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Andrew Davis, Windy City Times Don Lemon: CNN anchor on race, coming out
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2011-10-05

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In his accurately titled memoir, Transparent, out gay CNN anchor Don Lemon ( who once worked for NBC's Chicago affiliate ) discusses several issues, such as his determination to succeed as a journalist and the journey he took to be open about his sexuality. Lemon recently talked with Windy City Times about the book.

Windy City Times: I'm pretty private, so I'm curious: What motivated you to write a memoir?

Don Lemon: I was asked to write it. I kept saying "No, no, no"—just like when other people tell me "no." Then, I said yes, but it wasn't supposed to be what it is. It was supposed to be this Chicken Soup for the Soul thing. Then I started writing it and said, "I don't want to read this." Long story short, I started writing about my childhood and it became cathartic—and I realized this would've been a book that would've helped as a kid, when I was abused, all sorts of things came out.

WCT: For our readers, could you talk about the "black box" and the impact it had ( and still has ) on your life?

DL: The "black box" comes not only from those who are African-American but also from those who are outside the culture. So whites have a certain perception of Blacks, for example. So, immediately, some people think I'm a sportscaster ( "I work for CNN." "So you do sports?" "Uh, no." ) I got that even when I worked [ in Chicago ] at Channel 5.

But Blacks have certain perceptions of themselves, [ thinking ] we have to listen to this kind of music, we have to belong to this organization. When I was a kid, you didn't achieve much or people would call you a punk; you couldn't speak a certain way. You couldn't be interested in things that were "white."

We still box ourselves in, but whites box us in as well. There's a black box in broadcasting; you don't see African Americans in certain roles—like hosting or doing our own shows. People don't see you in that particular light.

I've never been a conformist so when someone tries to put me in a certain category I always surprise that person. "Why do you think that way?" I think that way because I'm an individual. Just because I'm African-American doesn't mean that I belong to a monolithic group.

WCT: Every once in a while I'll hear "You speak so well" and I can't understand why people are surprised.

DL: Isn't that amazing? "You're so articulate." "Oh my God, you can write." Of course I can write; I'm a journalist. Some people feel I'm an affirmative-action hire.

Many professional African Americans have to deal with the black box, including the president. A counterpart of a different race can be curmudgeonly and that's OK, because that's who they are; if we're that way, we're angry and hard to worth—a perception that's very real.

WCT: In the book, you talked about modeling. Do you feel that your looks have helped or hindered you in this business?

DL: Sure! [ Laughs ] Everything comes into play. [ Looks at car near him ] This woman just left four kids in her car. Anyone could walk off with them.

[ Answering the question ] It think looks have done both. I don't think I'm some model, though; someone just approached me once, so I did it. But it's television, and you have to be telegenic—but maybe some people don't take me seriously because they think I'm a pretty boy. But on top of that, I'm still African American.

WCT: Also, the African-American community can be pretty conservative when it comes to LGBT people.

DL: I think just about any culture that has to deal with church can be conservative. With [ African Americans ] , the church has been the backbone of society for such a long time. We have, in many ways, been a victim of the Scriptures and theology that have been used to keep us as slaves. It's been ingrained us, and now we use it against gay people without thinking about things objectively.

WCT: You included a James Baldwin quote: "The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters." What led you to include that quote?

DL: It's the truth. I was reading Another Country—and Baldwin is my literary role model. I remembered people who were in the closet, saying, "I'm not gay"—and the only people they are not gay to are themselves. [ Both laugh. ] I'm, like, "Dude, everybody knows." I think that quote speaks volumes about keeping secrets and being on the down low; it's always obvious, so why be a hypocrite? I think secrets are toxic; I think they kill possibilities, they hurt people, they take lives.

WCT: I also thought it was interesting that you mentioned Tyler Clementi [ the Rutgers University student who committed suicide last year ] .

DL: Yes; I dedicated the book to Tyler. But it's not just about Tyler; it's about all the Tyler Clementis of the world who think they have to harm themselves because people finding out you're gay is [ supposedly ] the worst thing that can happen to you. That is a mechanism of society. There's nothing wrong with being gay. God created gay people and he didn't make any mistakes, as far as I'm concerned.

The quote [ we discussed before ] is like this. If a parent tells a child he needs to be something else, that [ also ] kills the possibilities and thwarts their creativity.

WCT: You're very open with many aspects of your life, but it seems you drew the line at personal relationships. Why did you draw the line?

DL: It wasn't really a line that I drew. The book is about me and my life; when I wrote the book, I just didn't think it was something that was important. I talk about relationships with my family and I talked about feeling I could be gay when I was in New York.

The area about being gay is small. However, I wasn't even in the closet when it came to my family and friends. I just wrote the book matter-of-factly; it didn't seem organic to write about a relationship. I wasn't keeping something a secret; it just didn't fit into the narrative. I've been in a relationship for four years, but it just wasn't a fit.

WCT: Do you see yourself as an activist?

DL: No, I don't. I see myself just as a normal person who is an "accidental role model." I'm flattered by that. When someone says, "I can be who I am" or "I can be an anchorman," I become an accidental role model. However, I haven't counseled any youth—I'm not against it, but I just don't have time for that right now.

WCT: What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?

DL: I always thought I was fearless, but I'm even more fearless now. What I've honestly learned is that you should always walk in the light. I know it's a cliche, but the truth really does set you free. I have a degree of freedom that's infinite now.


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