MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You? commentary is in a few minutes. But first, we go behind closed doors as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep private. And today, we're talking about the private struggle of a public man. You probably seen him anchoring on CNN and before that doing news beaks on "The Today Show." And he always comes off as cool, prepared and put together.
But behind that persona was a web of secrets, until now, when he decided that he has had enough of secrets. CNN's Don Lemon is here with us with his new memoir, "Transparent." Don, thank you so much for joining us.
DON LEMON: Oh, thank you for having me on. And I love to hear your voice when I'm in the car or at home, it's just soothing.
MARTIN: Well, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEMON: So thank you.
MARTIN: Well, thank you.
Well, I hope this will be - this will probably be soothing to some people, I think. But this is not an easy conversation. And I think we should just deal right up front with the two headlines from the book that are already out there. One came out spontaneously, I think. I want to ask you about that.
In an interview you were doing, where you shared that you had been sexually abused as a child. And, two, you also decided to disclose that you are gay. And I wanted to talk about those two separately. I remember, because I was watching you when you were conducting that interview.
It was in connection with the story of Bishop Eddie Long, who has recently settled a case with four, I believe four young men, who say that he manipulated them into sexual relationship - inappropriate sexual relationships starting when they were teenagers and continuing on. It seemed spontaneous at the time. Is that the case that you had not planned to talk about that that day?
LEMON: No, it was a completely organic moment. I was talking to a couple of young people. And these were, you know, people in their late teens, early 20s, who were members of Eddie Long's congregation. All of them sort of alluded to what they thought was the bishop didn't look like an abuser or a pedophile or a molester.
I was thinking, you cannot be that naive. Because abusers come in all shapes and sizes. And people aren't always who they present themselves to be in public. And I said the reason I know that is because I had an abuser when I was a child. And, you know, who would've thought that it would be, you know, one of my mother's dear friend's sons.
MARTIN: What happened after that? When you got off the air that day, did you say to yourself, what have I done - or what?
LEMON: Well, it was - you know how people are constantly talking in your ear, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, you know, camera two and then I'm going to turn you to three or whatever. Silence for the rest of the show. I think people were stunned. My executive producer didn't say anything. And then after the show, I walked out and everybody's, like, eh. And then he said, did you know you were going to say what's going on? I was, like, no, I didn't. And I didn't think it was going to be a big deal?
And then the bosses called and then the Twitter lit up and the emails and viewer services started sending me, this person has called for you, do you know them? Would you like to talk to this person? And I thought that many people had shared that experience, so it wouldn't be such a big shock and surprise.
MARTIN: Why do you think it was in your case? Because it was.
LEMON: I think it's because even though those things are realities, we like to sweep it under the collective rug. We don't like to talk about that. We don't like to talk about homosexuality. And we don't like to talk about racism. Those are taboo subjects for the most part. So I think it was a shock. And to have someone who is an anchorman say that on television, I think, I didn't realize the impact of that. And I don't know what your next question is, but people say, do you regret saying it? I don't. I'm glad I said it.
MARTIN: Subsequent to that, you also decided to disclose your sexual orientation. From reading the book, the impression that I got is that you didn't write the book to come out.
MARTIN: You came out because you were going to write the book.
LEMON: Yes. I was approached by someone who was starting a publishing arm of their business. And they said, I think that you have a book in you. I said no for a long time, Michel. And then I said, you know, I'm telling myself what people tell me when they're not interested in me, when they want to get rid of me, when what's important to me is not on their radar or they don't understand and they just say no.
And so I said, why am I telling myself no? So I sat down to write a book because this is a publishing arm of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" folks, to write a book about how to be successful, how to have a good life or whatever. And I started writing it. And I said, you know what, this is for me, as someone who always speaks about truth and transparency. This is for me - this feels empty. Like, this has been done before.
So I started to write about my life, my childhood. As I started to write that, I got to the part about sexuality. And I called the publisher and the editors and I said, listen, what do you think about this? And they said, well, tread lightly because you are an anchorperson. You are a role model, especially in the black community. Not many people get to be where you are. You have been there, Michel. You know. It's rarified air. And when we see people like us on television, for us it's like, wow, that person means something, and you want them to have the best and be the best.
And so after I wrote it and sent it to them, they're like, this is great. You're going to take a lot of heat, but you're probably going to help a lot of people. I said, well, I'm not sure about that, but I cannot write a book about my life and not talk about what I had been for the past 44 years. I was 44 at the time. And a big part of that is being gay. And part of it was also having a childhood where I had to overcome challenges, where I was molested.
And so I think there is a certain deception in silence. And I didn't want to be disingenuous. And I didn't want to be hypocritical. There's enough hypocrisy going around, especially with high profile people and politicians. And I said, you know what? This is my story. I could have taken it out. And when Tyler Clementi jumped off the bridge - a Rutgers University student - and killed himself, I said leave it in.
MARTIN: Yes. In fact, there have been a number of people who have been moved to tell their stories in the wake of that tragedy. This young man who was a student at Rutgers and - roommates, apparently, his classmates of his secretly streamed video of him having a sexual encounter with another student. Apparently, he was so humiliated by this that he chose to end his life. And others have said, you know what? Enough of that. So what has been the reaction?
LEMON: The reaction from me, quite frankly, has been overwhelmingly positive. The criticism that I have gotten has been expected, and in a way proves the reason that what I said and what I wrote was so important, and what I've said after.
MARTIN: But, you know, one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, some of the criticism that I've seen has been a people who question whether it's really that big of a deal and if people are really as hostile as you seem to fear they will have been, or will be.
MARTIN: For example, he wrote a piece in Essence magazine, which a lot of people have probably already seen, even if they haven't read the book. It's titled "To My Beautiful Black Sisters," where you, in a way, plead. I don't know if you object to my saying plead for...
