CNN weekend anchor Don Lemon is many things: A 45-year-old African-American native of Baton Rouge, La., he was raised Southern Baptist, attended Catholic schools and graduated from Brooklyn College in New York, and subsequently prospered in the competitive world of television news.
One more facet of his life that he reveals publicly for the first time today: He is gay.
"Do I want to be 'the gay anchor'?" Lemon said.
He said his mentors and agents challenged him to consider whether he was willing to wear that label throughout his career.
"And I'd have to say, at this point, why the hell not?"
American society has changed greatly in recent decades and the face of television news has changed a lot with it. Two women now occupy the nation's three network evening news anchor chairs, and the country's racial and ethnic diversity is reflected on the air as well. Yet Lemon says that change has not extended to sexual orientation — at least, not publicly.
"We live and die by people watching us," Lemon said. "If I give people another reason not to watch me, that is a concern for me and that's a concern for whoever I am working for.
"My livelihood is on the line," he said, "I don't know if people are going to accept me; if I will have a job. I don't know how people will feel about this."
Colleagues at work know about his four-year relationship with his boyfriend, a CNN producer. But until now, Lemon has been extremely guarded with the public. He said he was told that anchors do not talk about such things.
Lemon spoke with NPR, with CNN's approval, in anticipation of the release of his memoir, Transparent, later this spring. In some ways, the interview had an oddly retro feel. After all, Americans say they are accepting of homosexuality by nearly a two-to-one margin. The Defense Department is lifting the ban on gays in the military. Former Vice President Dick Cheney — hardly a liberal — has embraced the idea of gay marriage.
Lemon was asked whether at this moment, why being gay would somehow detract from the perception of his performance.
"Most people would think if you're the prime news anchor, then you should sort of be this Edward R. Murrow, Clark Kent guy with the family and 2.5 kids — or the perky cute, yet smart Katie Couric," Lemon said. "Anyone would have to be naive to think that it wouldn't make a difference."
Others in the business say his concerns are reasonable. Former ABC News President David Westin said the question arose in the network's executive suites.
"Yeah, we would talk from time to time about the question of sexual orientation, and whether it would make a difference," Westin told NPR. "When you're talking about on-air personalities, and this is a problem with these jobs, you'd be shocked about what you talk about. You talk about hairstyles. You talk about accents. You talk about everything."
Westin said executives concluded that an anchor would not be disqualified by publicly acknowledging he or she was gay. But, he said, there was the real risk some viewers would turn away. Television news is journalism, Westin said, but it's still TV — and people project their fantasies on the people they rely on to present the news.
That's a concern at such a cutthroat time for the industry. TV news ratings, after all, are dropping. And there is a lot of money at stake: millions of dollars for top anchors such as Couric and hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for top TV news divisions.
"When you have that fine a margin — and you're fighting for every little competitive edge you can — then it's understandable people that would be afraid of the unknown," Westin said. "I personally think we will get through there, and we'll look back and say, 'What was the big deal?' I think. But until you've done it, you haven't done it."
Just two openly gay people hold prominent on-air roles in network or cable news at the national level. Both work at MSNBC: opinion host Rachel Maddow, who arrived at the cable news channel via liberal talk radio, and daytime anchor Thomas Roberts, who came out in 2006.
The conservative watchdog Media Research Center singled out MSNBC's Roberts for criticism for tweeting an appeal to the pro-gay-rights singer Lady Gaga to appear on his show, and noted that Roberts was openly gay. The Media Research Council blog entry wrote that "MSNBC's daytime anchors, supposedly delivering objective news, have a history of arguing, on-air, for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
In late April, Maddow told the British newspaper the Guardian that closeted gay anchors should acknowledge their sexual orientation. She later wrote on her own blog that she was not alluding to anyone in particular and said people should be able to pick their own moment to do so. A meaningful number of on-air television journalists are gay but do not explicitly acknowledge that fact to the public.
Lemon said his sexuality was particularly complicated to address among culturally conservative and religious blacks and that he sought therapy to help combat depression.
But he said that he also felt a dissonance in his professional life. Cable news have embraced edgy personal opinion. Morning news shows encourage hosts to share their personal travails — confronting illness; grieving a close relative, celebrating a child's birth. Lemon said he's not a point-of-view journalist, but wants to present the news without misleading viewers about who he is.
In Transparent, Lemon describes his upbringing, his discovery of the identity of his true father, and the sexual abuse he says he suffered as a child. Lemon first disclosed that trauma on CNN last fall as he interviewed defenders of a prominent Atlanta minister accused of child abuse.
Lemon already was in the process of writing Transparent at the time. He said it was cathartic to release secrets he had been holding so tight. And yet Lemon said he was scared — and remains fearful — that he will pay a professional price.
Look around, Lemon said. There are no openly gay U.S. senators, Supreme Court justices or current players in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association — and there are very few top-paid gay or lesbian Hollywood stars. (In recent days, Pheonix Suns President Rick Welts said he was gay.)
Lemon said he wants viewers to continue to accept him as a news anchor. Many stories currently touch on sexual orientation, such as gays in the military, the ordination of gay clergy and the question of gay marriage.
Lemon said he is concerned some viewers may not accept hearing about such stories from someone whom they know to be gay. He noted, with some frustration, that heterosexual anchors rarely confront that problem because of their sexuality. But Lemon said he hopes that difference evaporates in years to come. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.