Two weeks ago, Don Lemon was merely reporting the news, not making it. As CNN’s weekend prime time anchor, Lemon brings a decade of experience breaking news and filing moving special reports. Now, however, Lemon is embarking on an ambitious mission to move America once again, this time to accept and embrace an openly gay African-American news anchor.
It’s a tall order, and Lemon is risking his livelihood, his career and his reputation to come out of the closet as gay. This week, the Washington Blade sat down with the man who has spent so much time covering public figures, and has now become one of those newsmakers himself.
Washington Blade: First of all, congratulations on the new book and coming out. It’s a big month for you.
Don Lemon: Oh thank you!
Blade: Just a few months ago, you made headlines coming out as a victim of sexual abuse in your youth, which was a very surprising moment, and now in your new book, “Transparent,” you were a bit more deliberate and more measured as you come out as an openly gay prime time anchorman at a major cable news channel. Now, you hinted to Gawker last week that coming out feels good, but you weren’t real specific. On a scale of one to incredible, can you rate how the coming out experience has been so far?
Lemon: [laughs] On one to incredible? Are you serious?
Lemon: OK. [laughs] What if I said ‘one?’ You’d say, ‘uh oh! Goodbye!’ [laughs] I have to tell you I can’t even put it in those terms. I mean, it goes way over a scale of one to 10, honestly. And it goes way over incredible.
I mean I just feel like a new person. And it’s funny because someone from CNN sent me the write up on the ESPN radio guy who came out — and he thanked me and Rick Welts and whoever. And he says that he feels like he won the lottery. And it’s funny because he’s been out for like three days or two days, and I’ve been out three days longer than him, but I know how he feels. It’s like you have this rush of ‘You know what? This is who I am! I don’t have to hide it.’
And even if you’re out in your personal life, and you may have been dating people, and you have gay friends, I think what most people don’t understand for people in the public eye or high profile people, it’s something that you carry around, and you don’t even know and you become so adept at navigating it and avoiding questions and making sure you’re not in situations where you might be outed. Even though you may not be ashamed of what it is outwardly, but there’s something inside of you that’s afraid of someone finding out and using it against you and that it will hurt you in some way.
So it feels … I need to come up with a new word. Fancredible! Or Intastic! There’s not just one word. I feel Extastic!
Blade: I hope both of those words catch on after this interview.
Lemon: What did I say, ‘fancredible?’ that’s actually pretty cool, right?
Blade: I like it, I’m going to start using it this afternoon. Being someone of high visibility — and you were honored as one of the most influential African Americans in Ebony last year and Essence this year — do you think that when public figures in the black community, like yourself, come out as gay, there’s a possibility to change minds?
Lemon: I think if you come out and you’re in a position like mine, or higher, or wherever — even if you’re just in your job, and you feel comfortable to do it — I think you have the opportunity to change minds. …
But I think — I have to be honest — I don’t know any high-profile African Americans who are out. And I always say, ‘name five who have come out in the last five years,’ and they look at me and say ‘well, I dunno,’ and I ask, ‘OK, the last 10 years,’ and they say ‘I dunno,’ and then I just say ‘one, and I’ll give you one,’ and I say Wanda Sykes, and beyond that, most people can’t really name any. And I think it’s different being a woman — she’s very brave. It’s a whole different nuance being a woman and an entertainer.
I’m not an entertainer, I’m not a woman, I work for a very credible and influential news organization. And there, frankly, aren’t many people like me ‘out’ in general, and when you break it down into subcategories like African American or whatever, then there really aren’t any people. So do I think I can change minds? Absolutely, and that’s why I’m doing it. I hope to change minds.
Blade: Why do you think it’s so difficult for public figures in the black community to come out?
Lemon: Well I think it’s difficult for public figures to come out in general. And then if you belong to a group that’s already been discriminated against, then of course it’s harder. When you ask ‘why is it so hard for public figures in the black community,’ I ask, how many public figures in the white community do you know are out? How many public figures in the news are out? You know?
I mean, I know of two, other than me — two journalists who are white — but as far as being black journalists who are out, I don’t know any! I don’t know any professional black athletes who are working now who are out, I don’t know any black singers or performers or actors who are out, and I don’t know many whites who are.
And so, it’s hard to come out anyway — as much as we’d like to think the world has changed. And yes, it has; people’s attitudes in general in America are changing about gay people. But still it’s deemed as something you want to keep secret, and you don’t want to talk about it. So, when you get the black community — a community that has a history of discrimination —that’s one more category, one more name for them. It’s like, ‘OK, so he’s a black guy, now he’s a black gay guy,’ and that’s another label I’m adding to myself. And that would be another label that some black person could be adding to themselves: gay. That’s a frightening prospect, especially when you don’t know what the outcome will be on the other side.
And let’s not forget — very important — it’s different in the black community. In the black community, for the most part, not all black people, the church has been the backbone of the community for so long, and the church preaches against homosexuality. So when you’re growing up, from the day you go into church, it is instilled in you that being gay is going against God. And that happens in any church. But when the backbone, the structure of the community has been so associated with the church, it’s even doubly more imprinted on your being and on your psyche.
And so it’s tough. In that community you’re supposed to be masculine. You’re supposed to be a man. You’re supposed to be strong. And people equate gay with being weak. And so men aren’t supposed to be weak. Men are supposed to provide for the family, and take care of their women. And so that’s how it’s deemed to be, for the most part, in the African-American community.
And people can say I’m throwing black people under the bus: I am black, I’m not doing it, I’m speaking for myself as well, because I lived in that whole environment forever. And it is true, I speak from experience.
Blade: Speaking of experience, as a gay newsman, your orientation informs your reporting. Do we need more openly gay journalists to help our community tell our stories properly?
Lemon: Let me preface that by saying: I have been doing these interviews a lot, and people have been trying to compare me to other people and pit me against other journalists. That’s not my role here. My role here is to talk about me.
I think it would be helpful in any profession if people would come out. If more people could feel comfortable in any profession, from being an attorney, to being an athlete, to being an actor, to being a garbage worker, to being a cleaning lady, to being a journalist. It would be more than helpful — the more people that come out, the better it will be for the Tyler Clementis of the world.
That being said, people should feel comfortable doing it whenever they want to do it. I don’t know other people’s journeys or stories, and why they may not be choosing to come out. That’s up to them. And you’ll have to ask those people why they don’t feel comfortable coming out.
But do I think there should be more openly gay journalists? I think it would help in any profession, like I said, if more people could feel comfortable coming out. And I don’t think that’s any different in the profession that I’m in. Does that make sense?
Blade: Definitely. Speaking of Tyler, you mentioned to Joy Behar that Tyler’s suicide influenced your decision to tell the story of being a gay man in the media, through the book you were writing at the time of his suicide. Why was this such a turning point for you?
Lemon: Because it just speaks to the whole reason why I’m doing it. And to your last question, which I will add to, I will give you more than you asked me for on the last question.
Because, last week before this happened, I may have felt differently. Since this has happened, I’ve gotten so many people who have written to me, who have contacted me, and who have stopped me on the street, in airports, in the grocery store, in parking lots, on the sidewalks and wherever and said ‘thank you for standing up. Thank you for walking in truth. Thank you, because of what you’ve done, you’ve allowed me to feel comfortable coming out.’ And, ‘thank you — I felt that I was bad. I’m a teenager, and now I see that I can be successful, and maybe someday I can be on television. I’d like to be like you Mr. Lemon.’
Do you know what that’s like coming from a teenager?
So if someone like Tyler Clementi could have reached out, or had seen someone that he could have related to, or felt comfortable enough to even call, or e-mailed, or send a text or a Tweet, or reach out in some way, then I have made a difference.
So, that being said, I think there is power in being able to be who you are, and being able to help other people, and being able to be — in some way — an example, or at least someone that teens can look up to, on the television, and go ‘hmm. I’m gay, he’s gay. He’s doing alright for himself.’
So, when you ask me ‘do we need more out gay journalists?’ That’s the answer to your question.
Because, people like me, and other journalists, who are in this profession are more attainable. You see an actor? You don’t feel like that’s attainable. You see someone who is in that sort of position, which is a fantasy anyway, where they’re acting on a role on a movie screen, even if they do come out, they’re an entertainer, and most people cannot ascend to that sort of thing. It’s not going to happen for everyone.
But pretty much, being a journalist is not unattainable for the average American. So it’s a position where someone can actually feel that you can reach out and touch them, that it speaks a truth. It’s not a fantasy.
So, when that happened to Tyler Clementi, something clicked in me, and I said, ‘you know what? This is ridiculous.’ By sitting here, just being silent about it, then what I’m doing is telling other people to be silent about it. Even if I’m not saying it, I am showing them by example that they should be silent.
Like I said, maybe I wouldn’t have felt like this a week ago — the day before I came out, I probably would have been, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t want that!’ But just by the silence there’s some deception in that. I truly feel that. And I don’t mean that for anyone else, I’m talking about for me. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, I’m not talking about other journalists, I’m talking about me, and the epiphany that I reached, and then having gone to the other side, and gone to ‘the dark side,’ so to speak, now I feel more empowered, and I think people should feel comfortable coming out in their own time.
Blade: We’ve talked about all the good, but what is the risk for you in coming out now?
Lemon: Well the risk… at first there was a perceived risk. That, you know, my livelihood would be taken away, that people would shun me, that people would ostracize me, that people would turn off the television and not watch me.
Sometimes the fear of the unknown is worse than actually knowing, right?
Now that I’ve come out, and I’m on this side, then now I’m living in that risk and that fear. Maybe there are people that won’t watch me. Meh! I’ll have to deal with it. Maybe there are people who are going to write bad, dirty things about me. Meh! I’ll have to deal with it. Before I was dealing with the possibility, which isn’t real. So now I’m living it. So now I’m walking, and taking those steps, and every single day, if it does indeed happen, then I’ll just have to deal with it. And I’ll have to discuss it.
If it doesn’t happen? Then all of that fear was for naught.
So the actual fear was losing my livelihood. Who knows? That could still happen. But you know what? I don’t think so. I tend to believe in the goodness of people. And since this has happened, I’ve had so much support, and I thought that I wouldn’t — quite honestly, I have to be honest. I didn’t think I’d have any support in the gay community, or not much at all. And I think that — and not just in the gay community, but in the country overall — I’ve had so much support that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go on to do something else, and I’ll thrive. And I’ll prosper. Just for the step that I’ve taken, which they think is very brave. I happen to think that, you know, I just walked in my truth.
I think Ellen was brave, doing it, what, almost 20 years ago? Coming up on 15 years? So I think Ellen was brave. That took a lot of guts to do it back then. There were so many people like ‘Oh is Ellen gay? Is Ellen gay? Oh my gosh!’ And she said, ‘Yeah I am!’ And look what happened. And that’s how I feel. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that in order to move and get beyond something, you just have to do it.
So I don’t know if people are going to want to watch me, I don’t know if people are going to want to hire me — I write about it in the book — I don’t know. But I do know that at a certain point, you just have to own up to it, walk in it, be truthful, and keep living your life.
Blade: How supportive have your colleagues been?
Lemon: My colleagues have been really supportive. I think it’s funny because I think they sort of look at me differently, because even though they work with me every day, they don’t really know my story, and now they feel like they know me a lot better.
Blade: Any last words you want to leave our readers? Anything you’ve learned through this process that you really haven’t been able to talk about yet?
Lemon: I have to say that, when you’re wrong about something, you have to own up to it. Don’t you think you have to admit your mistakes? Especially when one of the reasons that I’m doing it, is to change attitudes about gay people, and ‘let’s just get over it and move on,’ and this whole process. One reason it took me so long to come out is because I thought that I wouldn’t have the support from the gay community because I don’t look like, you know, a Ken doll. You know what I mean. I’m not like the Clark Kent; the gay prototype muscle boy or whatever. You know, at events, I would always be typically the only African American there, you know, either of a handful or the only. So I didn’t think that there was this sort of support system for someone like me in the gay community. And boy have I been proven wrong. And thankfully so.
You know I’ve had friends who were a part of gay organizations, and they would say, ‘Oh Don, you’re wrong.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but Neal, look at me, I’m the only one, I’m the only African American in the room, and it’s filled with a bunch of wealthy white guys, or a bunch of middle class white men. Why would someone care about me? Why would these people be supportive of me?’
And I have just been proven wrong. I think that — white, black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever — as gay people, I think we’re yearning for our stories to be told, and for inclusion, and when someone steps up to make a stand, I think we should get behind them, and I think we should do that with all of our gay brothers and sisters, and not just the ones who look like us.