When CBS 2 Chicago news reporter Brad Edwards was a boy in Grand Rapids, Mich., watching the evening telecasts, there were no "out" gay journalists reflecting from his screen. Unless sitting in the center square on a game show or serving as a sitcom's ascot-wearing comic relief, conventional wisdom dictated that no one trusted the gay person in his or her home.
The evening news was an invitation into the viewers' most sacred space. Anchormen were to be authorial, worldly, above reproach, with perfect hair and a calming presence, everyone's trusted father. Even investigative reporters were expected to be adventurous justice seekers who dug up the truth for the common man, to be our local hetero heroes.
With an award-winning career spanning across two decades, Brad Edwards has since been both an anchor and an investigative reporter as an "out" gay journalist in Michigan, Indiana and, most recently, here in Chicagoone who has never strayed far from that Midwestern boy parked in front of his TV's beckoning glow.
"My 'gay' window growing up in conservative Grand Rapids was solely television news and it was bleakJeffrey Dahmer, Ryan White and a beloved local teacher threatened with ouster because he was gay," said Edwards during an online interview with Windy City Times. "They were all lives calibrated to different degrees of horror followed by premature death. That was my gay paradigm.
"I was also a deeply empathic child. I had a keen sense of others pain and it was magnified by the knowledge I was different from other kids. From that, I developed an earnest sense of what's just and that's now my professional compass. The microphone is a great apparatus of accountability and it can give voice to the unheard."
Edwards giving voice to the marginalized has earned him four Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards, including one in 2013 for a compilation of CBS original reports. With national broadcast talent from Don Lemon to Anderson Cooper, Edwards has joined a movement of critically acclaimed journalists at every level permanently breaking the mold of dated conventional wisdom.
In the last decade, the news has come a long way from the years of ABC World News anchor Max Robinson and his controversial death from AIDS-related complications, an illness shadowed by rumor and Robinson's effusive denials of homosexuality. In contrast, Edwards has been open about his sexuality and largely received support for the decision to walk in his truth, but "coming out" wasn't always an easy call to answer.
"I struggled with it; in hindsight it paled in comparison to any childhood struggle with sexuality," Edwards said. "I now feel it's my responsibility to own it. It's me. I professionally demand transparency from others so it seems only right. The stigma is certainly not what it wasthough, it's still alive. Chicago is a great place to be gay, but Chicago is an exception."
Despite getting support from fans and the top brass alike in many of his media markets, Edwards cautioned standing in the spotlight as gay hasn't come without any career sacrifices.
"[Coming out] has come at some cost in my lifewhile we are worlds from where we were, it's not without challenges," admitted Edwards.
Being among the first for any minority group generally gets accompanied by plenty of community pressure to be a spokesperson for the movement, a tricky expectation of one committed to telling the story, not being the story. Edwards is no exception. When questioned about this dance, Edwards proved as media savvy as some of his subjects.
"My politics are private, but my heart is public. I don't do bullhorns, but I pick up many a mic to emcee a worthy cause," Edwards shared. "There's no burden in being a role model. LGBT youth need to know it does get better."
As a role model, Edwards' stories have leaned toward social justice, positively impacting the lives of several subjects and ensuring those young people he's considering can witness a superhero without a cape.
"In my career, I've done stories that have helped free the wrongly convicted, catch a killer, a serial rapist, and lead to a 40-percent expansion of what was one of the bleakest places in the U.S.: the Detroit morgue," said Edwards, whose most recent personally prized report was the compassionate tale of a man trapped in a burgeoning gang war.
These types of stories place Edwards' brand of journalism is squarely in the hard news category, far from the entertainment and lifestyle beats the public has grown more accustomed to seeing gay broadcasters working in. Committed to traditional journalism, Edwards' decision to work in a town with a "hard news" reputation wasn't by accident, having turned down two other opportunities to work here.
"I didn't just want to come to Chicago, I wanted to come to CBS 2 and work with this cast and its "original reporting" philosophy. Reporting is my wheelhouse," admitted Edwards.
A passionate professional with strong philosophical beliefs and self-professed Midwestern values, one could expect Edwards to be ready for nuptials should Illinois get marriage equality come summer. However, the elusive Edwards is decidedly single, but remains mum on whether he's looking and how the Chicago dating scene has treated him to-date. Preferring the role of storyteller, this public personality is still somewhat private.
"There's an insecure teenager with braces lurking somewhere inside me, so be gentle," joked Edwards, not used to being in the hot seat. "Frankly, I'm used to controlling the contentwhat's in, what's out, the appropriate shading, contrast. That said, this is me: open with who I am, to new experiences and meeting people."
Having journeyed a ways from that awkward teen with broadcast news aspirations and few models, this humble transplant is far from done, recognizing he's part of a long, pioneering LGBT tradition of paying it forward.
"It's a momentous time. My generation and younger owe our valiant elders a monumental debt of gratitude. Those props are due now."