Two unexpected and almost simultaneous breakthroughs took place Sunday night that could open a long-overdue dialogue to shake up homophobia in the black community.
First, during the Chicago Bulls-Miami Heat game on TNT, the NBA aired a 30-second public service announcement featuring NBA star Grant Hill encouraging young people to stop using the word "gay" to mean "dumb or stupid."
While the NBA should be praised for developing the PSA and for employing an African-American spokesman, some of the viewers who responded to the ad were not so charitable. Immediately after the ad aired, Hill's Twitter feed was inundated with anti-gay postings, several from blacks like Hill, calling him a "fag" and an "Uncle Tom" and complaining that the PSA itself was "gay." Hill reposted the homophobic tweets to demonstrate just why the campaign was necessary in the first place.
Less than an hour later, CNN anchor Don Lemon posted a Twitter link to a New York Times article announcing his new book, Transparent, in which the anchorman reveals that he is gay. This time, unlike the rabid venom directed at Grant Hill, the online reaction to Lemon's disclosure seemed largely supportive.
Grant Hill is straight, and Don Lemon is gay, and yet the homophobic response to a straight black man's expression of support for the LGBT community shows just why Lemon's decision to come out is so timely and important.
About a year ago, I was sitting near the window of a Manhattan restaurant in Chelsea with my young cousin Mark, who is an openly gay student at DePaul University and a big Don Lemon fan. In the middle of our lunch, a man with sunglasses walked by the window, waved hello and then came in to introduce himself. "Hi, I'm Don Lemon," he said.
I had not expected a CNN news anchor to be so accessible in the community, and I never expected to see him casually walking through a neighborhood with a distinctly gay reputation. But Lemon was not really "in the closet." I had spoken to him on the phone once or twice before we met that day and he seemed to be relatively open and comfortable in discussing his sexual orientation. Even some of his colleagues at CNN knew he was gay. And yet his official announcement Sunday night quickly sent positive shockwaves reverberating throughout the LGBT community, and especially in the black LGBT community.
In a society where black men are rigidly defined by narrow categories, it is refreshing to see a public image of a successful openly gay African American man who is not a stereotype and not on the "down low," that overhyped media frenzy that reduced black men to caricature as dishonest sexual predators. With his announcement now public, Don Lemon is probably the most high profile "mainstream" black gay man alive today, and his simple act of courage will help redefine not only how society sees black gay men, but how we see ourselves.
The popular narrative about gay men depicts a community of affluent, educated city dwellers who have come out of the closet and begun to flex their political and economic muscle. But this image doesn't hold up for black gay men, who often lack access to the same resources and support structure available to their white counterparts.
Black gay men are more likely to live in conservative, working-class, black communities like Harlem than in gentrified gay ghettoes like Chelsea or West Hollywood or even midtown Atlanta. And we're more likely than white gay men to be involved in and conditioned by our churches.
When it comes to homosexuality, the black church practically invented the policy of "don't ask, don't tell." But because we don't talk about homosexuality in our communities, we hide from our own history. We praise James Baldwin for his literary genius, Bayard Rustin for his political skills, and Alvin Ailey for his contribution to dance and choreography, but we rarely acknowledge that these iconic figures in black history were gay.
Of the contemporary black gay public figures, it's not difficult to comprehend a black gay basketball player like John Amaechi because he's British, and it's easy to understand a black gay filmmaker like Lee Daniels or a black gay singer like Rahsaan Patterson because they're artists. But it won't be as easy to explain a black gay anchorman who we've trusted to deliver the news to us for years. That's why Don Lemon's decision to come out is so critical to get people to re-examine their stereotypes.
Because of Lemon's prominence as a TV news anchor, Transparent will inevitably reach a wide audience of readers from all backgrounds. But it will take on special meaning in the black community. By standing up for who he is, Don Lemon will help to placate the fears of other black gay men and lesbians who are waiting to do the same. And for that, I say thank you Don Lemon.