Love for a black gay man is a scary endeavor, even radical, in a country where racism isn’t such a throwback, its reverberations leaving only harmful residue in communities of color. And when you consider the pervasive homophobia in a heteronormative and patriarchal society, living in your truth as both African American and queer almost requires superhero strength.
Coming out, even in 2018, remains an act of bravery. Despite this commonality among black gay men in America, stepping out of that godforsaken closet never feels any less lonely and terrifying.
As a black gay boy growing up in a pregentrified Brooklyn, N.Y., reared in the black church and raised by a Baptist minister, I was frightened by the idea of coming out publicly. While I’ve been out in my personal life for quite some time, I always stopped short of coming all the way out.
That all changed after I had an unexpected conversation with Don Lemon nearly two years ago.
Lemon, who came out publicly in his 2011 memoir, Transparent, was being honored at the inaugural 2016 Native Son Awards, a ceremony celebrating the visibility and achievements of African-American gay men. While I was interviewing Lemon for this honor, the CNN anchor unexpectedly flipped the script on me. Little did I know that asking him about the importance of coming out would turn into the therapy session I never knew I needed.
During that exchange, Lemon urged me to come out to the one person I feared telling the most. Doing so proved to be a transformative experience that would realign my spirit and set me on a path of reconciliation and love.
“Being out both personally and professionally is liberating. I am a completely emancipated person. I am free,” Lemon told me at the time. “That’s a great place for people to strive to be. I think everyone should be out in all places.”
As I was struggling with this very thing myself, Lemon’s words began to resonate. So much so that I broke character as the reporter to share something personal. “It’s a process but it is liberating,” I said. “I’m in between with that myself.”
“Well, let’s talk about that,” Lemon segued, like the journalist he is. Suddenly I felt like I had become a guest on his show. He proceeded to tell me that he’s helped many young black men like me who struggled with coming out and that usually it centered on telling a family member.
Feeling safe in this space of transparency, I gave Lemon the Cliffs Notes. I explained that most of my fear surrounded my relationship with my mom. As a writer and somewhat of a public figure, I was particularly fearful of being out publicly and how it would impact her.
“I think that one day that will turn to pride from your mom, because it’s all just fear. And your mom is a lot stronger than you realize,” Lemon said. “She can probably deal with more than you think. I think you’re probably more afraid than she is.” He also offered that I call him anytime if I wanted to talk more about it.
I’ve always admired Don Lemon as a visible black gay man with his own prime-time show on CNN, if for nothing else than forging the way for a young black journalist like me. I never expected that he would be playing therapist with me on how to come out to my mother—but life is funny like that sometimes.
Later that evening at the Native Son Awards, I walked over to Lemon to thank him for our earlier conversation. He looked me straight in my eyes like an older sibling would his younger brother and said, “Do it! Come out to your mother ... it gets better.” I made a vow to myself then and there that I would do it.
Feeling empowered by my talk with Lemon, a few weeks later I decided to take my mother out to dinner. After about an hour of stalling and awkward swigs of water, I had finally worked up the confidence to strike up the conversation by the time the check came.
“So I have something I want to talk to you about,” I said as my heart began to race. It was all or nothing. From there I told her everything. That I was inspired by Don Lemon to tell her something that I had been holding on to for years. I shared that I was proudly gay and was silent for so long because I feared she would reject me. I also shared with her my desire to someday find love, get married and have a family.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Lemon was right. My mom’s reaction wasn’t the traumatic meltdown I had conjured up in my head all those years. And while she admitted that she had her personal religious beliefs (and I shared my own), she made it very clear that she loved me just the same.
In that moment, I felt as if I had shed so many layers of shame, anxiety and fear that I had been carrying for years. No longer having to wear that cloak of emotions was a cleansing of sorts. By the end of our talk, I took a deep breath, and my mother asked me ever so lovingly, “Do you feel better now?”
The shedding of those emotional and spiritual layers changed me in ways I didn’t expect. I felt like a new being. The unconditional love that I received from my mother had healed a lifetime of self-shame and hurt from a world that told the younger me that I wasn’t enough, and certainly was not capable of being loved. The worst part is that I believed it. It’s no wonder I spent the better part of my 20s struggling with loving myself and chasing after men who did not feed my soul.
But by coming out to my mom, a better version of me was born. Not only did I learn to properly love myself, but I was able to create a space in my life to both receive and give love. Today I am happily in love with my partner, and the best part is that I’m able to share that love with my mom. To be able to sit and break bread with my mother and my significant other at the same dinner table is a blessing that was once a fantasy at best.
Sadly, my story isn’t unique. There are countless black gay men, both closeted and out, young and old, who carry that heavy load on their shoulders every day. What’s more, they internalize messages of hate that, in turn, teach them to hate themselves. And the cycle goes on and on. I pray that they, too, know just how deserving they are of love.
Without question, if it were not for Don Lemon’s push, I would not be in the space that I am in today. I would still be somewhere waiting for the “right time” while my life continued to pass me by. I am forever grateful to him for cultivating a safe space of brotherhood and transparency and encouraging me to step into my truth. It is by far the best decision I could ever have made.