LEMON: No. The book is called "Transparent," so you can say whatever you want.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. You, in a way, plead with particularly African-American women to not abandon you and to support you in your quest and need to be transparent, as the book implies. And there are those who say that's not necessary. And I think the further question is that do you really think black people are that homophobic, that you need to make an explicit case for them not to abandon you?
LEMON: I don't think that all black people are. And in my earlier comments about that, I should have said some or not all, because everyone thinks, like, you're talking about the entire black community. And I think for those of us who are with it enough to get it, you realize if you're not in that category, then I'm not talking about you. But, yes, I do believe that. And I have heard that, personally. Many black women have been oh, man, there goes another one. And so what I wanted black women to know is that I love you more than anything, because my dad died when I was young and my mom, for a while, was a single mother. And then my stepfather died, you know, when I was an adult.
But I know and love and have raised by beautiful black women, so I wanted black women to know first and foremost out of anyone that I still appreciate their beauty, that I still appreciate how they've carried the race on their backs for so long, because they've been sort of the backbone of our society.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're speaking with CNN anchor Don Lemon about his new memoir "Transparent." You're not just transparent about your business. You tell a very interesting family story, which I suspect is perhaps more common than many people believe or would want to admit.
MARTIN: You found out at a rather late age that your father was actually your mother's boss.
MARTIN: And that they had what sounds like a very deep, loving relationship, but they weren't married.
MARTIN: And that this kind of came out in kind of an interesting way.
LEMON: Yes. Not to get...
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MARTIN: Do you want to - not to get too deep into mom's business. People have to - you can read the book for that. But what do you think that you learned from that experience?
LEMON: From that experience?
LEMON: Well, first of all, I - before I put that experience in the book, I asked my mother. And she said listen, I'm not ashamed of anything. I loved your father more than life. And so I had to tell it...
MARTIN: But he was married to another person. He was married to that person throughout their entire relationship.
LEMON: The entire - yes. He was married to that person. And that person - it was a - it's not my business to give away that person's business.
LEMON: But it was a marriage of convenience, and in those days, you didn't divorce as readily. And so my mom got married at an early age, and then divorced her husband because, you know, he just - he wasn't treating her right. And so she met my father and became his legal secretary. It's a very lovely story that - I'd never thought about it until I put it on paper. So I won't really give it away.
MARTIN: It's a very - it's complicated.
LEMON: But what it taught me...
MARTIN: But I am interested in that whole thing. Yeah.
LEMON: Yeah. It taught me early on about secrets and about how secrets really never help to serve anything. I think secrets are something that you keep or you're afraid to share because you think, in the end, they're going to harm you in some way. And so if you don't have any secrets, then there's no way anyone can harm you.
MARTIN: And finally, I want to ask you about something which I thought was a very powerful portion of the book. When you moved to New York, you moved after having attended Louisiana State University. Didn't go particularly well. It kind of wetted your appetite for journalism. But you got to New York and you wanted to continue your education. And it took you seven years to get your college degree.
MARTIN: And I want to talk about why you stuck at it, even as you were already reporting at that point in a major market. And why was it so important to you? And why did you want to tell that part of the story?
LEMON: I never wanted anyone, Michel, to say that you got your job because you're African-American, that you are not as qualified as any other person in this building or in this company. I wanted to earn everything on the merit. Just about the only thing that ever gets me going - people can call me gay, they can call me the F word, they can call me whatever they want, the N word. But when people say that I have gotten to where I am because I am black, it is insulting, because I will take my work home. I will work 24 hours a day. Many people who know me call me the hardest-working man in the news business because you're never ever going to outwork me.
MARTIN: Well, what if people say you got where you are because you're fine?
LEMON: Because I'm fine?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: How's that sound?
LEMON: You know, I mean, I mean I think...
MARTIN: You okay with that?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEMON: ...that's he's fine. Actually, I'm kind of okay with it, because I know it's take -it's meant as a compliment. The honest thing is I would like people to think that I got where I am because of the body of my work. I mean, being fine really has nothing to do with me. It's just the luck of the draw, where the universe or the creator happened to put me with two different people and whatever, however the DNA came together.
MARTIN: You know I'm just playing with you.
LEMON: I know you are. I know. I know. I get it. But I think that a lot of people in this business rely on that. Like, I'll see someone because they look a certain way or what have you, it's kind of frustrating to people who really want to do good journalism and who are not, you know, as fine or as pretty as a lot of people. And I think that - I think we need to get over that. A good journalist is a good journalist. But, you know, I'll take it. I'll take the compliment. And you ain't bad yourself, either.
MARTIN: Oh, well, thank you. So nice.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But before we let you go, how do you feel now that you have been transparent? How's it feel?
LEMON: I have been trying to put this into words, and I'll do the best that I can, and I don't think I'll give it justice by doing it. When I came out on May the 16th, 2011, was really the first day of my life. I want to go and take trips. I want to do things with my boyfriend. I want to do - and before, I just sort of isolated myself and worked all the time. Now the job, it's important. It's not as important. My relationships are more important. I'm more connected and I'm happier. And, you know, whatever happens with my career, I'm going to prosper no matter what and I'm going to be happy. The riches and the wealth are really not about dollars and how high my profile is. It's about me, the man, and how I am holding out, and you can't get any richer or wealthier than that.
MARTIN: Don Lemon is an award-winning anchor for CNN. He's also worked for NBC News, "The Today Show" and "NBC Nightly News." He's also an avid volunteer. His new memoir is titled "Transparent." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Don Lemon, thank you so much for joining us.
LEMON: Thank you so much. Always a pleasure.