Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, usually tight-lipped about his personal life, recently discussed his experience of growing up gay in the conservative South and the effect it had on his career with students at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism.
Smith spoke at his alma mater for about 45 minutes last month, but his comments began to spread nationally this week.
“I’ve never really stood in front of a crowd and talked to them about ‘the gay,'” he said. “But I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Smith grew up in Holly Springs, Miss., a town of less than 8,000 people near the Tennessee border, about 50 miles southeast of Memphis. He attended a local Methodist church, and eventually went to college at Ole Miss. Partially due to this upbringing, Smith said, he didn’t consider his sexuality for most of his life.
Hoping to avoid confronting his confusing feelings, he threw himself into work. He moved to an apartment in New York to work for Fox News when the network began in 1996 but soon found himself “never there.”
“For a year and a half, I was still getting carded when I went into my building,” Smith said. Unlike his married colleagues, he wasn’t bound by a partner at home. Unlike his single colleagues, he wasn’t looking for one.
“I needed to sort of escape what my reality might have been, because I wasn’t answering my own questions or even posing my own questions to myself,” he said. “I put it in a box.”
“I just cut it all off,” he said, referring to his personal life and the thought of dating. “Because of that, I’ve really witnessed the most ridiculous stuff to happen in the world in the last 20 years.”
He was on the ground for the Columbine shootings, Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and many of the other major news stories of the past two decades. At one point, he reported for 89 days in a row without taking a day off.
For all the news he covered, though, he continued ignoring the truth about himself.
“I think part of that was this other thing that I had going on. I didn’t want to ask myself that question or figure that out or learn how to deal with that,” Smith said. “Because to me it was antithetical to all that was okay.”
He listed off the reasons why: “A. You’re going to hell for it. B. You’ll never have any friends again. C. What are you going to tell your family? And by the way, you’re on television on the craziest conservative network on Earth. They will probably put you in front of a brick wall and mow you down. Of course, none of that was true, but that’s how it felt.”
Eventually, though, he had to face himself, which he did about nine years ago.
“One day I found the box. Then I cried for a long time,” he said, adding, “Then I felt like a liar and a horrible person. And then I met George Weinberg” — the psychologist who coined the term “homophobia” — “and he helped me figure it out.”
“Now, I just want to win on Saturday,” he joked, referring to college football. “I just need to beat LSU.”
On a more serious note, he said, once he discovered his sexuality, he merely accepted it and continued living. He never publicly “outed” himself, because “I didn’t think I was in.”
“I go to work, I manage a lot of people. I cover the news, I deal with the holy hell going on around me, and I don’t think about it,” he said. “I come home to the man I love, and I go home to family.”
Throughout the speech, he related his own internal struggle with his sexuality to discuss wider issues, such as racism, Islamophobia and the Confederate flag.
Concerning the latter, for example, he said, “There’s a lot of stuff we’re gonna have to be a little bit flexible on. And that flag, isn’t is stupid that this is what our legislature is talking about? That this is what we concern ourselves with? Get it out of that stadium. Get it out of the Grove. Get it out of my state.”
And on racism, he said, “Every time we, as a group or as individuals, stereotype … you’re really messing everything up. Because the big black guy in the back is not always the criminal and the little white girl in the front is not always the victim. That’s really ingrained in us.”
“It’s when we get together and talk it out and realize we’re basically exactly the same that things go much more smoothly in life,” he added.
Shepard’s comments come as a barrage of lawsuits recently painted Fox News — which Smith called “the freaky place where I’m working right now” — as a hostile workplace toward both minorities and women.
Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were both ousted from the network after multiple sexual harassment allegations were brought against them. Recently, as The Washington Post’s Katie Mettler reported, “a combined total of 13 current and former employees of Fox News — all people of color — took three separate legal actions against the organization, alleging years of ‘hostile racial discrimination.’”
Throughout all this, Smith has been equally praised and derided for holding his own network accountable. He has corrected statements made by other personalities, such as when Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano made the unfounded claim that President Obama recruited British agents to bug Trump Tower. And he publicly called out other personalities for forcing racial angles into breaking news stories.
As The Post’s Paul Farhi reported:
Smith’s persistent fact-mongering has made him persona non grata among some parts of the Fox News faithful, in an echo of the hostile reaction to then-Fox anchor Megyn Kelly’s tough questioning of Trump during the campaign. For weeks, Fox fans have stormed social media with demands for Smith’s firing and boycott threats if the network doesn’t get rid of him.
“Shep Smith has gone full Rachel Maddow,” ranted Paul Joseph Watson, contributing editor of the conspiratorial Infowars, on Twitter after Friday’s dunking of Napolitano. “MSNBC irrelevance is his calling.”
Some have posted an unflattering photo of Smith, 53, above the caption, “If you’re sick of this guy spewing his liberal tripe and his constant criticism of President Trump on a supposed news show, let Fox News know!!” It includes a number for Fox’s viewer comment line.
As Smith told the students, both in life and journalism, the key is always finding the truth — and sticking to it.
“I was always as true to me as I knew how to be,” he said. “If I was fibbing to you, it’s because I was fibbing to me. … And that sounds like such a load of crap, but it really is my truth. I don’t have to ever fib about anything again as long as I live.”
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