KISSIMMEE – Faith, says Don Lemon, has always been important to him, starting with the lessons he received at a Catholic school in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I went to a private school, a Catholic school that was mostly African-American,” said Lemon, a news anchor on CNN since 2006.
When he finally transferred to a public school, Lemon said, he couldn’t believe how different it was – and not for the better.
“I started going to a public high school, and it was culture shock,” he said. “There was no order and discipline. I’m so glad I went to a Catholic school, that’s how I got order and discipline in my life.”
But don’t, he added, tell him the Bible condemns a lot of things, including homosexuality. Lemon, who publicly acknowledged that he’s gay in his memoir, Transparent — which was released last May — said everyone should be honest about who they are, regardless of how others might react.
“In the book I revealed my sexuality,” he said. “I did that because, to me, that is real. God put me here for a reason. I decided to be who God made me to be.”
This morning, Lemon was a special guest at the Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion, the annual celebration by the popular syndicated radio talk show host. This year, the event that’s held straight through the Labor Day weekend was at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, and it once again attracted a huge crowd.
“We’re expecting 14,000 people this weekend,” said Marty Raab, senior vice president of marketing, communications, and events for REACH Media Inc., the firm promoting the event.
The Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion started in 2003 as a weekend event with empowering family activities. It features celebrity guests, performances by R&B artists and comedians, and special activities throughout the weekend, including inspirational forums and Sunday’s Family Fun Day.
“It’s been a wonderful weekend,” said Monica May, the host of the Tom Joyner Morning Show and news/community affairs director at STAR 94.5 COX radio station in Orlando.
Lemon was on stage this morning with Sybil Wilkes, co-host of the Tom Joyner Morning Show, who brought with her a copy of Lemon’s book, which also recounts the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.
“You have been very brave and very kind to have been with us,” Wilkes said.
Lemon said for a long time, he resisted talking about his sexual orientation.
“I didn’t talk about it in public,” he said. “I’m still black – we don’t want people knowing our business.”
As time went on, though, Lemon said he began to understand that being gay wasn’t something he needed to hide.
“I rationalized it like a lot of people rationalize shame,” he said.
He was also quick to challenge those, including friends within the black churches, who argued that homosexuality is a sin condemned by God.
“We are so used to fire and brimstone,” Lemon said. “Jesus wasn’t a fire and brimstone type. He was hanging out with the lepers. He wasn’t hanging out with the church folks.”
Lemon said he’s also come to believe that people of faith “shouldn’t take the Bible so literally. It’s a lesson. It’s parables.”
The CNN newscaster said honesty is the key to a healthy and happy life. He recalled winning awards for his reports on the AIDS epidemic in Africa – something his station initially had no interest in covering.
“Saying no to me is like throwing gasoline on a fire,” he said. “It just drives me. Our people, black people, were dying in record numbers because of HIV and AIDS, and we thought it was a gay disease. We thought it was something you get from sticking dirty needles in your arm. Sometimes you’ve got to say ‘Hey, what are you doing, we have to toss some light into a dark place.’ ”
That fit in with Lemon’s definition of the “Black Box” – the way some black people insist on behaving a certain way in order to be true to their race and heritage.
“It’s the restrictions we put on ourselves,” he said. “We have to listen to this kind of music, or you’re not black, or you have to vote for certain people or you’re not black. I didn’t just go through the filter of being a black man.”
He also talked about how difficult it was to confront the sexual abuse he endured as a child.
“I am the victim of an abuser when I was a little kid,” he said. “Nobody would have known. I didn’t tell my mom until I was 30 years old.”
He remembers that the abuse continued until his mother got remarried.
“My step-father saved my life because he took me out of the purview of my abuser,” he said. “I was away from my abuser. My life really started when my mom remarried.”
But that abuse took a steep toll for decades, he added — a deep emotional toll that made it difficult for him to trust and open up to other people.
“I don’t get really close to people in relationships,” he said. “Intimacy is tough because I relate intimacy to abuse.”
But he also believes, Lemon said, that being honest about yourself is critical to a successful life.
“I tell kids, whatever God put into you, be that,” he said.
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