By Andrea Poteet
In his nearly two decades in television news, Don Lemon has made a career out of finding the truth.
So when he sat down to write his first book, “Transparent,” revealing one truth about himself seemed only natural.
“I knew people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, he actually said he was gay,'” Lemon says. “It was important just to say it.”
For Lemon, 45, “Transparent” is not just the title of the book, it has been his practice throughout his career. He’s earned a reputation for asking questions some journalists won’t touch, using any means necessary to tell a story. He won two Emmys for his coverage of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, a project he tackled using his own money and vacation time after his bosses refused to allocate resources to a story that wouldn’t appeal to most viewers.
“I think ‘Transparent’ came from just a sense of wanting to be honest and not wanting to have any secrets and not wanting to have any questions be off limits,” Lemon says. “I hate it when people say, ‘Oh, you can’t ask about that. I’m always like, ‘Why not?'”
In the book, which was released in June, Lemon chronicles his journey from a childhood in Baton Rouge, La., to his current position as weekend anchor at CNN. Along the way, he passes down lessons learned in and out of the newsroom, including discovering at age 5 that his mother’s boss was his biological father and suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a teenage neighbor.
Although Lemon’s decision to come out places him among the tiny number of openly gay news anchors, he said he was surprised that his orientation and allegations of sexual abuse ignited the most controversy. He said other elements, like his theories about racial issues including the “black box,” which he defines as limits put on blacks by society and by themselves, seemed much more controversial when he was writing the book.
“I thought those would surface and have a life of their own, but they seemed to be overshadowed by the other (revelations),” Lemon says.
Revealing facts about himself, Lemon says, helps viewers know and trust him. He said there’s nothing he regrets including in the book, though in retrospect, there are elements he would have expounded on.
“I think had I realized the importance that people would place on the coming out part, I would have spoken more about it,” Lemon says. “But I quite honestly didn’t think it was that big of a revelation, because I was already out in my personal life.”
Lemon says after the book was finished, CNN gave him a chance to remove the parts about his sexuality, but hearing about Tyler Clementi – the Rutgers freshman who killed himself in September after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online – spurred him forward. He dedicated the book to Clementi and to “the many young people just like him who believe they are alone.”
“Even though it was already in, he kind of sealed the deal,” Lemon says. “I didn’t want there to be any more Tyler Clementis.”
‘That’s what I want to be’
For as long as he can remember, Lemon wanted to be a journalist. As a child, he’d imitate Peter Jennings while watching “ABC Evening News” and “interview” diners at restaurants.
But when he got to Louisiana State University in 1984, he initially bowed to pressure to study business to earn a bigger salary. After realizing it wasn’t for him, he became bored and his course load dwindled into nonexistence. For a time, he modeled for a local department store chain, but a local black news anchor named Jean West inspired his current path.
“There weren’t any role models for me on television in the ’70s and ’80s,” Lemon says. “There was basically J.J. “Dyn-o-mite” (Walker, of the ’70s sitcom “Good Times”). “But then I saw this woman on television, and she looked great and sounded great. She acted like members of my family, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be.'”
When his course was set, his struggles weren’t over. After flailing in an editing class, a professor told him he’d never make it in the field. Shortly after, he moved to New York City with just $200 and a desire to prove him wrong.
Over the next seven years, he worked as a news assistant for the New York City Fox affiliate while completing his degree at Brooklyn College. Though he says he’s known he was gay since he was “knee high to a duck,” his time there also helped him to crystallize the realization and come out to friends and colleagues.
After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1996, Lemon landed anchor positions in Birmingham, Ala., and Philadelphia before becoming a general assignment correspondent for NBC News in 2001, where he covered the Washington D.C. sniper attacks. After a stint at an NBC affiliate in Chicago, he joined CNN in 2006.
Since then, he has covered history-making moments, like the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama and the 2009 death of Michael Jackson. But the work he is most proud of in his career was closer to his roots.
Three days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, in 2005, Lemon’s days of pleading with his news directors in Chicago finally paid off and they sent him to cover the storm’s aftermath. Though crumbling infrastructure and congested flight schedules prevented him from getting much closer than Mobile, Ala., he still counts the experience among his best accomplishments in the business.
In the years since Katrina, Lemon says he has enjoyed watching the city rebound on his frequent trips to volunteer there. Lately, he surprised himself by purchasing a “postage stamp of a lot” there.
“I found myself just walking and biking around the city going, ‘You know what, this is amazing,’ and I just felt really at home with the people and the culture,” Lemon says. “It gives me an idea as to where I want to be when I get older and where I feel more comfortable.”
He said what he loves most about his job is constantly adapting and never knowing what’s next.
“My favorite part of it is… all of it,” Lemon says, “every single aspect, even the bad parts. Even having to navigate the politics of it and get stories on the air, I love it. That’s why I do it. Maybe I wasn’t well aware of what I was getting into in the beginning, but now that I’m in the middle of it, I love every single aspect of it.”
And now that he’s made the leap from journalist to author, Lemon says he has another thing to be proud of.
“I think the messages of the book are really important and I’m thrilled beyond belief that people are interested in it and that I’m able to generate conversations through those topics. I’m an author as well as a journalist, and I think those are two accomplishments that anyone would be proud of.”