RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As American society has changed, the face of TV news has slowly caught up with it. Two women have been anchoring the nation's three most prominent evening news shows. And the country's racial and ethnic diversity is reflected as well.
Yet as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, there is one way in which TV anchors live in a very different world.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: CNN's Don Lemon is on TV a lot. He is the network's weekend primetime anchor, but you've never heard him say what he's about to say. And Lemon says he's been advised not to.
Mr. DON LEMON (CNN Anchor): Do I want to be the gay anchor? Which is what my mentors in the business, my agents, the people I respect said. Do you want to always want to be labeled as the gay anchor? And I'd have to say this point, why the hell not?
FOLKENFLIK: Don Lemon is 45. He's from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an African-American raised Southern Baptist who attended Catholic schools, went to Brooklyn College, and prospered in the competitive world of TV news. Oh, and he's gay.
As a kid, Lemon says he knew he was different but kept hearing the call in church to...
Mr. LEMON: Pray the gay away.
FOLKENFLIK: Colleagues at work do know about his four-year relationship with his boyfriend, a CNN producer. But until now, Lemon has been extremely guarded with the public. He was told anchors do not talk about such things.
Mr. LEMON: We live and die by people watching us. 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. I don't know if people are going to accept me. I dont know if I'll have a job. I don't know how people are going to feel about this.
FOLKENFLIK: Lemon spoke with NPR ahead of the release of his memoir, "Transparent," in which he talks about his upbringing, his discovery of who his true father was, and about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Lemon first disclosed that on CNN last fall during an interview about a prominent minister accused of abuse.
(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)
Mr. LEMON: And let me tell you what got my attention about this, and I've never admitted this on television. I am a victim of a pedophile when I was a kid...
FOLKENFLIK: Lemon was writing his memoir at the time. He says it was cathartic to release secrets he had been holding so tight. And yet Lemon says he was scared, is scared, that he will pay a price.
Mr. LEMON: Most people would think if you're the prime news anchor, then you should sort of be this Edward R. Murrow kind of Clark Kent kind of a guy with a family and the 2.5 kids, or the perky, cute yet smart Katie Couric. Anyone would have to be naive to think that it wouldn't make a difference.
FOLKENFLIK: In some ways our conversation felt oddly retro. After all, Americans say they are accepting of homosexuality by nearly a 2-to-1 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.
I asked Lemon: Surely his own mentors don't think being gay is a negative in this day and age.
Mr. LEMON: Yeah, I don't know about that.
FOLKENFLIK: Tell me I'm wrong.
Mr. LEMON: Yeah, you're wrong.
Mr. LEMON: Yeah, you're wrong.
FOLKENFLIK: Look around, Lemon says. There are no openly gay U.S. senators or Supreme Court justices. No one who is gay in the NFL or the NBA. Few top paid openly gay or lesbian Hollywood stars. And there are almost no openly gay leading news anchors or correspondents in TV news.
Former ABC News president David Westin.
Mr. DAVID WESTIN (Former President, ABC News): When you're talking about, particularly on-air personalities - and this is a problem with these jobs -you'd be shocked at what you talk about. You talk about hairstyles. You talk about accents. So you talk about everything. And so among those things, yeah, we would talk from time to time about the question of sexual orientation and whether it would make a difference.
FOLKENFLIK: He said executives concluded being gay was not disqualifying for an anchor, but that some viewers would turn away. TV news ratings, after all, are dropping and there's a lot of money at stake - millions for top anchors and hundreds of millions for top news outlets.
Mr. WESTIN: When you have that fine a margin - and you're fighting for every little competitive edge you can - then it's understandable that people would be afraid of the unknown. 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Westin says he believes, he hopes, attitudes have become more accepting. But, as he says, it's the great unknown.
A lot of news stories involve sexual orientation - gays in the military, ordination of gay clergy, gay marriage. Lemon says he's concerned some viewers may not accept hearing about such stories from someone whom they know to be gay. Though, as Lemon notes, heterosexual anchors - regardless of their private lives or private views - don't have that problem.
Mr. LEMON: It may not be a year - it could be five years or it could be 10 years - but this revelation about my sexuality will end up being in the pro side of the column rather than the con side of the column. And so be it. If in this broadcast industry, the way it works now, that I can't be the anchorman, then my career will transform into something else.
FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.