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Jana Shortal on suits, pocket squares, and the deep fear everything will be taken away

Jana Shortal never expected to get a round of applause for being herself. Even now, she's a little leery.

Jana Shortal never expected to get a round of applause for being herself. Even now, she's a little leery. NBC News

Last week, after her whirlwind appearance on the Today Show, KARE 11’s Breaking the News host Jana Shortal took a moment to breathe. The day before, she’d been sitting across from Al Roker, wearing an impeccable bubblegum pink suit she’d found in the boys’ section in J. Crew. (It may be 2019, but pretty much nobody is making interesting suits designed to fit the average woman’s body.)

It felt, she says, like an “out-of-body experience.”

A lot of people think of Shortal as brave. When she got her first on-air reporting job in the early 2000s, she looked pretty much like every other female news anchor. She’d straightened her hair and dyed it blond. She’d done her nails. She put on heels.

The transition to wearing what she wanted – suits, T-shirts, floral button-ups and a crest of wild curls – as well as opening up about her sexuality as a gay woman, was slow. Painfully slow. Now, in the days of bubblegum pink suits, applause and being called “brave,” it’s sometimes difficult to explain how “surreal,” how tenuous it all feels.

“I’m always scared that I’m getting punked,” she says.

Deep down, she secretly worries that she’s going to wake up tomorrow and it will all be over. They won’t let her be on TV anymore. She won’t be able to hold her partner’s hand in public. She’ll have to pretend to be someone else again.

These are the things Jana Shortal thinks about when she’s sitting at home, breathing.

Shortal wasn’t one of those people who knew she was gay from the start. She was just a kid, growing up in rural Illinois. Still, most queer kids can tell you about the first openly queer adult they’d ever seen. It’s usually a moment of recognition, admiration, and longing all mixed together. But for Shortal, it was something else too – a warning.

Shortal’s first queer role model was Ellen DeGeneres, with her short hair and slacks and boyish attitude. Shortal had already been told that she wasn’t “ladylike enough,” and that she was not allowed to shop for boys’ clothes. Whether Shortal understood it at the time or not, there was a kinship there.

In 1997, DeGeneres came out as a lesbian – and so did her character on her eponymous sitcom, in a television event infamously referred to as “The Puppy Episode.” It turned out to be a critical darling with huge ratings. But that’s not what Shortal saw. She saw the backlash – all the negative coverage, the rumors, the inevitable cancellation of the show after the following season. She saw the pall cast over the careers of DeGeneres and her co-star, Laura Dern.

This, Shortal learned, is what it meant to be gay. You could be out, or you could be successful. Not both. When, as an adult, she began to realize she was queer, the revelation felt like a death knell.

There’s no easy answer for how she managed to come out, besides “slowly.” There was no glorious revelation, no overnight transformation. It was a matter of easing into an existence she found much more joyful, much more livable, one safe step at a time. The Today Show put together a montage of her appearances over the years, and you can see the makeup disappear, the hair get shorter and less blond, the blouses and dresses turn into jeans and sharp suits.

Shortal’s coworkers and friends gave her boundless support. One dedicated fan sent her 30 vintage pocket squares, which she still wears. But every day, from various corners of the internet, people send her messages and emails reminding her that she has transgressed, some of them threatening. Star Tribune columnist C.J. even called her “disrespectful” for wearing jeans while she reported on the Jacob Wetterling story in 2016. Not because they were too androgynous. Because they were too “hip.” 

That’s the problem with social norms progressing so quickly in such a short span. It can give you whiplash.

“It’s like living in the Upside-Down,” she says. “This was not trendy for me for the majority of my life. This was not cool. I carry that history in my bones.”

Still, she carries on. After that quick rest at home on Wednesday, she would speak to a group of high school students, and then get ready for work. The day would pass, the news would churn on, and her minute in the spotlight would be over.

She’s much more comfortable being the one who asks the questions than the one who answers them. Besides, there are other people who are not yet benefiting from even the level of acceptance she has enjoyed: “Trans people, refugees, immigrants, poor people.” As long as they are still on the margins, there is no time to celebrate.

“It’s hurtful to live in a world where there always has to be an other,” she says. “You just have to keep making that table bigger and getting more chairs.”