This is Robert Powell. He is a supervising investigative producer at the NBC Today Show. He attended Princeton Day School for middle school and high school before going to Brown University. He is based in New York City and resides with husband, Micah. Mr. Powell is a very intelligent and accomplished person, who came to talk to our high school a few weeks back. He talked about his in and out of the closet experiences. It was an incredibly moving talk, and we thought it would be a great idea to interview him. Enjoy!
1. What is a common stereotype you have faced throughout your life?
I think that almost all gay men face the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate. It is the stereotype that gay men aren’t good at certain things like sports or mechanical things. This stereotype is lessening because more and more people are coming out. People are realizing that sexual orientation is just one part of a person and does not define them as a whole. The stereotype is still an enduring one and I have faced it personally many times. Many people seem to think that gay men are supposed to be like women, this is not true. I’m extremely interested in cars and everyone who I am close to knows about my obsession with cars. When people who don’t know me well find out that I like cars, they are completely chocked. They are not used to someone who is gay being into cars, because it is an interest that is perceived as a straight one. My taste in pop music is one that I do hold that is party of the gay stereotype. I can read car magazines and love Madonna and that is just who I am.
2. How have you overcome stereotypes/dealt with them?
The best way to deal with stereotypes is to just be yourself and be very upfront with the people yo interact with. Don’t try to be someone you are not. People will accept you for who you are and the people who don’t aren’t important and will not be made a part of your life. Embracing and loving yourself is essential to having good relationships with people. One of the messages I really wanted to get out when I was talking to your high school is that no matter who you are, you will find a place that you fit in. You might find it in college, or as an adult, but you will find it. In high school everyone wants to be the same and “fit in,” but once you get our in the real world life is full of different types of people and you will find your place amongst people with similar interests who love you and embrace you. I found that in college and it was great. New York City is a place of all sorts of people and the only thing that unites us is our differences. I go on the subway every morning and it’s beautiful to see our unity in our differences. Be yourself and embrace yourself. People are surprised by things, people will always make assumptions on you based on obvious characteristics and will jump to conclusions. I don’t want to be known as the “blank” kid. I am more than that one characteristic. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to share ourselves with everyone because we have things that makes us special and different and things that make us the same. My first television job was in Boston, I was 22 years old kid then, I started working there and a few woman asked me out in the first month. I replied with “I’m sorry, I’m gay.” I was nervous about it then, but they ended up becoming my best friends. No matter what your background is or who you, be yourself. Live an authentic life and people will embrace that. Be honest with yourself and the people around you.
3. How have stereotypes you have dealt with changed throughout your life, from high school to now?
I think that the proliferation of gay people in popular culture has helped a lot, but there is still a long way too much. There is still a lot of gay stereotypes that are still evident in popular culture – that gay men are feminine, fashionable, artistic, etc. For every artistic, good looking, fashionable gay man, there is a polar opposite gay man who is interested in completely different things. The gay community has people of all sorts of walks of life. The gay stereotype is changing, but there is still ways to go. In community where out gays are less visible, gay kids who are struggling with their identity have no one to relate to and the ones in popular culture limit what being gay is, that is expanding but it is still limited. And people who are gay and not gay need to talk about being gay and be comfortable with the topic. People need to be more visibly out and become role models to kids who need to feel safe and comfortable coming because they need to see what being gay looks like. I started in the closet because I didn’t see anyone who I related to, and it was not until my senior year in college that I saw myself in people and it prompted me to come it – when I felt comfortable. The earlier the better, but things are changing, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.
4. How do you think the stereotypes that you have faced in your life have changed you?
I think coming out and having more gay people in my life and being married to a man that is very different than me has made me a better person in terms of I now know how to dress well and know a lot more about fashion and grooming. Those were qualities that I didn’t have naturally, but being around my husband who was is an expert in those areas has enhanced me as a person. The stereotypes about our community have pushed me, to especially in my profession of interviewing people, to represent the gay community, to help educate others, that gay men come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The more people that realize that gay men are all different just like any group of people, the more it helps get the message across. When people see my wedding ring, most people assume the wedding ring means I am married to a female, someone of the opposite gender, and it is as if I have to come out to them every time. That’s an education for them. They well be more thoughtful next time. It’s an important thing.
5. In what type of situation do you most commonly see stereotypes present?
I think high school is full of stereotypes. We tend to categorize kids, and I am hoping that changes. When I was in high school you tended to find it in to a social category of people you were part of; jocks, nerds, etc. I am hopeful that those categories are blurring. I am hoping that kids can be a combination of categories and have friends of all sorts of backgrounds that break stereotypes. I am hopeful that there can be a gay footballer or an athletic math geek and that they are accepted. I am hoping that kids don’t feel like they have to fit into a niche. They can just be themselves. And be all those things and just break stereotypes. The stereotypes around gay marriage are also very present because it is a new thing. I still get a lot of questions about what is like being married to a guy. For example; is one of you more the woman or the man? It is an interesting question, two men being married or two woman being married, confuses people, because people don’t understand the gender roles. In society there is a lot of stereotypes regarding gender roles and in gay marries they kind of go out the window. In gay marries the roles are more divided, which is true in straight marriages nowadays too, and as stereotypes and barriers break down in straight marriages it will break them down for gay marriages as well.
6. Do you believe we should have absolutely no stereotypes or preconceived notions about a person before we know for sure, or are there any instances in which you think having stereotypes is acceptable?
I think it’s impossible in our world to grow up without having stereotypes about people, people are stereotyped in television and in culture. It’s impossible to avoid prejudices or stereotypes and the important thing is what you do with them and have an open mind and be able to change your mind. The idea of guessing at one’s sexual orientation is not fair. There are may effeminate guys that are straight, I hate the word effeminate, it’s like a derogatory word. There are million things that make one an individual and it can be attached to our sexual orientation or not. Stereotypes of sexual orientation are not fair at all; especially to the gay kids who don’t fit the stereotypes and identify even less. I think it’s not okay, but it’s inevitable, we just need to be more aware and its unfair to have preconceived notions that you accept. To have preconceived notions you have to let them be broken. The kids who came out, the kids who have the strength and the courage, tend to be the kids who fit that gay stereotype mold and are able to come out because they feel like they have less to lose as they are already labeled effeminate. They are plenty of completely straight guys who are effeminate and that’s just who they are based on their culture, family, background, and a million other things.
7. What type of stereotype do you believe is the most harmful?
I think in the gay community there are two stereotypes I find the most harmful; the gay people all act the same away and that gay relationships are some how less meaningful and more superficial. The fact that gay marriage is now legal federally that should all gradually change; but before that gay relationships were viewed as more superficial and not based on love, but feather just physical, but I think that’s all fading. People are recognizing that two people of the same gender who love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together are just as meaningful and legit as a man and a woman. And trust me marriage is the same, where you’re a man and a woman or a man and man, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s the best thing in life and a work in progress.
8. What do you believe is the best solution for ridding (reducing) society of the stereotypes that we hold?
The best solution is for people to be themselves and to share themselves with all the people around them. Around the gay issue the only way people’s attitudes will really change is if they know someone is gay. The more people you know who are “blank” the less likely you will stereotype them. We always fear what we do not know. We misunderstood what we do not know. When you know someone it is a lot harder to stereotype. If you are gay and out be honest and open with the people around them and you will change the people around you and change their beliefs and make them accurate. It is as simple as that.
9. Do you support affirmative action/using race as one of the factors in college admissions?
I do, I feel like racial diversity is still something that many colleges struggle with and there are still areas of this country that people of color may not get access to the same kind of education that while people do. I know myself going to college I encountered a tremendous amount of people who came from different cultures and backgrounds from me and that was a huge part of my college education; I think that affirmative action is sill something that should be used in college admissions; I really believe that. Radical diversity is a really important part of college education.
10. Do you think that if something is true for 99.99% of a group of people, does that make it less of a stereotype, or are all stereotypes equally wrong?
I think that the only thing 99.99% about a group of people that is completely true about all of them is that it isn’t true. Stereotypes are never true of 99.99% of people. Many stereotypes have a little morsel of truth about them, and while they may apply to a lot of people, it is impossible to say that any truth applies 99.99% based on some identifying characteristic. There is such diversity and variability in headings of groups. Based on ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, height, weight, who we are is made up of all of that and there is so much variability in all of that; how could something ever be true for everything. Being gay is just one thing about me who has made me who I am. I think the only 99.99% true stereotype about gays is that it isn’t true, I guess other than the fact that gays are attracted to certain members of the same sex.