The Emmy award–winning journalist talks about pride, getting personal on the air, and how being gay gave him a leg up on the competition
Don Lemon was imbued with the gift of pride at a young age. The youngest of three and the only male in a houseful of women, Lemon was encouraged by his family to dream big. “I grew up believing that I could be the president of the United States”” he says. “I was told I could be whatever I wanted.”
But despite the support and encouragement he received at home in his small Louisiana community, Lemon says growing up gay in the Deep South left him feeling different from other kids — a feeling he now believes has served him well. “I think it made me keener about human behavior,” says Lemon, who came out to his family after moving to New York to go to college. “I felt empathy for people who were shunned, who were bullied, who were teased. It made me more aware of the human condition at an early age. I don’t know if I would have the same take on world matters and social issues if I were not gay.”
As a journalist Lemon has covered some of the biggest stories of the past decade, including Hurricane Katrina, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the Washington, D.C., snipers, for which he won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award. He was a correspondent for the NBC Nightly News and Today before joining CNN in 2006, where he eventually landed the coveted spot of anchor for the prime-time weekend edition of CNN Newsroom. In 2009, Ebony magazine named him one of the most influential African Americans in the U.S.
After being approached by a publisher who thought Lemon’s career journey would make a motivating memoir, the 45-year-old journalist embarked on a process that ended up becoming an important journey in itself. “The book is called Transparent, but it could be called Transformation,” he says. “It was originally going to be an inspiring story about how I became successful, but when I started writing it all of these other things came out. And as I would read it back and become emotional, I said, ‘If I’m going to write a book, I need to tell everything. I need to be transparent.'”
What emerged is an engaging tale of triumph — the story of a man who grew up amid family secrets (including, for the first few years of Lemon’s life, the identity of his father), who overcame discrimination and refused to take no for an answer, who wasn’t afraid to take chances in his career and in life. Even on live television.
Lemon made news by revealing during a broadcast that as a child he had been the victim of a pedophile (whom he identifies in his memoir as an older boy in his neighborhood). He was interviewing four young adults from Bishop Eddie Long’s congregation who were defending the bishop against charges of sexual impropriety on the basis that he didn’t fit the profile of a sexual predator. While Lemon didn’t want to make a judgment about Long’s guilt or innocence, he felt it was important to convey what he knew firsthand — that sexual abusers come in unpredictable packages. “I was trying to say to those young kids that people aren’t always who they present themselves to be,” he says. “No one’s going to say, ‘Hey, I’m a predator. Let’s go to McDonald’s.'”
Lemon, who was overwhelmed by the messages he received applauding his courage and candor, insists the on-air revelation was completely spontaneous and agenda-free. The acknowledgment of his sexual orientation in Transparent is handled in similar way; it’s hardly a bombshell in the book. “I haven’t been in the closet for a long time,” he says. “It was just something I didn’t talk about in interviews. But I would date people and I would be out.”
He may not have gone public in a splashy announcement, but he says he didn’t go to great lengths to hide being gay. ‘I never played that game, that on-the-down-low thing,” he says. “I was too self-aware and I respected myself enough — and women enough — to not play that game.” Today, the only game he’s playing is the relationship one. For the past four years, Lemon has been dating a producer who works in television.
Lemon says CNN is supportive of the book and his decision to reveal personal aspects of his life in it. As for others who are contemplating coming out publicly or otherwise, Lemon offers a bit of advice. “I do feel it’s important for other people to take the leap,” he says, “but they should do it in their own time. It’s very personal. People being honest and open about who they are can only make things better. I’m very proud of what I’m doing and I hope it inspires other people to do the same.”
Originally published in The Advocate, June-July 2011