, and from tackling issues that I wanted to ignore.

Being gay brought realities that I didn’t think would mean a successful life for me, and it took me awhile to get my head around the fact that it could be personally and professionally successful and be gay, and just understand that’s who I am.

What would you tell someone who feels nervous, scared or apprehensive about coming out? 

I would tell them that they need to find a trusted ally, someone either in their family or social structure though friends or through work, someone that they feel they can be honest with, and that they know will be a support from the get go- and once you have one person, it starts to amass from there, kind of like a snowball affect, because you feel accepted and supported, you are allowed to verbalize your feelings and have someone to talk to and I think that so many for us that are feeling silenced or burdened and having only ourselves tot talk to, having just one other person to talk to makes a world of difference.

Was there a moment before you were told your mom that you thought you were going to back out? Did you panic at all? 

I think once I sat down at the table and I had eye contact with her, and had her attention, and this was such a big moment for me because I had been carrying it for so long privately, in that moment, I was afraid to jump off the ledge and say it. Even though I knew that was me, I knew that was not me to her and at least that’s not the way I thought she thought of me. But she guesses it in three tries so she knows her kid, but she thought I was a murderer first! So yes, I did have apprehensions and thank goodness she saved me in that moment to go through with it.

To have the conviction to own it, because when she guessed it, I could have denied it and let her guess something else, but I owned it. and it did take some effort on her part, but my intent was there, my mission was complete: my mom knew. And she might have known for awhile, we have never really talked about when she might have known, why she was able to guess it one third try, but I think somewhere, and you know all my family members, they kind of knew, but it was just me having to confirm it and to own it.

What was the process like telling your other friends and family? Was it as difficult as telling your mom?

You know once I did that, it was such a big thing for me, I had it all in my head, how I was gonna do it and I was gonna start with the people in my life that I knew first, you know friends wise and I was going to get that support and then get to my family, so I was going to start with like grade school and high school friends and then go to college friends and then go to family, kind of snowball it.

And I did it the exact reverse where I went with my family first and then I went with college and then I did high school and grade school friends. And I called everyone or I saw them in person because all of these people were very important to me and people I wanted to continue carrying through my life, and I had reserved this information for so long because I thought they would toss me out or stop being my friend and they meant so much to me that I wanted them all to either look me in the eye when I said it, or hear my voice on the phone.

And not one person, not even one, was mean, discounted me or said are you sure? They all said okay and it was such a build up in my own head, and I was my own worst enemy about it, and everyone couldn’t have been better, but again this was a point in our lives, you know we’re in our late twenties, and more mature in a way of thinking, where if I had done that in high school or in the beginning of college, it would have been different for me, with the relationships and whether or not they developed as significantly as they did into friendships.

Do you think being gay and coming out could have contributed to your career? Are people more accepting now than they were in 1999? 

I don’t know if that would have been the case if I would have owned it earlier, but in TV and the people who had those prominent positions, no one else was out at the time. You know we are almost 20 years later, and we have wonderful people, wonderful role models, excellent journalists and broadcasters, that are all out and proud in the media, and being able to do a gay pride event or be invited on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or be myself at work and being able to talk about who I am in my life, or being married to Patrick.

That is invaluable, and I really appreciate it because just being able to show up, not only for the community, but for yourself is a really big deal, and I think that’s an important message to send to kids who are coming up today. The world is still a crazy and dangerous place, but it’s also never been better when it comes to having role models and seeing people that are having great lives, and they’re gay and they’re part of the LGBT community, and that’s a really important message to send not only to gay kids but to straight kids too.

You know, this is not a community that is less than, or unwell to you, or won’t have the same pivotal moments in their lives that you will, and we see that now with marriage equality, gay and lesbian couples having children, having their own families, having life gradation moments that were once reserved for your straight friends. And now, we all get to have those moments!

Photo credit: Nathan Congleton/MSNBC

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