What do you know about Anderson Cooper? Probably three things: He’s a longtime CNN journalist. His mother is socialite fashion designer and sometime author Gloria Vanderbilt. And he’s a gay man. No doubt when his obituary is written, some form of this sentence will be included: “In 2016, Anderson Cooper became the first out gay man entrusted with moderating a presidential debate.”
It’s a giant step for LGBT acceptance that Cooper presided alongside ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday night at the second of the three presidential debates. On the other hand, it’s never easy to go first in the age of identity politics, and Cooper’s debut was freighted with objections, notably from conservatives.
When the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Cooper’s inclusion in this year’s roster of debate moderators, much was made of his sexual orientation. The New York Times remarked on the diversity of the lineup, while specifically noting that Cooper is “an openly gay man.” The gay media also proudly took note of the milestone choice, with the Advocate writing: “No LGBT person has ever moderated a presidential or vice presidential debate in the general election.”
The not-so-hidden subtext is that we are witnessing a genuine challenge to the entrenched notion that only a straight man can do his job objectively. Certainly, opponents of diversity are ready with charges of bias and lack of professionalism against LGBT people — just as they are with women and people of color marking their own “firsts” in the news industry.
Even before the debate, however, there were complaints. Take, for instance, radio host Alex Jones (called out by New York magazine as “America’s leading conspiracy theorist”). Previously, he has called Cooper a “bastard” and a “piece of trash.” Before Sunday’s meetup, Jones said on the radio that the debate would be moderated by “twinkle-toes, bite your pillow” Anderson Cooper. Nice, huh?
GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump told my Washington Post colleague Robert Costa, “I don’t think Anderson Cooper should be a moderator . . . because [he] works for CNN and over the last couple of days, I’ve seen how Anderson Cooper behaves.” (This was ostensibly in reference to a hard-hitting interview the “AC360” host conducted with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after the Orlando massacre. In that segment, Cooper said that many people in the LGBT community consider her a “hypocrite” in her newfound support for the gay community.)
Trump didn’t call out Cooper specifically for his lack of professionalism but rather for how he “behaves,” which came across (certainly to the ears of most LGBT people) as a slur against his sexual orientation. In Trump’s mind, this seemed to disqualify Cooper as a moderator, much in the same way that the candidate had called out U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel as incapable of being objective in presiding over the fraud case against Trump University. Why could he not be objective? Apparently because of his heritage. “He’s a Mexican,” Trump said. “We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” Read between the lines: Cooper, like Curiel, could not be objective because of his identity.
Still, talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Cooper didn’t get a pass from the LGBT community. Leaders had hoped for at least one question about the Republicans’ stand on issues such as whether employers should be allowed to fire LGBT people over their sexual orientation (as they still can in 28 states). Or the discredited practice of “conversion therapy,” now outlawed in five states. Or GOP vice-presidential nominee and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s long history of anti-LGBT discrimination, resulting in a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT organization.
Well, the second debate is over, and we have yet to hear a single question about LGBT issues. That’s wrong.
But Cooper — in my mind, because of his identity as a gay man, which is to say an outsider, and one who has been marginalized — was steadfast in asking Trump about his defense of the extremely lewd “Access Hollywood” tape released last week. Queried Cooper: “You called what you said locker-room banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
Although Trump denied saying any such thing, Cooper’s tenacious professionalism carried the moment, not to mention relieving Raddatz from becoming this debate’s metaphorically bloodied Megyn Kelly. Whether women, people of color or members of the LGBT community, we know firsthand how small a leap it can be between what Trump called “just words” and serious verbal bullying and even physical harm.
After the debate ended, I checked in on the alt-right Breitbart.com to see what was being said about Cooper. One woman commenter referred to the CNN newsman as a “little pansy.” A guy who posted made my point, inadvertently, in calling Cooper “gay privileged” (and Raddatz “female privileged”). He went on to write: “They can do no wrong. That anyone could question in public. They call it unbiased. Yeah right.” It’s too bad that the changing face of professionalism can be threatening to some, but time stands still for no one. With grace, dignity and tenacity, Cooper helped create another first.
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