"I like being a storyteller," she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's cover story. "That's the reason why I became a journalist. It's what first drew me to the career as a little girl in Mississippi. Of course, back then I didn't see anyone like me on television, a gay Black woman. I just knew I wanted to be able to help others share their story."
She had help along the way as she made a name for herself in local news before heading to ESPN and finally ABC. She found support when she came out from colleagues ("I was so inspired by my dear, dear friend, and GMA colleague Sam Champion," she shares) and from her sister Dorothy. But it's Deborah (no relation) whose support has become particularly vital through the years — first at work, then in Robin's personal life.
Courtesy Robin Roberts
Robin, 61, first met Deborah, also 61, when Robin was at Good Morning America and Deborah was reporter for ABC News. The connection was instant.
Along the way, Deborah became an ally.
"First of all," Robin says, "bless the allies in the world. Bless those that step in the gap for us. Deborah Roberts, we're both Southern girls and I am forever grateful to her and the circle of friends that I have. But with Deb, I can just be me and I always was able to be me. I never had to hide anything about myself."
Robin says Deborah has taught her the meaning of the word through both actions and words. "What I have really appreciated, and what I feel an ally does, is that when they're at a dinner party and the conversation turns to LGBTQ+ or anything that's in my world, that your ally speaks up. The ally says to that dinner party, 'Hey, wait a minute. You know what? Using that term, that's wrong.'"
Robin says their allyship extends to lighter times as well. "Deb and I have a great time, we go out, we have lunch, we drink a little wine. We've done a Celine Dion weekend. But I think of her as being that voice in that room when someone starts speaking ill of our community — she is that voice. And I think that's where we see how allies really step up."
Deborah tells PEOPLE, "Robin and Amber [Laign, Robin's partner] have taught me that allyship is simply devoted kinship with someone else you love, support and respect. That's all. My love and friendship for Robin is no different from what I feel for any of my dear friends. It has no bounds, no category and no exceptions."
She adds, "Allyship is unadulterated friendship."
For more from PEOPLE's cover story with Robin Roberts, pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday!