CNN Anchor Don Lemon Has Come Out of the Closet, But He's Not Ready to be the Black Gay Poster Child
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Less than 24 hours after declaring his sexuality to the New York Times, CNN anchor-turned-author Don Lemon chatted with theLoop21’s Keli Goff during what had been a whirlwind of a day. Fatigued but forthcoming, the 45-year-old Louisiana native discussed homophobia in the African-American community, childhood sexual abuse, and why now was the perfect time to come out as a gay man.
Keli Goff: What was your biggest fear last night when you went to bed, knowing you were going to make this announcement today?
Don Lemon: That people would say, "who cares?" in a sarcastic way and that it wouldn’t make a difference for young people and that people would think that I was doing some sort of selfish thing, and I’m not. I mean you have no idea which way these things are going to go. A lot of people don’t really like to have their business out in the streets and that’s why so many people haven’t come out.
For all the people who say it’s not a big deal and “who cares?” then why aren’t there more journalists out, why aren’t there more politicians out, why aren’t there more actors out? Why are people still afraid to come out? I know it’s a big deal and I don’t mean for me, I mean it’s a big deal for people to come out and be who they are. It’s a big deal for young people not to think they are bad because they are struggling with their sexuality and think they are gay.
One of the reasons I didn’t come out earlier is because I am not the Ken doll that represents the gay community. I didn’t think anyone in the gay community would support me because I’m not the classic gay role model. I’m not the Clark Kent type. I would go and host events at gay organizations as a news anchor and I would be the only African American in the room, so I thought maybe nobody’s going to care because I’m not the blonde, white guy. That was a concern for me.
KG: How do you respond to people who say they're sick of people coming out when they have a project to push, a book, movie or whatever?
DL: Everyone has their own opinion about everything. The catalyst for coming out was the book, not the other way around. The book was supposed to be a sort of a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of thing about becoming successful, and then as I started to write I was like, who needs another book like this? And I just started writing a book I would want to read, and I started to write about my childhood and all these sorts of things started to come out: The molestation and feeling isolated as a kid because I felt different and I couldn’t share with anyone that I was gay.
I sent it to the editors who at first were like, “be careful”-- then they read it and were like “this is really good.” And I said, “Leave it in there. I can always take it out before we go to press.” I read it and thought, this is a book that would have helped me as a young man. I let CNN read it and that’s when Tyler Clementi jumped off of a bridge and I said, “Leave it.” There was no turning back because it wasn’t just about me. I’m not going to make any money off of a damn book and I’m certainly taking a big risk because I don’t know if people are going to watch me, if they have some preconceived notion about what gay people are like, especially in the black community so it’s not about me pushing a product.
KG: Do you consider the black community homophobic?
DL: YES! I think there is a segment of the black community—a BIG segment of the black community—that is homophobic and it has a lot to do with religion. The church has been the backbone for so long through slavery and all of those things. You had to pray your way out of slavery. People think you can pray your way out of issues or problems and some believe being gay is one of them. In black culture, and similar in Latino and other minority cultures, it’s the worst thing you can do as a man. In both cultures you have to be a man and they equate being gay with not being a man.
KG: Do you see yourself becoming a vocal activist or advocate for the LGBT community?
DL: No. I would see myself becoming one if I wasn’t a journalist anymore or if I became an activist/journalist. As much as I think journalism and the world has evolved with social media, I’m still an old-school journalist and believe in objectivity. I still believe in hearing both sides and fairness. I don’t want to be an activist journalist. I’m not saying I wouldn’t become an activist for the LGBT community or that’s not a part of my future, but right now I don’t see that.
KG: MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, who is openly gay, recently stated that she feels those anchors in the public eye should come out. Did that have any influence on you and do you agree with her? Have you spoken with her?
DL: No. I work for CNN, I don’t really follow MSNBC. [ Laughs.] Apparently, when she said it I was on vacation, and when I’m on vacation I’m on vacation.
KG: There’s an ongoing debate I have with my gay friends on different levels of coming out.
DL: We all know that there are celebrities who have not done interviews with the New York Times about their sexuality but live openly with their partners. Do you think they have a responsibility to shout it from the rooftops or do they have a right to enjoy the privacy that a heterosexual person who says, “I don’t discuss my sex life,” is granted?
Well, I think everyone has a right to their privacy, but I don’t think the two are equal. For me it’s the same as people who did what they had to do back in the day back in the '40s and '50s and '60s. Black people would come up from the South to the North and pass. [See the story of Anatole Broyard.] I think it’s the same sort of thing. I think at a certain point, if you are successful and have proven yourself in your chosen field you do have a responsibility in some sense. With that responsibility comes a right to privacy so everyone can do it in their own time, although it would be nice if everyone could shout it from the rooftops. What people don’t realize in their silence is that there is a degree of conveying that you think something is wrong. In the silence there is a degree of you not thinking you can be yourself.
The worse thing that most people don’t like about another person is dishonesty and in silence, there is a certain degree of dishonesty by not talking about it. That’s what I mean by equating to people who passed for white before and during the civil rights movement. There’s a certain measure of dishonesty because it’s not the truth.
KG: You’ve been open about being molested. There are people who float theories about that affecting orientation. How do you respond to that?
DL: [ Laughs] Everybody asks that. One has nothing to do with the other. Most predators are heterosexual and they choose children of the opposite sex. Before I was even molested, I knew I was gay. I couldn’t define it sexually because I was a kid, but I knew I was different. So maybe my molester saw that in me. My molester turned out to be gay. But that has nothing to do with that and years of therapy as well as any human behaviorist will tell you the same thing. There are lots of heterosexual people molested by someone of the same sex who have not turned out gay.
KG: What would you to say to a kid who is struggling and thinks “I wish I could do what Don did, but my family…” or “I wish I could do what Don did but my church….”
DL: Honestly, call me. Tweet me. Get in touch with me. Tell somebody. If anyone is where they feel they are going to harm themselves and on the verge of doing something desperate, you have to stay strong and stay alive.
There are things I thought I would never recover from…never survive. I remember leaving [his abuser’s] room and feeling dirty and wanting to take a shower. Then, I remember being in college and wanting to act on my sexuality and those feelings of isolation and depression. There are things I thought I would never recover from—like the molestation. People told me that it’s a sin to be gay and that I was going to hell and that’s it an abomination: look at me now. So it’s okay. The guy that reads you the news has done okay for himself and is happy and thriving and you can do it too.
I just want every gay person who struggles with coming out to feel the way that I do today. I wish everyone could feel this feeling and then no one would struggle with this because the truth is the truth is the truth. And if someone loves you then they’re going to love you no matter who you are.